Shaji Ul Mulk, who runs the world’s biggest maker of aluminium panels found on skyscrapers worldwide, expounds on how buildings could be made safer in the aftermath of The Address Downtown Dubai fire, in an exclusive interview with Sean Cronin.
How can other buildings be made safer after the fire?
The Address is one issue. But it is done. What is important now is the question, “What are we going to do with the hundreds of towers that pose a similar risk?” That is the bigger issue. We are working very seriously on that. It is not practical to think all these panels can be ripped off and redone completely. We are talking about 700 towers. Civil Defence is talking about a fire barrier every 10 metres, which can be done using building cradles.
Why did the Address facade panels burn so quickly?
The Wall Assembly system specified for the Address Hotel was as per the ASTM E119 fire test standard, which required a wall performance of stopping fire from penetrating from one side to the other side for a minimum of 60 minutes.
In our opinion the wall worked 100 per cent – the fire did not penetrate. If it had penetrated, can you imagine the number of casualties? The wall saved lives. Alubond, with its 4 millimetres of thickness, is a very minor part of the 100mm-thick wall as there is a stud wall, there’s insulation blanket, there are gypsum boards – it’s a wall story.
The focus on cladding is not the direction we should be taking. Why aren’t people talking about the success of the system – that is the sad part for me.
How much flammable plastic core material did The Address’s exterior wall panels contain?
In those days the mix was some part of LDPE [low-density polythene] and some part minerals. We can only assume that LDPE content was higher than minerals as the production technology had only single screw extrusion and it needed a good amount of LDPE to extrude.
However, we do not know the exact mix as we did not have the granules’ manufacturing facility that we have today and had depended on buying ready-mixed granules from the world market. Granule suppliers of that time did not inform us of the mix design.
For us, in those days, the proportion did not matter because what was asked for was a wall assembly. We didn’t ask the question. You are talking about 10 years ago – we had no codes, no awareness, no need.
Do you plan to manufacture in the UAE non-combustible panels of the type you currently make in Turkey?
The product hasn’t been launched here yet. Turkey is a way ahead on regulation. In Turkey, everything has to be 90 per cent and above mineral content – it is like stone. We have been producing FR-A2 panels for the past one-and-a-half years in Turkey and now want to bring that here. We have ordered the same plant here anticipating the new code will be more stringent and demand will go up. From what we understand about what is coming, the implementation will be very strict. There are four or five brands that have A2 capability currently.
Should developers replace their facades if they are found to have flammable facades?
Everything before 2012 had only LDPE, that is the reality. Most of the cladding panels you see in the whole country, the whole of the GCC for that matter. If I were a building owner, I would be the first one to do it because you immediately bring value to your building. You declare that you have a fire barrier in this building. It makes commercial sense for building owners to not have added insurance costs and liability. If I was a building owner I would do it. Why? Because the value of my building goes up. In the worst scenario, if it burns it will only burn three floors. The feeling of social responsibility has to be there. I am sure all the developers have made enough money from the buildings standing out there for past 10 or 15 years. Most of them will be paid off.
Do you think there is a wider fire safety issue here that goes beyond the panels?
This is not an Alubond story. It is a national story. The Address had better composition than most other buildings of its time for sure. If you asked me how many buildings had fire-rated minerals before 2012, I would say negligible. The Address was the exception because they needed the ASTM E119. It is well known there are hundreds of buildings at risk – it is just a matter of bad luck as to which one catches fire.
The cladding has joints and those joints have backer rods that of polyurethane foam and silicone – these two are like a matchstick and when a fire starts it goes through them. In Europe and elsewhere silicone has stopped being used for more than a decade. You need to look at the components: use of bitumen on the concrete, highly flammable polythene sealant and polyurethane foam backers rods as well, which all form part of the earlier cladding systems – don’t isolate one part of a system. The updated fire code is clear on the use of non-fire-rated silicone but it is still being used. There is a system where you don’t need silicone, which we have on our own building here – it is a silicone-free ventilated structure.
Who should ensure specifications are met?
You have to start with the architect. Now, what happens if a few years from now one of the new buildings after the new code catches fire? They are making the lead consultant responsible. Make it a single-source responsibility – that is the only way. The Address fire is covered, analysed, done. The question is, what happens now? We all have a responsibility and there are solutions available.
Competitors say the Alubond USA brand suggests you are a US company. How would you respond?
We never claimed anywhere we had a manufacturing facility in the USA. Alubond originated in the United States as an American brand and was registered in Illinois. What is quality? Is quality based on international laboratories testing and issuing certificates of quality or because something is made in the USA? Many American brands such as iPhone, Nike etc are not made in US. The products carry quality tests by international labs in the US, Germany and in many other third-party international labs. We are by far the largest panel manufacturer in the world with production bases in Europe, India, Turkey, UAE and new plants coming up in Iran and Africa. The competition can talk. What is important is in the 15 years of Alubond in the market and more than 50 million square metres installed. Globally we have negligible quality claims. That is quality. We are like everyone else – manufacturers of sheets with different grades. We sell what the customer asks for. We are not the installers, we are not the architects, we are not the engineers. Yes our reputation has to be guarded. As long as you are meeting the standard and supply what you say you are supplying.
Is there a moral obligation for developers to make the facades on their buildings safer?
I would say yes. In fact we have been talking internally and we would be more than willing to come forward and reduce the cost. We want to say Alubond is here. The market for A2 is well known – it is US$35 to $38. Say if my costs are $28 or $30, I am willing to say, OK, this is our contribution. It should not be about making money. Time is not a constraint here. We would go and do the whole supply-and-install contract with our associate companies. You don’t have to put up scaffolding or expensive cradles – we will work slow and that is the right way to work. It is doable.
Could this latest fire signal the end of aluminium composite panels being specified for high-rise buildings?
I think it is a matter of awareness – yes, if the right awareness is not spread across the architects and supply chain then, yes, it is natural to think why risk it? But the UAE is what it is because of the beauty of the buildings. This would be a serious compromise that is not required. There is a clear solution. All you do is follow the international specifications – it is as simple as that. We certainly hope new regulations do come in even if it reduces our business. Make the manufacturer responsible for supplying the system. Let the composite manufacturers supply the whole system and take responsibility.
Do you feel a sense of remorse following the fire?
On the human side we are very keen to have safer standards, there is no doubt about that. Nobody envisaged so many fires. And mind you these fires are only started in the past three or four years – we do not know why. We have been in the industry for the past 15 years. Nobody can explain why. We, as composite panel manufacturers, we are not inventors of the product. The product has been in the industry for the past 40 or 50 years and was only subject to fire standards for the past years. We do feel responsible as a manufacturer to have safe panels and we are proud that we have invested in technology and we will come forward and do our bit to give back to society where we can. That’s all you can do.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter