this Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016 photo, the burned hulk of The Address
Downtown is seen in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Skyscraper fires like
the blaze that struck the 63-story luxury hotel in Dubai on New Year’s
Eve, swiftly turning it into a towering inferno, are not that rare. The
New Year's Eve tower fire in Dubai has raised new issues about the
safety of exterior sidings put on high-rise buildings in the United Arab
Emirates and around the world. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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 glistening city's most
prominent luxury hotels.
But the fire at the 63-story The Address Downtown Dubai wasn't the
first, second or even third blaze to spread swiftly along the exterior
of skyscrapers that have risen from the desert at a torrid pace in and
around Dubai over the past two decades.
It was at least the eighth such fire in the Emirates alone, and
similar blazes have struck major cities across the world, killing 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 aluminum 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 onto 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 paneling and are at risk of similar
"It's like a wildfire going up the sides of the building," said Thom
Bohlen, chief technical officer at the Middle East Center 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 underway. 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.
Dubai has since burgeoned into a cosmopolitan business hub of more
than 2 million people. As in other Emirati cities, foreign residents far
outnumber the local population. Expatriate professionals in particular
are drawn to the ear-popping apartments the city's hundreds of
high-rises offer, and skyscraper hotels accommodate millions of guests
each year. The city-state aims to attract 20 million visitors annually
by the time it hosts the World Expo in 2020.
That means the risk of high-rise fires touches people from all over the world.
Typically, the cladding is a half-millimeter (0.02-inch) thick piece
of aluminum 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-percent polyethylene core can burn quiet 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
That was the case in 2012 when a spate of fires struck Dubai and the
neighboring emirate of Sharjah. Blaze after blaze, though some ignited
differently, behaved the same way: fire rushed up and down the sides of
the buildings, fueled by the external panels.
The day after an April 2012 fire at a 40-story building in Sharjah,
Dubai issued new building regulations barring the use of cladding
constructed with flammable material. Officials elsewhere in the United
Arab Emirates followed suit, though by that time, the building boom had
subsided in the wake of a global recession.
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.
Local experts have suggested as many as 70 percent of the towers in
the Dubai may contain the material, though they acknowledge the figure
is only an estimate as there are apparently no official records.
"There's an exposure because there's a lot of them and unfortunately
they don't come with an 'X' on the building to know which ones they
are," said Sami Sayegh, global property executive in the Middle East and
North Africa for insurance giant American International Group, Inc.
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
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.
Lt. Col. Jamal Ahmed Ibrahim, director of preventive safety for Dubai
Civil Defense, said authorities take the issue of cladding fires
seriously and are committed to "finding solutions and stopping these
accidents from happening."
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,
However, Ibrahim insisted that the type of cladding that was involved
in previous tower fires appears to have been used on only a small
number of all buildings in the emirate — a figure he suggested could be
as little as 5 percent. But he acknowledged that officials don't know
how many buildings are at risk.
"Without (doing) the survey or something, we can't say the number exactly," he said.
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 Center 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
Peter Rau, the chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in
Melbourne, Australia, knows firsthand how dangerous such fires can be.
In November 2014, a fire erupted at a 23-story apartment building in
Melbourne and raced up more than 20 stories 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
In the aftermath of the blaze, fire officials discovered some 170
other buildings in the Melbourne area had similar, flammable siding, Rau
"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