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Not just a facade

CW looks at the business of facades, cladding and curtain walls

The facade of Aldar Properties' headquarters building in Abu Dhabi was the work of Permasteelisa Group
The facade of Aldar Properties' headquarters building in Abu Dhabi was the work of Permasteelisa Group

It is the first, and often only, part of a building we see. Cathal McElroy looks at the business of façades, cladding and curtain walls

Permasteelisa Group – the name might not be immediately familiar, but its work certainly is. Its logo incorporates the Sydney Opera House for a reason; the group did the curtain wall work. That was one of its first projects back in 1973, shortly after the company was founded in 1972.

Since then it has been involved in many of the world’s most recognisable projects and dazzling exteriors, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Canary Wharf development in London.

This pedigree has been carried through to the group’s operations in the Middle East (under the Permasteelisa Gartner name), with projects such as Aldar’s Abu Dhabi headquarters, Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3, and the New Doha International Airport just some of the prestigious projects on which its services have been employed.

The company began its operations in the GCC in 2005, opening a central office in Dubai, followed by outpost sister offices in Riyadh and Doha when the industry swung in those directions.

“We consider ourselves one of the oldest, and we consider ourselves the biggest,” says Alain Verstappen, Permasteelisa Gartner’s Middle East general manager. “We do the whole range starting from the design and the engineering, procurement, logistics and production, and then sending our unitised panels to the various sites within the region for installation by our teams.”

While Verstappen recognises that competition in the sector has become increasingly fierce in the last ten years, describing the period as one in which “curtain walling companies have been popping up like hamburger tents”, he is eager to highlight Permasteelisa’s difference.

“We are a little bit different from our competitors because we do not offer standard systems – we are not like a systems supplier. We are the only company in the façade industry which spends such time, money and effort on design and engineering. We have a research and development centre in Europe where we are always at the top of the innovation of new façade systems,” Verstappen adds.

This commitment to pushing the boundaries of its products is not just technical, but aesthetic. Verstappen and his company appreciate the responsibility of delivering the part of a building that the general public see, and immerse themselves in the design process from the outset to ensure they succeed.

“Projects can be aesthetically innovative without being technically innovative,” he says. “Architects know that if they work with Permasteelisa, we can realise their dreams. We try to be involved at the very beginning when they take their pencil and they start drafting on a piece of paper and shaping the geometry, because we help them to realise what they have in mind.”

This devotion to aestheticism can also be found in the exteriors work of Mulk Holdings, along with a steely focus on green, environmentally-friendly products delivered by some impressively innovative manufacturing methods.

The company’s core activity is the production of aluminium composite panels, which it manufactures under the brand name Alubond USA, a product that has been in the market for almost 15 years now.

While it manufactures a diverse range of Alubond façade products, the company’s LEED-certified green façades have been one of the leading products in that market.

“We are pretty happy with our growth in the green sector,” says Shaji Ul Mulk, chairman of Mulk Holdings. “We are one of the very few green manufacturers in the world, so we have a very strong share of the market basically,” he adds.

This success has been achieved in no small part to the company’s certification for use of its products at the Masdar City project in Abu Dhabi. The green project’s plans stipulated the use of materials with 90% recycling content, and Mulk responded to this challenge by producing Alubond Green to target the demand.

“It is a product in two layers – it has got aluminium on two sides and a LDPE (low-density polyethylene) core inside the basic core, sandwiching two skins,” is Ul Mulk’s explanation of the product.

“The LDPE was required to be 100% recycled, so that actually meant a complete exercise of actually buying waste plastic and processing it into granules.

“The aluminium skins also needed to be recycled coils, and we sourced manufacturers who actually make coils from the recycling of garbage cans, so we used those on the top skins,” he adds.

The product also has a very high thermal value and can reflect over 70% of the heat away from the panels. Furthermore, it compares very favourably with the production of original aluminium panels which would take ten times the energy to manufacture, according to Ul Mulk.

This innovation has meant the company is now an established leader in the production of green façades, and is positive about what this will mean in the coming years.

“We see a big hope now for green projects because recently Sheikh Mohammed has announced a green policy [in Dubai], and most projects are starting to act on and specify the green aspects of the building,” says Ul Mulk. “That will drive demand for green façades and green products tremendously.”

While he feels the company’s green product is set to flourish in the near-future, Ul Mulk stresses it is another product that is dominant at present. “There has been a big change in using only fire-rated façades on the buildings,” he says. “Lately, there has been a lot of talk and active work being done by the government parties to change the regulations to have a standard of fire-rated facades.”

With Mulk at the forefront of this push towards safer and more secure building exteriors has been Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants, home to the only fire-testing laboratory in the GCC. Its facility in Dubai’s Ras al Khor Industrial Area provides a full range of testing for façades, curtain walls and cladding, including the recent addition of the GCC’s first fire-testing tunnel.

“We have two types of fire testing,” explains Sandy Dweik, VP and chief consultant. “One is called the resistance to fire testing and the other is called the reaction to fire. The resistance to fire will be for elements that are designed to contain the fire in a certain area, so these will be fire-rated elements such as fire-rated doors, fire-rated partitions, even dampers and penetration and so on.

These are installed on a vertical furnace and they are tested to a time temperature curve. The second test is the reaction to fire test. It measures how fast does fire spread from one side of a material to the other – so it measures the combustibility,” she adds.

Beyond fire testing, the consultancy also conducts various other tests to measure the safety of façades, curtain walls and cladding. “To ensure the curtain wall is designed to proper safety measures, you have to review the whole system,” says Dweik.

“First of all you have to make sure that the design works, that it is connected properly, it has the right connections, and everything is in place the way a proper curtain wall has to be designed.” Dweik identifies the second safety issue as the type of glass used in such structures.

“The manner in which the glass breaks is important, so if it breaks into big pieces that will have very sharp edges it will injure you, while if it breaks into those small pieces that fall down, this is what you call safety glazing. So we also make sure that the right type of glass is fixed in the right place,” she says.

While Dweik says that many of the problems with building exteriors can be avoided through rigorous testing, she also warns that this is not the end of the process in ensuring their safety. “People hire us as a third party to overlook the installation as well, because if you have bad workmanship at site and you are not really installing the design according to the design intent, then you might find out the hard way that you have a safety problem.”

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