Within minutes, the revelry of New Year’s Eve in Dubai turned to horror as those gathered for fireworks downtown watched flames race up the side of one of the city’s most prominent luxury hotels.
But the fire at the 63-storey The Address Downtown Dubai wasn’t the first, second or even third blaze to spread swiftly along the exterior of skyscrapers.
It was at least the eighth such fire in the Emirates alone, and similar blazes have struck major cities across the world including in Melbourne, and they have killed dozens of people, according to an Associated Press survey.
The reason, building and safety experts say, is the material used for the buildings’ sidings, called aluminium composite panel cladding.
While types of cladding can be made with fire-resistant material, experts say those that have caught fire in Dubai and elsewhere weren’t designed to meet stricter safety standards and often were put on to buildings without any breaks to slow or halt a possible blaze.
While new regulations are now in place for construction in Dubai and other cities, experts acknowledge they have no idea how many skyscrapers have the potentially combustible panelling and are at risk of similar fast-moving fires.
“It’s like a wildfire going up the sides of the building,” said Thom Bohlen, chief technical officer at the Middle East Centre for Sustainable Development in Dubai. “It’s very difficult to control and it’s very fast. It happens extremely fast.”
Cladding came into vogue over a decade ago, as Dubai’s building boom was well under way. Developers use it because it offers a modern finish to buildings, allows dust to wash off during rains, and is relatively simple and cheap to install.
Typically, the cladding is a half-millimetre thick piece of aluminium attached to a foam core that is sandwiched to another similar skin. The panels are then affixed to the side of a building, one piece after another.
The biggest problem lies with panel cores that are all or mostly polyethylene, a common type of plastic, said Andy Dean, the Mideast head of facades at the engineering consultancy WSP Global.
“The ones with 100 per cent polyethylene core can burn quite readily,” Dean said. “Some of the older, even fire-rated materials, still have quite a lot of polymer in them.”
The panels themselves don’t spark the fires and the risks can be lessened if they are installed with breaks between them to curb a fire’s spread. The panels’ flammability can be significantly reduced by replacing some of the plastic inside the panels with material that doesn’t burn so easily.
However, when installed uninterrupted row after row, more flammable types of cladding provide a straight line of kindling up the side of a tower.
That was the case in 2012 when a spate of fires struck Dubai and the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah. Blaze after blaze, though some ignited differently, behaved the same way: fire rushed up and down the sides of the buildings, fuelled by the external panels.
The day after an April 2012 fire at a 40-storey building in Sharjah, Dubai issued new building regulations barring the use of cladding constructed with flammable material.
But the rules did not call for retrofitting buildings with flammable cladding already installed – nor is there any clear idea of how many of these buildings stand in Dubai or the UAE’s other six emirates.
The problem is not Dubai’s alone – cladding fires have struck elsewhere in the world.
In 2010, a similar fire at a Shanghai high-rise killed at least 58 people. An apartment fire in May in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, killed 16. Another dramatic blaze hit Beijing’s TV Cultural Centre in February 2009, killing a firefighter.
All bore similarities to the Dubai fires, with flames racing up the sides of the building, and experts attributed each fire’s speed to the cladding.
Peter Rau, the chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne, Australia, knows first-hand how dangerous such fires can be.
In November 2014, a fire erupted at a 23-storey apartment building in Melbourne and raced up more than 20 storeys in just six minutes as flaming debris rained down below. While no one was injured, the fast-moving blaze did millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the building.
In the aftermath of the blaze, fire officials discovered about 50 other buildings in the city – and 1700 in the surrounding state of Victoria – had similar, flammable siding, Rau said.
“You know you’ve only got to step back a little bit further and say: ‘What does it mean for Australia and what does it mean (when) you’re talking to me from Dubai?”‘ Rau said. “This is a significant issue worldwide, I would suggest… There is no question this is a game changer.”
In Dubai, Emaar Properties, which developed The Address Downtown and nearby properties including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, said authorities are still investigating the New Year’s Eve fire.
It has hired an outside contractor to assess and restore the damaged tower, and it plans to reopen the hotel, based on orders from Dubai’s ruler himself. It has not released specific details about the type of cladding used.
However, The National, a state-owned newspaper in Abu Dhabi, has reported that the cladding used on The Address Downtown was the fire-prone type seen in other blazes.
A nationwide survey of existing buildings has been ordered in the wake of The Address fire, and additional guidelines will be put in place in March to ensure new buildings are constructed to a higher standard, he said.