Building safety

Building codes are important in a region where tall buildings reign

The devastating fire at the Villagio Mall in May last year claimed the lives of 19 people.
The devastating fire at the Villagio Mall in May last year claimed the lives of 19 people.

Building safety and standards in the UAE and Qatar are coming under increasing scrutiny. CW looks at some key issues in a region where height is everything. By Gerhard Hope

Qatar’s Civil Defense department is not only employing trained engineers to ensure that its building codes and standards are adhered to, but it is also sending its staff abroad to receive the latest training and accreditation.

“I think they are responding to a market that is growing very fast, and they recognise the importance of having fire safety engineers in the community who really know what is going on, and they use those engineers to help them check buildings,” says Susan Lamont, associate director: fire engineering at Arup.

Andy Dean, business development manager: Middle East at Exova Warringtonfire, says the private sector can play a vital role in this regard. “I believe there is still a lot of work to do in raising awareness within Civil Defense, and developing its knowledge.

There is a lot happening; I would challenge anybody to be able to keep up with the industry, and Civil Defense is no different.

“I think the best model is a carefully-policed outsourcing model. How many building inspectors do we have in Dubai, for example? I will bet there is not 50 or even 100.

There is not enough at the moment. No single organisation, including Civil Defense, is capable, certainly not at the moment, of inspecting, policing, reviewing and approving and all of those things at the pace of construction in the Gulf which, let us face it, is unlike anything else in the world.

“There is no option in my opinion but to rely on carefully-considered private sector outsourced resources. I believe that this is the only practical model that is achievable.

It would be nice if the government had 1,000 people out there, but I just do not believe it is doable. I also do not believe that you could outsource it to one company; it is impractical. It has to go out to the private sector.”

Lamont says the scale of the problem is immense. “If you think what they are building out here, the number of mega high-rises that go up. We become blasé about it because building a 50- or 100-storey building is average.

If I go back to the US or the UK, it is a one-off project, whereas here they are just building lots and lots and all the time. It is very difficult for the consultants to keep up, never mind the authorities.”

In terms of skills and expertise, Lamont says the answer lies in consultants constantly growing and nurturing their talent pools.

“The issue is the speed of the design and construction phases out here … Boom-time construction is when mistakes get made because things are happening too fast. Then when you are in a recession, everybody is trying to save money and changing materials at the last minute, and that is when you get unsafe buildings as well.

At both ends of the scale you are in a situation where decisions are made that could make things unsafe.

“If you are kind of nicely in the middle somewhere, you have time to do the job properly, and there is money to do the job properly, you will hence be able to make the right decisions about materials selection.

Qatar is at the master-planning stage of its boom period, I think, the roads and infrastructure; the buildings will come next. Dubai certainly feels like it is starting to pick up again.”

Lamont adds that while Qatar’s Civil Defense uses NFPA, “it is a case of enforcing the codes and standards and checking at all stages of the project that the design or construction is in compliance.

The checking or approvals role needs to be there. I think there will be plans for that in Qatar. The designs for these big projects will need to be reviewed several times by various third-party experts.”

Can existing buildings be retrofitted or refurbished to comply with modern safety and fire standards? “There are degrees to which one could feasibly do this, and also there will be a degree of ‘nice to have’ and what is practical as well,” says Dean.

“In the first place, the process needs to start with a risk assessment. I am no fan of aluminium composite panelling, but it has not always been used incorrectly. It tends to be a problem when it is placed over a massive area, or if it is put in a long line.

“The first thing I believe that needs to happen, rather than just ripping it off every building, is that there needs to be a specialist risk assessment to see if it is actually a problem, and to what extent it is a problem. And then the remedial design required would be associated with that risk assessment.

“Now there have been a number of things suggested already, including taking strips off, so that there is not continuity, which is very important. There have been suggestions of deluge systems, and remedial insulation methods like installing cavity barriers, which definitely changes the effect of how a fire spreads.

“But for me it is far from a closed subject in that I do not believe that many of these remedial solutions have been tested yet, and I am far from convinced that some of them would work. And it definitely needs to be well thought out; there is no one answer.

I would want to see these things to be shown performing. Definitely something needs to be done; we cannot ignore the problem. But we have to prove it to ourselves, or otherwise we do not actually solve the problem.

One of the more significant side-effects of the 2022 FIFA Football World Cup in Qatar is that its construction industry is likely to be monitored much more closely than it was during the boom period in Dubai.

“The designs for these projects will need to be reviewed several times by various third-party experts,” says Lamont. “Maybe because it is growing around that event, and FIFA will be monitoring it, it will actually probably be more managed than what happened in Dubai, where it was just massive growth very fast.”

“I think Qatar is cognisant of the fact it is being watched and will be measured and compared, because it an international event,” says Dean.

“I think Qatar is very aware of that. There was a different kind of context to the growth we saw in the UAE, and which we still see to a certain extent. It was not the same ‘we are going to be watched’ type.”

Qatar’s Civil Defense “will be greatly challenged to review, inspect and authorise the huge of new projects that will be designed and constructed over the next nine years,” says KEO International Consultants corporate head: building commissioning services Kirk Rosenbaum.

“Designers, project managers and contractors will need to understand the strain on this resource, and carefully plan and schedule their document submittals and inspections, so that the required Civil Defense process will not impact their work adversely.

In addition, architects and engineers from outside the country need to be educated in the requirements of the local fire-safety standards, and ensure that these requirements are not overlooked in their project designs.”

Dean notes: “There are plenty of international companies, with reputations to protect, that have the expertise to provide the input required to build successful buildings.
Rules need to be established early in the process and enforced rigorously.

We need to raise the awareness and knowledge of the authorities doing the approving and enforcing, so that they can do their jobs effectively. Otherwise we will build on a platform of confusion and frustration, and corners will be cut. This is a critical issue.”

The issue of standards and building safety was brought into stark relief with the devastating fire at the Villagio Mall in May last year, which claimed the lives of 19 people, including 13 children at a nursery.

Thankfully Qatar has not experienced many such tragedies, largely due to the foresight of the authorities. “In 2007, Qatar prevented contractors and designers from using composite aluminium panels for cladding that were potentially combustible,” says Lamont.

“The Qatar codes were changed to deal with that issue. There had been a couple of fires and the authorities had the foresight to deal with it. The way the codes work in Qatar is that it applies NFPA, plus ten or 12 local requirements, and one of them has to do with aluminium panels,” says Lamont.

“Although it is written into the international code, it was never properly enforced in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was not picked up as a key issue, so people missed it, whereas it Qatar it was pulled out as a key issue, and that is why you do not see the same number of serious fires.”

At the crux of the matter is the issue of building codes and standards. “This is a very big issue at the moment, and it has both positive and negative sides,” argues Dean.

“Traditionally the authorities have been non-proscriptive in the way they have controlled building design. It has been an international consultant familiar with a particular building code.

There has been a bit of a mishmash of codes and standards, with various bits and pieces taken from the NFPA, the British Building Code, ASTM and European standards, for example. The issue is how they all fit together; the criticism is that they do not.”

Lamont argues that the plethora of codes and standards is necessary to promote innovation and diversity in the construction industry.

“I think the reason we permit all these codes and standards to be used here is to keep the market open so that products from the UK and Europe can be used, together with products from the US, for example.

It is cheaper and more sustainable to bring in fire doors from a nearby country than. I think from that standpoint the authorities have to keep doing what they have been doing.”

Dean says the crux of the problem is the absence of a national or regional code. “This is not a region that has a set of national codes and standards. It is mindful of the fact it is a developing region, and has to use the input of a lot of different people from a lot of different places. I use the term ‘industrially cosmopolitan’.

And to do otherwise would narrow our choice and design, and would be limiting for society. It has to have that perspective, but there is also a need to ensure safe buildings as well.

“What is starting to happen is the development of a code taken from other mature societies, but tweaked to be localised.

What that means is you have this overarching code that says what level of performance is required, and then supported by it, you have a series of standards that allow people in the market to prove compliance with that code.

It is always easy to say how something is not going to work, it is always easy to find problems, you can challenge anything and make it fall over. The challenge we have is making things work.

“Now in my opinion what we need to be doing is stepping back from the minutiae of the differences between the standards, and looking at the standards in intent.

Fire-door tests from the UK to the US all have absolutely the same intent: to stop fire and the elements of fire. Yes, there are differences in the way you put thermocouples on, but we have to stand back. If we do not, we will not make progress.

And we will never have anything other than all of a sudden you have to adopt one country’s national code and standards, and society will stagnate.

“We are at that level now where we are developing these national codes based on other developed codes, and we are in the process of fitting in standards underneath it to support it, but also allowing this level of variety in there. It is a challenge, and it will be difficult for some people to deal with,” says Dean.

The challenge is to ensure the continued maturation of the implementation of fire life-safety requirements across the region.” Dean concurs that the region is more project-driven, while “in more mature markets, product suppliers will be a little bit more proactive than they are here. Here it is more driven by need than by market differentiation.”

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