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Safety and innovation in the UAE’s cladding market

The UAE’s more stringent building code requires the use of fire-rated materials, which designers believe will help bring the cost of aluminium composite panels in line with that of other façade materials. Stian Overdahl reports

SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors, Building cladding regulation, Building codes, Construction Week, Cost of aluminium composite panels, Facade, Fire code, Fire-related materials, Safety and innovation in the UAE’s cladding market, Stian Overdahl, UAE cladding market

There’s no sector of the Gulf construction industry that has garnered more news headlines or general alarm in recent times than cladding and façades, in the wake of a series of dramatic fires in super-tall buildings in Dubai and other emirates. Those events were instrumental in the revamp of the UAE Civil Defence’s Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, in the draft circulated in 2016. The stringent rules for organisations include making it illegal and punishable for manufacturers to sell “non-listed materials”, and ensuring the consultant is responsible for code compliance.

The changes are now firmly bedded into construction processes for buildings in the UAE, says Zohaib Rahman, the head of panel-manufacturer, Alucopanel Middle East, part of Danube Group. Before starting a project, the developer, main consultant, main contractor, and relevant sub-contractors, have to sign undertaking letters, while proposing a façade system that is approved by Civil Defence. “Now the onus is on everybody,” says Rahman.

Alucopanel launched a new manufacturing plant producing A2 fire-rated aluminium composite panels (ACP) in August last year, a $27.2m investment. Sales of the new panels – produced with a non-combustible mineral core consisting mainly of magnesium hydroxide – are brisk: a single factory line is running 24 hours a day and a second line is being commissioned.

Despite the media focus on the use of ACP panels with a combustible, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) core – believed to have been widely used on buildings in Dubai and across the Gulf – Rahman stresses that fire safety in façades isn’t about a single product, and cladding systems must be considered holistically. For a façade contractor to install Alucopanel’s A2 fire-rated panels, they need to use the same installation system that was used in the laboratory when the panels received their A2 rating, says Rahman.

Nevertheless, the installation fixings they specified are widely available on the market, with the addition of a fire-rated backer rod. Rahman believes that the presence of combustible foam backer rods – which are placed in the joins between panels and covered by a thin layer of silicon sealant – played a significant role in the development of Dubai’s façade fires.

Within the wider industry, it is façade contractors that face the biggest adjustment to the new code, says Rahman: where once they were able to install cladding according to their own practices, now they must replicate the façade system as specified by the panel manufacturer, and face greater scrutiny of the fire protection elements from consultants. However, developers, and the industry in general, have been welcoming of the new requirements, says Rahman.

But improvements come with a higher price tag: the A2-rated panels are estimated to cost 30% to 40% more than the non-rated panels, says Ahmed Salem, principal design architect at National Engineering Bureau (NEB). While this will not significantly impact overall construction costs, it makes alternative cladding materials, especially stone, more attractive in terms of price. “The shifting of aluminium cladding practices has [helped to close the price gap] with non-traditional cladding systems,” says Salem.

This may bring more diversity to the UAE’s urban landscape, he adds. “Innovation in cladding systems gives a tool to designers to express their creativity, discovering unique design trends and not bound to one specific system,” he continues.

“As designers, we have the desire and drive to explore and influence façade trends in the market, but we are being held back by stakeholders’ practicality on their budgetary allotments.”

Nevertheless, ACP may remain the product of choice for many projects, Salem concedes, as it is a durable and lightweight material that is readily available, relatively cheap, and non-labour intensive to install.

NEB recently completed the façade design for the Hyatt Place Dubai hotel in the old Baniyas district of Dubai, acting as the main consultant. The selection of external cladding was vital to the project’s design objectives, he explains.

“The critical selection of cladding material, colours, texture, pattern, and size added value to the project, and instills contemporary architecture style while allowing the façade to remain in keeping with the historic surrounding area.”

Tightening financial constraints have left many designers feeling limited in their choice of cladding options, notes Emad Jaber, managing partner of Lacasa Architects and Engineers.

“Margins are low for everyone, construction costs are stable, so the margin comes from value engineering, or cost-cutting,” he explains.

In the mature markets of the GCC, clients are focussed on details that will impact the long-term operational cost of the asset, Jaber adds. Distinctive façade features may help a building stand out, but will also be more difficult to clean or maintain. Using high-performance glass in a residential building will have a high up-front cost, whereas cheaper but thinner glass will result in higher energy consumption across the building’s life, he explains.

To give clients a clear cost analysis of the various options, Lacasa typically works with specialised consultants to appraise the design concept and drill down into the details, presenting both the initial costs and long-run costs of the operations and maintenance. “All clients say they need their building to stand out among the other buildings in terms of look but, at the same time, it should be cost-effective, efficient, and with low maintenance and operation costs,” says Jaber.

Lacasa has recently carried out work for the Paramount Tower Hotel & Residences Dubai, a 64-storey, mixed-use project for Damac. In this case, the concept design was conducted by another consultant, and Dilip Kumar, Lacasa’s senior executive director of design, says it was a major challenge to maintain the design intent while developing the technical details of the façade envelope.

“We have studied several options for the podium façade to make it look elegant while, at the same time, matching with the tower’s glass façade above, and also keeping the natural ventilation to the podium. Accordingly, we decided to eliminate the glass completely from these floors and, instead, provided a metal mesh with vertical aluminium profile from outside.”

Jaber also believes that the increased costs of fire-rated ACP panels will cause a shift in the types of materials used. “We find that the more regulation issued by Civil Defence, the more clients will move away from the metallic cladding, towards stone, and this is, I think, the trend that will be coming in the future.”

He adds that suppliers need to react to the changing demands of the market when it comes to fire-rated materials. “Manufacturers have to respond to the challenges that are coming, otherwise they’ll be out of the market,” he warns, adding that he believes it’s still too early to evaluate the long-term impact of the changes to fire-rating regulations.

Prospects of a shake-up could be good news for newer entrants into the market, however. Sailesh Iyer, CEO and managing director of Smart Konnect, launched decorative concrete system, FlexStone, in Dubai last year. A cementitious product that mimics the look of natural stone, and can be used both for interior and exterior applications, Iyer says FlexStone is more lightweight, stronger, longer lasting, and easier to install than natural stone.

He adds that the product also doesn’t suffer from the same issues found with natural stone, which can include problems with water absorption, the gradual degradation of colour, and the potential to crack. Made in India, from 90% recycled material, there’s the added benefit that it circumvents the environmental concerns surrounding the mining of natural stone, he points out.

As a result, FlexStone is being readily accepted by the market, according to Iyer. “Dubai is the concrete capital of the world,” he says. “The interior designers and architects are hungry for something unique, for a supplier that can understand their design requirements, and translate them into reality.”

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