Against a background of high-rise building fires in the Middle East, and the issues emerging from the Grenfell inquiry in the UK, the need for supply chain collaboration for fire protection in new modern building design has never been more acute.
Authorities in the Middle East appear to be taking a harder line on the owners of high-rise buildings across the region and requiring them to make facades more resistant to fire following a series of skyscraper blazes.
It is believed that cladding fixed to the outside of buildings for decoration, insulation or protection may have contributed to the spread of many fires in Dubai over the last three years. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a member, revised its building safety code in 2013 to require that cladding on all new buildings over 15 metres – 50 feet – be fire-resistant.
But the new rules did not apply to buildings erected before that year, so the vast majority of the country’s skyscrapers fell outside the regulations.
It is still not clear how tough the stance is being adopted by the local authorities including the Dubai Civil Defence on this issue at this stage.The latest blaze in Dubai hit the 337-metre, 79-storey Torch residential building in August last year forcing hundreds of occupants to flee, the second fire at the building since 2015.A fire engulfed a 63-storey Dubai luxury hotel, forcing its closure for over a year in 2015. In July 2016, a blaze broke out in Dubai’s residential, 75-storey Sulafa Tower, then in August 2016 a fire damaged part of a tall building under construction.
The series of fires in high-rise buildings in the Middle East brings into question the whole process of fire protection, materials used and how the supply chain manages fire protection.
In the UK, Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations ordered after the Grenfell Tower disaster found that the system being used by the construction industry is simply ‘not fit for purpose’ and open to abuse.
Increasingly, the industry is using complex structural steel to meet the needs of modern city construction, and with it comes a more complicated supply chain.
However, there is no reason to accept shortcomings in best practice wherever fire protection – and safety – are required. Where lives and property are at stake, the structural fire engineering methods simply cannot be compromised.
Dame Judith’s interim report does not go into specifics, but the full Grenfell inquiry now ongoing will look at cladding, alarm systems and escape routes.
Freedom of design
Meanwhile, building goes on. And we, along with other fire protection industry organisations, believe there is a gap in terms of best practice which identifies the steps to take for even the most complex structural steelwork and provides authoritative guidance for those in the supply chain.
Indeed, we are fully supporting a new initiative aiming to bridge these gaps created by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Association of Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) called the Plan of Works for Fire. This aims to ensure that there is a detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire protection throughout the construction process.
The process being developed will include mandatory sign-offs as construction progresses, with all information reaching the end-user to support adequate fire risk management.
Intumescent coatings have contributed to the freedom of design allowing projects and buildings to be more interestingly shaped and fully glazed with the steel frame on show.
Like some other forms of protection, it is critical to the performance of these life safety coatings that the design of the applied thickness is carried out correctly. Put simply, if the thickness is not correct then the fire protection will likely not be adequate.
In recent years, and particularly over the past five to 10 years, the UK steel construction industry for medium and high-rise buildings has evolved rapidly. It is now commonplace to see long span construction, with fewer columns, coupled with down-stand cellular beam construction to incorporate services through floor beams, rather than below as was the norm some years ago. The Middle East may well follow suit.
This construction style brings several advantages, including more ‘lettable’ floor area, future-proofed spaces, lines of uninterrupted view, faster construction, reduced floor zone depths allowing lower building height and reduced cost or more available floors as a result.
However, the lines of communication become increasingly blurred between the various supply chain parties involved.
Risking life and property
From the designer, to the specifier and to suppliers through to the installers and the building control officers, the detail can be lost, misunderstood, or not addressed at all.
One issue in the protection of steel structures, for example, is to assume the steel design output and subsequent ‘redundant’ load bearing strength, leading to an increased ‘critical temperature’ and therefore reducing the level of coating protection required. To under-estimate for any reason is a high-risk approach that should be questioned vigorously, only ‘actual’ design output should be used and be supplied by the project design team.
To assume a value to gain a competitive advantage or solve a challenge is not engineering. It is potentially risking life and property safety.
The starting point here lies with the architect, and then the specifier for recommending the most suitable products and standards that they must reach. Responsibility cascades through the supply chain to the manufacturer, the installer of the products and those officers auditing quality and safety through to sign-off.
The fire engineer or consultant should also be factored in earlier rather than later by the project design team, and this is where problems can emerge. If the fire engineer is called in to assess fire safety when the project is at an advanced stage and the solution has to be ‘retro-fitted’ then this can be too late.
Working with the steel fabricator, the fire protection measures – as with other safety measures – can be developed effectively early in the development of the design, making consideration of the material, the requirements according to structural design, fire design and other parts of it, for example cellular beams.
The fire protection contractor may be considering on-site application or off-site depending on preference, so this too should be considered and how this may affect the process of fire safety measures.
In handing over to the owner or manager, is the development delivering what they expected, and is the design and specification meeting the required level of compliance through the process with all necessary certificates and approvals?
Only when this process has been completed can we know that the necessary steps have been taken. We would like to see more formal, prescriptive guidance for the supply chain which ensures there is collaboration between the various professionals. This may be incorporated within existing Building Regulations (ADB), or separately. The whole supply chain has a part to play, and we should all accept our responsibilities with due care.
For more information, go to www.sherwin-williams.com/protectiveEMEA