Fire safety should be at the forefront of skyscraper design, says expert at BuroHappold

Architects designing tall buildings in the Middle East need to keep fire safety at the forefront, says Peter Stephenson, associate director at BuroHappold.

Dubai, in particular, is one of the cities in the region who’s evolution can be tracked by the number of high rise buildings, indicative of its urban and economic growth. Home to supertall structure Burj Khalifa, and now the tallest hotel in the world, Gevora Hotel, tall buildings in the city- and region-wide- are concerned with safety features, both from a structural and design consideration, and in recent year, the focus has shifted more significantly on fire safety.

In 2015, fire hit the 86-storey Marina Torch building, which was to be retrofitted by NEB. The same building had another fire incident last year. In 2016, fire also engulfed Dubai’s The Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve. 

A number of additional incidents in Dubai within the last couple of years has led government bodies to enforce stricter guidelines in terms of fire safety, in addition to introducing a new UAE fire code, which enforces the use of fire resistant cladding and replacement of old cladding at regular intervals to ensure safety.

Many skyscrapers use combustible cladding to boost the exterior surface structure, which is alleged to increase the intensity and faster spread of fire.

“When considering the overarching fire safety design of tall buildings, the fire protection of the elements of structure and building envelope is a key consideration. Many projects in the Middle East may necessitate the adoption of a fire engineered approach as opposed to strictly following the recommendations of prescriptive code guidance to ensure an optimum design,” said Stephenson.

“To satisfy all projects is a challenging scenario and introducing a robust and collaborative approach to allow innovative design is becoming a popular methodology in the Middle East.”

Dubai’s Real Estate Regulatory Agency (RERA) has started replacing building façades to improve fire-resistance in the emirate. The UAE has also unveiled a smart monitoring and response system that will see the installation of centralised fire alarms in 150,000 buildings around the country.

In an interview with Construction Week, Shamim Rashid-Sumar, vice president of development for the Middle East at engineering and consulting firm Jensen Hughes, commented on the importance of creating a safety framework for existing buildings in the UAE. 

“I believe we have made a lot of headway with our codes and regulations, and we need to continue our focus on the implementation, and making certain what is installed is what was intended,” he said.

“The larger concern is that the new [UAE Fire and Life Safety Code] only covers new construction, and we have numerous older buildings and facilities without a regulatory framework for retrofits or renovations. This will be the major challenge moving forward.”

 

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