When Will Dubai Fix Its Burning Skyscraper Problem?

When Will Dubai Fix Its Burning Skyscraper Problem?

Watching a 63-storey Dubai hotel explode into flames on New Year’s Eve and smolder well into New Year’s Day, you might’ve been wondering the same thing I was: Why do so many of Dubai’s skyscrapers catch fire? And how terrifying is it that this city can’t seem to stop this from happening? A horrific time-lapse of the December 31 fire at The Address Downtown Dubai shows how quickly the flames climb the tower as debris rains onto the streets below. Shortly after this video was taken, the adjacent Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, appeared to explode as well, as part of an extravagant fireworks show. The celebratory explosives were apparently made even more dramatic by the billowing smoke!

According to reports, city leaders went forward with the firework display because they wanted people to remember the fireworks, not the fire. But I’m not sure the people will remember the fireworks. I think they might remember that this is the fourth major skyscraper fire in Dubai since 2012.

On 29 April 2012, the 40-storey Al Tayer Tower went up in flames, displacing hundreds of families. Supposedly a cigarette butt was to blame.

Later that year, the 37-storey mixed-use Tamweel Tower lit up the sky. Again: Probably a cigarette butt.

The New Year’s Eve fire is the second in the last 12 months. Earlier in 2015, a 79-story skyscraper named “Torch Tower” (NOT KIDDING) got, well, torched.

In both of the 2012 fires, a specific building material was isolated as the main reason for the blazes. To insulate large buildings while keeping overall weight down, many supertalls have what’s called a thermo-plastic core, which is essentially layers of polyurethane sandwiched between aluminium cladding. But that polyurethane can also be flammable. After the 2012 fires, these aluminium composite panels (ACPs) were outlawed for new structures. To prevent fires from sparking on existing thermo-plastic core structures, the city required buildings to add additional fire-retardant panels and exterior sprinklers. Supposedly the Torch Tower and The Address complied with these new regulations. But they still ignited.

Still smokin’ well into 2016. AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

Part of the problem here is an aesthetic one: Dubai loves its hypershiny metallic rockets, so the plastic-stuffed aluminium look is widespread. According to a comprehensive investigation out today by The National, about 250 of Dubai’s tallest buildings have these kind of ACPs as do almost two-thirds of the buildings citywide. The Address was completed in 2008 so it was indeed one of the structures that was retrofitted with extra sprinklers and fire retardant panels. (In fact, sprinklers are credited with saving the interior of the building.) But requiring that all new buildings move away from ACP completely and towards something like a glass curtain wall would make these buildings far more resilient.

As would a bit more oversight when it comes to the construction industry. Not only are these materials under investigation, so are the labour practices. For these types of megaprojects, Dubai and many other wealthy Gulf countries have been accused of using undocumented migrant workers who are kept at the sites in what are essentially slave labour camps. I can’t imagine that forcing people to work in those kinds of conditions would result in the highest-quality construction work.

Dubai says it has a plan to fix this, but the plan doesn’t have anything to do with improving the safety conditions of these buildings. The city announced last year that it will be employing a fleet of $US35,000 ($49,593) jetpacks to act essentially as giant human-piloted drones to battle fires from the air. So when the next supertall does light up like a Roman candle — and you better bet it will! — the city can send its team of Rocketeer firemen to put it out.

This is the type of response you might expect from a place that chooses to ignite hundreds of fireworks into the air while people are being evacuated from a burning building: A spectacle to distract from the issue at hand, without really addressing the problem at all.