Where lights shine, sparks can fly

Is your policyholder inadvertently eroding their defences against a major property loss? With combustible cladding on high-rise office buildings, no one can afford to let their guard down.

Combustible cladding is a common feature of modern buildings, bringing with it a long-term risk of major building fire.

Combustible cladding. Composite panels. Foam facades. Structural sandwich panels.

The array of terms used to denote combustible exterior wall assemblies can often be confusing, but for the modern-day Property & Casualty Underwriter the mental image which creeps in upon hearing any of these different definitions is predictable; catastrophic fire risk.

Exterior insulation & finish systems (EIFS) are typically complex assemblies of different materials, often including a significant quantity of combustible polymeric foam, which will tend to melt and drip during a fire, causing it to spread rapidly up and across the outside of the building. Anyone involved in the commercial property insurance sector will undoubtedly be aware of some of major losses where combustible components in the EIFS played the most significant role.

It is important to note that the presence of external combustible cladding on a high-rise building does not necessarily mean it is a major fire hazard. It depends on where the cladding has been applied and the building’s overall fire safety measures. But if the exterior wall system does indeed have combustible cladding, removing it is typically out of the question due to the massive cost and practical complexity of removal and replacement. If the cladding remains, then the focus moves to preventing it from being ignited in the first place.

A high-rise office building with a high-stakes problem

The country headquarters of a telecoms company in the Middle East is a high-rise building with 23 above-ground floors and almost 19,000 m2 of floor space. Like many similar properties built in the early 2000s, the external facade consists of combustible cladding with a cavity space, arguably the highest hazard situation when it comes to exterior fire potential. This building was never inspected by Insurers until Virtual i Technologies brought its remote surveying capability to the table, using our platform [VRS]TM Virtual Risk Space.

At some stage during the construction of this building there was a major design change for the building’s air conditioning system. Originally it was intended that there be a central chiller plant on the roof, with coolant distributed to air handling units on each floor; a typical modern design. But somehow this was swapped out for individual split-type air conditioning units on each floor.

For those of you familiar with the design of modern high-rise buildings this may seem absurd. But what makes it all the worse is that the only space available for such air conditioning units was a single, narrow external balcony on each floor. The narrow dimensions meant that instead of one or two bulky chiller units being installed to serve each floor, ten thin split-type air conditioning units were put in place, stacked two high.

Between the ten units themselves, the steel support frames and the coolant piping, there was almost no room for a person to squeeze onto the balcony without performing some miracle of contortion. Not only did this make the Surveyor worried about access for firefighting, but it also made them suspect that preventative maintenance for these air conditioning units was probably not happening. Without adequate maintenance, fire risk increases, as the motors can run hot without re-greasing and combustible debris builds up on the filters and fan blades. And with a total of 230 air conditioning units in close proximity to combustible cladding, that provides a large number of chances for sparks to fly.

At the time of the survey the building tenant was just finishing the installation of an LED pixel dot lighting mesh all across the building exterior. Even if you don’t recognise that term, you’ll have seen such a thing before. When the outside of a building is wrapped in bright light, sometimes changing colour, making moving patterns or displaying text, thats an LED pixel dot lighting mesh.

The LEDs are powered by low-voltage direct current electricity running through the miles of wires within the mesh. So whilst low-voltage equipment sounds a lot less hazardous than high-voltage equipment, any electrical system can feed incredible amounts of energy into a fault (e.g. due to a short-circuit) resulting in an intense, persistent, and rapidly expanding arc of electrical energy. More than enough to set fire to combustible materials nearby, such as the cladding.

Each of the 23 above-ground floors had a designated smoking area; unfortunately the only space available for this purpose was a vestibule which was open directly onto – you’ve guessed it – the balcony.

This introduced the possibility that someone could accidentally flick a hot match or discard a cigarette butt straight onto the building cladding, where it could potentially fall into the cavity space or set fire to the wiring of the facade lighting system. Even remotely looking at the balcony area through the lens of the Risk Manager’s smartphone it was easy to see that smoking paraphernalia was indeed being discarded carelessly.

And just to cap it all off, the building’s emergency diesel generators were placed right next to the cladded walls at floor level, and the cladding itself had a number of holes through which the cables passed, thus exposing the inner insulation and making it easier to ignite.

The decision to put air conditioning units on the balcony of every floor. The unnecessary facade lighting system. The location of the smoking areas. The placement of diesel generators. Each one a chink in the armour, each one a barrier compromised.

This risk was not recognised by the building owner and was unknown to the insurer. Without this [VRS]TM Virtual Risk Space survey no one would have been any the wiser, and both stakeholders would have continued sleepwalking towards potential oblivion.

As this was a telecommunications company, the insurer had previously focused their risk survey efforts on the data centres and mobile switching centres in that country, as these were – logically enough – thought to be where the major loss exposures would be. But the reality was that the largest property damage exposure and the greatest likelihood of a catastrophic fire was right where they never thought to look – the humble office building.

Don’t assume, verify.

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