Middle East construction supply chains must unite for fire safety

Inefficient supply chain management can cause fire safety details about steelworks and stakeholder responsibility to "get lost, be misunderstood, or not be addressed at all", a regional expert says

Work is under way to improve the fire-resistance of the faades used for the Middle East's high-rise towers [representational image].
Work is under way to improve the fire-resistance of the faades used for the Middle East's high-rise towers [representational image].
Fire safety is a collective responsibility, Sherwin-Williams' expert says [representational image].
Fire safety is a collective responsibility, Sherwin-Williams' expert says [representational image].
Supply chain communication is key to ensure fire safety elements are appropriately incorporated within the project [representational image].
Supply chain communication is key to ensure fire safety elements are appropriately incorporated within the project [representational image].

Efficient supply chain management, especially in terms of steelworks and stakeholder responsibility, could boost fire prevention efforts in the Middle East.

This view is expressed by Bob Glendenning, global fire engineering manager of Sherwin-Williams Protective and Marine Coatings' operation in Europe, Middle East, Africa, and India (EMEAI).

Glendenning lauds the fire prevention efforts being taken by Middle Eastern authorities, who he says "appear to be taking a harder line on the owners of high-rise buildings [...] and requiring them to make façades more resistant".

READ: RERA begins replacement of Dubai façades to boost fire safety

He also addresses how cladding fixed on buildings for decoration, insulation, or protection "may have contributed to the spread of many fires in Dubai over the last three years", adding: "The UAE [...] revised its building safety code in 2013 to require that cladding on all new buildings over 15m to be fire-resistant.

"But the new rules did not apply to buildings erected before that year, so the vast majority of the country’s skyscrapers fell outside the regulations. It is still not clear how tough the stance is being adopted by the local authorities, including the Dubai Civil Defence on this issue at this stage." 

Referencing recent skyscraper incidents in Dubai – including a fire that broke out at the 337m-tall Torch Tower in August 2017, and one at the 75-storey Sulafa Tower in July 2016 – Glendenning says regional fire incidents should lead to an industry-wide review of the processes and materials used for fire prevention, and how the supply chain can contribute to increased fire protection. 

"Increasingly, the industry is using complex structural steel to meet the needs of modern city construction, and with it comes a more complicated supply chain," he explains.

"However, there is no reason to accept shortcomings in best practice wherever fire protection – and safety – are required.

READ: GCC's private-sector firms are supporting fire safety regulation

"Where lives and property are at stake, structural fire engineering methods simply cannot be compromised."

Global professional bodies, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Association of Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP), are said to be working on an initiative named Plan of Works for Fire, which is aimed at ensuring that a detailed specification exists for fire protection at the design stage, as well as a schedule for fire protection during construction. Glendenning says Sherwin-Williams is supportive of the initiative, which will help to bridge knowledge gaps in the market. 

"We [...] believe there is a gap in terms of best practice that identifies the steps to take for even the most complex structural steelworks, and provides authoritative guidance for those in the supply chain," he says

"The process being developed [by RIBA and ASFP] will include mandatory sign-offs as construction progresses, with all information reaching the end-user to support adequate fire risk management."

READ: The UAE is leading the Gulf’s fire safety programmes

Within the remit of steelworks, it is also integral to ensure that life safety coatings applied to buildings are appropriately thick, without which "fire protection will likely not be adequate". This is especially significant since intumescent coatings are preferred by designers for experimentation with shape and glazing, as well as the visibility of the building's steel frame.

"In recent years, and particularly over the past five to 10 years, the UK steel construction industry for medium- and high-rise buildings has evolved rapidly," Glendenning explains.

"It is now commonplace to see long-span construction with fewer columns, coupled with down-stand cellular beam construction, to incorporate services through floor beams, rather than below, as was the norm some years ago. The Middle East may well follow suit." 

Such a design typically offers the advantage of increased lettable area, uninterrupted views, faster construction, and reduced floor-zone depths, which reduce costs by either lowering the building's height, or increasing the number of floors. 

"However, the lines of communication become increasingly blurred between the various supply chain parties involved," Glendenning says. 

"From the designer, to the specifier and to suppliers through to the installers and the building control officers, the detail can be lost, be misunderstood, or not be addressed at all.

READ: Enforcing regulations can counter building fires in Middle East

"One issue in the protection of steel structures, for example, is to assume the steel design output – and the subsequent, redundant load-bearing strength – leading to an increased critical temperature. This reduces the level of coating protection required.

"To estimate [under provable standards] for any reason is a high-risk approach that should be questioned vigorously – only actual design output should be used and supplied by the project design team. To assume a value to gain a competitive advantage or solve a challenge is not engineering – it is potentially risking life and property safety." 

Glendenning says the onus lies initially with the architect, and then the specifier, to recommend the most suitable products and standards required: "Responsibility cascades through the supply chain to the manufacturer, the installer of the products, and the officers auditing quality and safety through to sign-off.

"The fire engineer or consultant should also be factored in earlier rather than later by the project design team, and this is where problems can emerge.

READ: UAE Ministry of Interior signs deal to install fire alarm systems

"If the fire engineer is called in to assess fire safety when the project is at an advanced stage and the solution has to be retrofitted, then this can be too late." 

Where steel fabricators are concerned, Glendenning explains, fire protection and other safety measures can effectively be incorporated "early in the development of the design", taking into consideration the material, the structural design's requirements, and its fire design, in addition to elements such as cellular beams. Moreover, the fire protection contractor's choice to work on-site or off-site must also be factored into fire safety processes. 

During handover as well, it must be checked that the development's "design and specification meet the required level of compliance [...] with all necessary certificates and approvals". 

Glendenning adds: "Only when this process has been completed can we know that the necessary steps have been taken.

READ: PPP inked for centralised fire alarms in 150,000 UAE buildings

"We would like to see more formal, prescriptive guidance for the supply chain, which ensures there is collaboration between the various professionals.

"The whole supply chain has a part to play, and we should all accept our responsibilities with due care."

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