23 Dec Cladding fire safety…
… how the Gulf is adopting and implementing change
As jurisdictions, developers, specialist consultants, contractors and suppliers work towards designing and / or implementing new regimes to minimise potential future damages due to façade fires, Abhishek Chhabra, Market Development Manager, Thomas Bell Wright provides an overview of how the gulf region adopts and implements change.
While the stakeholders of the construction industry have juggled their way into demonstrating quality and safety of the work delivered till now, the cladding fire safety problem has now engulfed Governments and financial institutions too. The rate at which gaps are being discovered as major accidents are investigated around the world (Grenfell, Lacrosse tower, Address Hotel, etc.) is probably faster than the rate at which skyscrapers around the world are growing.
The Cladding Problem
As the number of stakeholders increased, so did the complexity and probability of errors and mistakes. While the architects continued to fulfil the ambitions of creating building masterpieces that would either blend in or stand out, the engineers rose up to the challenge of bringing together building envelope systems designs. They were often helped by innovations in materials and installation techniques as they worked tirelessly to overcome the constraints of time and money and drive the wheels of commerce faster and faster.
With the increasing volumes of buildings which continued to get cladded with newer materials like Aluminum Composite Panels and a wide array of insulation and fixing materials, the authorities and consultants who were checkers of functionality could not keep up with the explosion of information and data. And the lack of checking mechanisms led to unchecked errors which have been giving way to accidents of very high proportions.
So how are the key jurisdictions in the Gulf Countries are handling this?
United Arab Emirates
Since the last few decades, the country has established its leadership position across several facets. In the last two decades alone, the country has become the third tallest country in the world and the first tallest country in the Middle East based on the number of 150m+ completed buildings as per Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). The country also took the “Cladding Problem” head on and was quick to soak up learnings from countries and experts around the world. The Fire & Life Safety Code was quickly revised to adopt and implement at 10-point approach which in essence uses an approach being looked at by other countries now.
See Figure 1 overleaf for the European Classification standard’s explanation.
The method to demonstrate conformity in the UAE Fire Code was defined to a high severity level using ISO 17067 guideline document which defines how a Certification & Listing body needs to design and run their certification programmes. The table in figure 4 was drawn from the standard which describes the fundamentals of product certification and provides guidelines for understanding, developing, operating or maintaining certification schemes for products, processes and services and was published as part of the code. The UAE Fire Code mandates a Type 5 conformity programme.
Manufacturers of cladding materials were forced to look deeper and understand the fire propagation response of their products when assembled into a façade system. A choice of four different test methods was given for manufacturers to demonstrate the fire propagation behaviour in a typical cladding system where their materials would be used in the future. American test methods of NFPA 285 (Standard Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components) and FM 4881 (Approval Standard for ‘Class 1’ Exterior Wall systems) along with the BS 8414 (Fire performance of external cladding systems – Test method for non-loadbearing external cladding systems fixed to, and supported by, a masonry substrate) and the ISO 13785-2 (method of test for determining the reaction to fire of materials and construction of façade claddings) were specified.
Along with setting these rigorous technical compliance requirements for the conformity assessment for the materials,
the traceability of the supplier was also required to be linked with a local company whose owner can be tried in the court of law if needed.
The Civil Defense (CD) body of each Emirate took this role of validating the Technical and Commercial conformity and hence issue a document which is a pre-requisite for allowing usage of the product on a building.
A newly introduced chapter (18) in the Fire & Life Safety Code which detailed roles & responsibilities of stakeholders distributed the risk across the licensed fire consultant (House of Expertise/ HoE); Façade Specialist; Façade contractor as well as the supplier. For building beyond a certain criterion, a joint undertaking document needs to be signed by these stakeholders to own up to the risk.
Here the responsibility of a) assessing the risk across various cladding system designs vis-à-vis the evidence available using large scale fire propagation testing (and asking for more) and well as b) Inspecting the installation across the project is handed over to the HoE. Verifying the traceability and sanctity of procured materials on their promise of conformity gets handed to the contractor/ subcontractor.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The country is the third tallest country in the Middle East based on the number of 150m+ completed buildings as per Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).
As a leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia has a broader set-up of manufacturing across several industries. Along with leaders like Saudi Aramco and Sabic, several clusters of industrial and FMCG products have been produced in the country for a long time. Hence the machinery for developing, using and implementing standards already has an established base.
The Saudi Standards, Metrology and Quality Organisation (SASO) was established in the seventies as a body of judicial personality and of an independent budget. They also became an ISO member when it was incepted.
It is a government body that coordinates standardisation activities and facilitates the development of Saudi Standards by working with government, industry and the community. They are enablers of laws and decrees of various government bodies by controlling and assessing various products for their conformity to specific standards. Over the years they have been expanding the net of products and materials that come under their voluntary and mandatory compliance regimes. Quality Mark Regulation helps SASO implement a certification programme. Severity of the certification programmes vary from Type 1 to Type 3 as per the table in Figure 2 opposite.
The technical regulations that drive various certification programmes range from Energy Efficiency norms; toys; leather products; detergents; electrical goods, etc. etc.
The Technical regulations of ‘Building Products’ by now have many parts like “The Sectors of Metals and their Alloys for Buildings and Constructions”, “Insulation and Cladding Materials for Buildings”, “Bricks, Tiles, Ceramics, Sanitaryware and Related Products”, “Doors and Windows” and many more.
Saleem, Saber & SASO
Until five or six years ago, only a small handful of private, independent and international certification bodies were supporting the implementation of SASO’s product conformity assessment programmes which were dictated by a smaller set of Technical Regulations (TRs). As these TRs have been expanding, Saudi Arabia have evolved several programmes to help them maintain and implement these technical regulations effectively.
SALEEM is the name given to SASO’s “Saudi Product Safety Programme”. These are backed by the Technical Regulations.
To bring together several third-party Conformity Assessment Bodies (who are supporting SASO to implement the programmes); manufacturers of products as well as importers and exporters an online platform / portal has been created. SABER is the name of this electronic platform. This system also integrates with KSA Customs, other conformity marks who may have agreements for cross acceptance. Like the G-Mark issued by Gulf Standards Organization. And also links with the product certification portal of “Saudi Quality Mark” (JEEM portal); Saudi Labelling Scheme (Energy efficiency) and other related authorities.
Example of an ACP
The “Technical Regulation for Building Materials – Part 2: Insulation and Building Cladding Materials” was published in in the Official Gazette on 27/12/2019. This 31-page regulation is available on SASO’s website and defines around 30 products pointing to specific standards to evaluate compliance. It defines the severity of conformity to be run as per a Type 3 certification programme as per the table in Figure 2 below.
For aluminum composite panels for exterior cladding the SASO 2752 standard was also published. The title of the standard is “Aluminum composite panels for exterior finishes and interior finishes” and needs to check compliance to several properties and points over 30 test methods. The tests for fire are on the lines of the UAE Fire code at material level and a little more.
Using standards referred in the EN 13501-1 classification standard along with the American Test methods of ASTM E84 (Standard Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials) and ASTM D1929; a new classification nomenclature of FR1, FR2 and FR3 is arrived at. The large-scale fire test NFPA 285 is referenced only and the product standard of SASO2752 does not mandate compliance to this.
Routes to compliances
More than one route to compliance exists for placing a product in the Kingdom. This ranges from conducting one-time tests to arrive at a shipment-based conformity and goes up to getting a Certification Mark from SASO which is proof of compliance to several standards and provides a blanket approval allowing any number of consignments to be shipped or sold in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Building Code was revised in 2018 based on the 2015 International Codes by the Saudi Building Code National Committee (SBCNC). These are ten different codes : ‘General Code’, ‘Construction Code’, ‘Mechanical code’, ‘Electrical code’, ‘Fire code’, ‘Sanitary code’, ‘Energy code’, ‘Green Building code’, ‘Residential building code’ and even a ‘Existing building code’.
Enforcement and implementation of the codes is the responsibility of members of the SBCNC including the General Directorate of Civil Defense (Fire Code) and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.
So unlike UAE, the ‘Conformity Assessment’ of materials is undertaken by a separate entity which is SASO and the aspects related to ‘Design’, ‘Installation’ and ‘Maintenance’ are detailed in the Saudi Building codes and implemented by more than one government agency.
Qatar is smaller than Saudi Arabia and UAE and does not have the breadth of government machinery as Saudi Arabia, but has been ambitious to grow vertically in the region and become the second tallest country in the Middle East based on the number of 150m+ completed buildings as per Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). It is also ranked # 18th Tallest Country in the World under the same criteria. They have a Fire Code as well as the Material Compliance are governed and driven by the Qatar Civil Defense Department (QCDD).
Section GA 3.2 calls for 3rd party certification & listing and points to BS 476 part 6 & 7; but also allows for alternative test methods which can be demonstrated to be equivalent or better than BS 476 part 6&7. The suppliers need to get a registration from QCDD on lines which are very similar to UAE civil defense.
Section GA 3.5.2 sets the guidelines for non-load bearing exterior walls and referencing chapter 37 and chapter 10 of the latest edition of NFPA 5000. Along with setting out other design criteria, it also references to the NFPA 285 test method to validate a proposed exterior wall assembly.
The compliance requirements come across as similar to UAE but they are not yet as detailed and stringent in terms of control across the supply chain from manufacturing to Installation and Maintenance. Suppliers complying with technical norms of UAE can access Qatar markets without additional technical compliances.
Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain
Tall buildings are much lower in number in these countries. The importance of cladding fire safety has been rising in these countries and several key stakeholders are aware of the recent developments and trends. The material, design and installation practices related to cladding are not yet as evolved as the other countries mentioned earlier in this article. The concerned authorities like Municipality and Civil Defense in these countries rely on the expertise and specifications driven by specialist consultants who are hired for such projects.
New Standards and revisions
New standards are being developed and implemented to strengthen mechanisms to detect and prevent cladding fires.
Both the NFPA 285 and the BS 8414 have undergone revisions in 2019 and 2020 respectively where key aspects of the test methods have changed to add check previously unchecked aspects in a system mock-up. Jurisdictions like UAE and specialist consultants have been migrating to compliance to the new test methods.
The ASTM E2874 which is a ‘Standard Test Method for Determining the Fire-Test Response Characteristics of a Building Spandrel-Panel Assembly Due to External Spread of Fire’ has been published in 2019. While the UAE fire and life safety code does not currently refer this test method, the code requires the ‘Spandrel’ to demonstrate fire resistance capability. This standard is queued up to be added to the International Building Code’s next revision. As a test available at Thomas Bell-Wright International’s facility in Dubai, it is expected to be adopted by projects and the UAE Fire Code in the near future.
Also, SASO is also developing many new standards like one which will define requirements for ‘Synthetic resin pitched roofing tile and fittings’
Due to the agility and relative stage of development cycles of some of the countries in the Gulf Region, the quicker adoption and implementation of some best practices could lead to less façade fire accidents in the future.