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GCC façade experts discuss sustainability and fire safety

Challenges related to energy efficiency and fire safety are likely to hinder the Gulf’s façade experts in the short term, but intelligent design and technical correctness could help mitigate these hurdles

Dubai Creek Harbour Project.
Dubai Creek Harbour Project.

Façade systems have been under the scanner over the past year in the UAE, since local authorities announced that a new fire code would be launched for the country’s construction sector.

Cladding is among the key components expected to be addressed in the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice 2017, and select façade experts around the country have already started adopting the guidelines.

In September 2017, Dubai’s Real Estate Regulatory Agency (RERA) announced that it had started replacing building façades to improve fire-resistance in the emirate. 

Key properties where RERA’s programme has been implemented include Dubai Properties’ Executive Towers, Vision Tower, and Bay Square developments in the city’s Business Bay neighbourhood.

RERA is also urging all property owners to “replace non-fire-resistant building façades in collaboration with the city’s real estate developers”. Through the programme, RERA, the regulatory arm of Dubai Land Department (DLD), is targeting façades that lack necessary levels of fire-resistance. 

RERA’s project is based on the security, safety, and environmental requirements implemented by Dubai Municipality (DM) and the Civil Defense department.  Mohammed Khalifa bin Hammad, senior director of RERA’s real estate regulatory department, said the move supports DLD’s organisational priorities.

He added: “By replacing building façades that do not comply with our fire resistance safety requirements, we are supporting DLD’s vision of making Dubai the world’s safest and securest residential and investment destination.”

The project is aimed at taking proactive and preventative measures to reduce the incidence of fire accidents in the emirate.

Belarmino Cordero, division manager for façades at AESG, a UAE-based consultancy, says such positive regulatory effort is among the key drivers of innovation in the façade design sector.

“One of the main influencers of change is regulation – whether this involves new standards that are being implemented or old ones that are modified,” Cordero tells Construction Week.

“Examples of these efforts include the use of building information modelling [BIM] being made mandatory for architects, new fire and life safety codes that impose more restrictions on materials and testing, and regulations demanding the use of thermal breaks.

“Innovation is also driven by technological developments that make novel approaches feasible, such as photovoltaic (PV) panels becoming more affordable,” Cordero adds.

Indeed, the use of technology is steadily becoming a key part of façade design. Cordero notes that awareness about “the sustainability aspects of façades, as well as [their] performance, quality, and durability” is also increasing across the Middle East. 

He continues: “We also see that building envelope commissioning is now being demanded from design through to construction stages. More and more, computational technology such as [building information modelling] and parametric design for façade optimisation is now being introduced to façade design.”

Even as new parameters are introduced to rate their performance, façades – and the materials they incorporate – continue to represent a focal point for sustainability experts within the regional construction sector. As Mohamed Marzouk, technical director at ASGC, tells Construction Week, minimising solar gains is “the main concept of sustainability for façades”. He explains: “Using glazed façades can increase energy consumption due to higher solar gains, which is not conducive to achieving the sustainability, and can even increase operational costs. Using suitable materials can lead the building to absorbing less heat and retaining cool temperatures through the day.” 

Here, AESG’s Cordero explains that select types of glazing can help architects to continue its use, without contributing to high degrees of solar gain.

“Experience and energy modelling prove that in the region, solar radiation is the most decisive parameter in energy transmission through the building envelope,” he notes. “For this reason, the [building] codes have been drafted to control the proportion of vision glazing and its solar performance to reduce overheating in an efficient manner. This is what would be called the ‘prescriptive approach’.

“However, glazing technology that can reduce heat ingress through vision glazing is also available and can be used here. The codes permit a ‘performance approach’, wherein any solution can be modelled and accepted as long as it meets the required performance targets.”

Passive solar designs, Marzouk points out, are a significant deciding factor in terms of façade design and innovation. “It depends on the combination of material selection and mechanisms that can reduce cooling loads and heating,” he explains.

“The main concept is to reduce heat gains and catch cool air by developing an energy-efficient building envelope. Some of these aspects can be considered in the passive solar design, such as selecting high-performance glass to reduce heat gain and encourage natural light; using light-reflective colours; fixing shading devices to prevent solar radiation; and  picking the most suitable heat insulation systems for the façades,” Marzouk adds.

Cordero says AESG – which has provided façade-related services for projects such as Langham Place in the UK, and the UAE’s Qaryat Al Hidd and Dubai Creek Harbour – implements lifecycle assessments to balance “operational and embodied energy”.

AESG’s operational studies focus on transmission, maintenance, and harvesting, while the latter set covers material extraction, component production, assembly, installation, replacement and demolition, recycling, and even transport. 

“When we engage in a client on the sustainability aspects of façades, we help ensure that the façade is designed and installed in a sustainable way, thereby reducing pollution and the use of natural resources,” Cordero adds.

Annual spending on building exteriors in the GCC will reach $12bn by 2024, according to a report from US-based Grand View Research, released last July. Saudi Arabia accounted for 41.8% of the GCC’s overall façades market in 2015, with annual spending expected to rise to $5.5bn by 2024. 

Clearly, while the Gulf’s construction sector may face energy- and fire-related challenges in the short term, the future for façade experts is bright.

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