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Skyscrapers in Dubai could become 'towering infernos'

Posted On May 1, 2013

The Arab Gulf states are home to some of the most spectacular high-rise towers in the world. But some building experts say that many of those towers are sheathed in a highly flammable material that puts occupants at risk.

One expert in the UAE has estimated that 70% of the high-rise buildings there have panel facade cladding made of a combustible thermoplastic core held between two sheets of aluminium.

When the panel ignites, fire spreads rapidly, racing to the top of the building and sending flaming debris hurtling to the streets below. "Like a Roman candle" is how one observer described it.

The initial cause of the fire can be something as simple as a discarded cigarette butt or a charcoal barbecue left unattended on a balcony.

A fire at the Al Hafeet Tower in Sharjah on 23 April was eerily similar to a blaze that gutted the Tamweel Tower in Dubai last November. And the 40-storey Al Tayer tower in Sharjah also suffered a similar fate in April 2012.

In all three cases fire roared up the sides of the building as individual panels ignited and burst into flame. No deaths were reported from any of the fires.

"[The facades] are good-looking, long-lasting and easy to maintain, but they have one big problem - they burn rapidly," Thom Bohlen, of the Dubai-based Middle East Centre for Sustainable Development, told the BBC.

Lack of investigations
Mr Bohlen, the institute's chief technical officer, said that the UAE has passed new legislation banning the use of flammable facades, but it only applies to new building construction.

"That doesn't take care of the problem with current buildings", he said, adding the costs of refits will be "extremely expensive".

Mr Bohlen estimates that "at least 500 buildings" in UAE cities are sheathed in the flammable panels.

The sheathing has not been used in the UK since the 1980s and codes in the United States specifically prohibit their use in buildings of more than three or four storeys, he said.

Mr Bohlen is not alone in voicing concerns about the risk of fire in many of the high-rise towers that pepper every major Gulf city - or about the failure to pin down what is causing many fires.


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