Dubai tower blaze shows risks in common material

In 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)


By Adam Schreck and Jon Gambrell ,AP

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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 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 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.”