The New Year’s blaze at a luxury hotel has led to calls for skyscrapers to be modified, amid concerns that Dubai landmarks are built with flammable cladding. It was the city’s third major high-rise fire in three years.
As an investigation begins into what caused a massive fire at a luxury hotel in Dubai on Thursday night, concerns have been raised about the cosmetic shell of the 63-floor skyscraper.
Several construction experts have highlighted the speed at which the blaze spread through dozens of storeys of the “Address Downtown” hotel and apartment complex, amid fears the tower’s external cladding panels may have worsened the inferno.
“Just by looking at the video footage, it spread mostly up the outside of the building,” Phil Barry, a British fire safety consultant told DW, adding that the tower’s solid internal construction probably prevented “a lot more people being injured.”
“Debris falling from the building and the thick, black smoke appears to be from burning plastic,” said Barry, who estimates that up to 70 percent of Dubai’s high-rise buildings are clad in flammable materials that no longer meet building regulations.
Dubai’s Civil Defense service has confirmed to the “Gulf News” newspaper that the New Year’s Eve fire damaged only the external surface of the hotel.
The blaze, at the 302 meter (991ft) tower, was the latest in a series of fires in recent years in the Gulf metropolis, where a rapidly-constructed cityscape has transformed the once sleepy fishing town into a regional business and tourism hub.
Local newspaper “The National” reported that non-fire retardant aluminum panels, filled with plastic or polyurethane for insulation, have been blamed for spreading fires at other several blocks in Dubai and the nearby Sharjah emirate.
Barry, who’s consulted extensively in Dubai and Qatar over the past decade, told DW that Dubai’s building regulations were updated in 2013, following similar blazes, with tighter compliance criteria for skyscrapers.
“Once you’re above a certain height, and in Dubai’s case it’s 15 meters, you must have non-combustible linings (on the outside of buildings). But the problem is that buildings that were built before the code was rewritten won’t be compliant,” he added.
The “Address Downtown” was completed in 2008.
Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, which owns the hotel, said it had been built to the highest quality standards and following international best practice.
“We are determined to restore it to all its glory, and even surpass the splendid architectural standards,” Alabbar said in a statement. He did not discuss the reason for the blaze or say when the hotel might reopen.
Local media reported that strong winds and several explosions “of unknown origin” may have also helped the fire sweep from the 20th floor terrace, where officials said it started, to several other floors.
But Barry believes that while Dubai’s towers have high adherence rates to internal fire safety regulations, many construction firms have ignored the risks caused by external cladding.
“They tend to be compliant inside the buildings, but architects with their need for fancy looking designs are recommending facades which are not being checked for compliance. You can get flame retardant exteriors on the market but they obviously cost more,” he said.
Some commentators have accused construction firms of burying their heads in the sand over demands by apartment owners and office tenants that towers be retrofitted due to the increased prospect of fire damage.
Last March, UAE-based lawyer Barry Greenberg wrote an article in “Gulf Business” where he cited one engineer who “compared the amount of flammable material contained in the cladding of a large building to that of a tanker delivering petrol to a filling station.”
To give another indication of the risk, “The National” newspaper cited Dubai-based insurance specialist AK Ravindran as saying his company “RSA Insurance” has rejected cover for towers built with a disproportionate number of the composite panels.
“We don’t insure many buildings with more than 50 percent foam panels,” he said, in an article about a fire which followed a similar external pattern, at the 79-floor The Torch in Dubai last February.
Another large blaze gutted the Tamweel tower in 2012, while local media reported that several smaller fires across the UAE have also been blamed on flammable, external cladding.
On Thursday, several guests and residents of the hotel and 628 apartment complex described a scene of panic as the tower was evacuated, with reports of a “stampede” for the fire exits.
“The staircases in huge skyscrapers are not designed to evacuate everybody at once. So it’s vital to contain any fires in small pockets. But in this case, when the blaze spread up the outside of the tower, that kind of strategy could no longer work,” said Barry, who was a UK firefighter for 30 years.
Globally, several skyscrapers adopt so-called phased evacuation – where if a blaze breaks out, emergency services will clear two or three floors at a time – aiming to contain the fire without the need to evacuate the whole tower.
As well as tightening building codes, Dubai insists it has improved its response to fires. The civil defense department runs a centralized safety control system, providing real-time information on fires and safety systems in residential and commercial towers. Officials say more than 40,000 buildings are already connected to it, allowing a faster response in case of emergency.
But with worries that so many Dubai towers may be clad with flammable materials, authorities may decide that skyscrapers built during the pre-financial crisis building boom must be retrofitted.
“It’s going to be such a huge project to install new panels or to use treatments on existing facades,” Barry told DW. “But they’re clearly going to have to spend a lot of money because sooner or later, there will be fatalities.”