Shaji Ul Mulk is the man behind the facades of a thousand towers.
The billionaire Indian businessman runs the world’s biggest maker of aluminium panels found on skyscrapers worldwide.
One of those was The Address Downtown Dubai, which on New Year’s Eve took minutes to erupt in a spectacular ball of flames. It was the latest in a string of high-rise facade fires linked to the use of highly flammable aluminium cladding panels.
But unlike those that went before, this was broadcast live to a global audience of millions. It was impossible to ignore and it may yet mark the end of an architectural era.
Mr Ul Mulk agreed to speak exclusively to The National and reveal for the first time his part in a story that is still unfolding.
It is not just an account of panels and towers, but of the pursuit of profit by developers, contractors and suppliers. It is the story of a city entering its golden age of development, but with building codes struggling to keep pace. Ultimately, it is a story about money.
The fortunes of the tycoon who arrived in Dubai in 1982 as a young graduate are intertwined with the city’s boom years, when hundreds of towers were built with incredible speed.
By 1985 he had started his own company making tiles, but it was not until the early 1990s that his business empire began to grow when he acquired the rights to develop a brand of aluminium composite panel called Alubond USA.
Ranked among the top Indian business leaders in the region by Forbes, Mr Ul Mulk, like his business, is a man of many facades.
He is a cricketer, a philanthropist, an industrialist and a networker. He is often pictured with celebrities and statesmen.
Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, was among the guests at his daughter’s wedding in 2013, when Dubai’s Atlantis Hotel was transformed into a lavish Mughal palace – reflecting his own family roots that trace back to a ruling dynasty of southern India.
He founded a group of top Indian business leaders in the UAE and called it “The Icon Club”.
Even some of his adversaries in business privately describe him as “a charming man”.
That charm is on display as he defends the panels that covered The Address Downtown Dubai.
The Address Downtown Dubai fire coverage
“This is not an Alubond story – it is a national story,” he says. “It is well known there are hundreds of buildings at risk – it is just a matter of bad luck as to which one catches fire.”
Now he wants to call time on the manufacture of the very panels that helped to make his fortune.
He reveals how buildings could be made safer without prohibitively expensive full-scale cladding replacement programmes.
He also highlights fire risks beyond the aluminium composite panels.
Today, Mulk Holdings has interests in health care, property, commodities, power generation and renewable energy. But it was when the company started to make facades that business really boomed.
He bought the rights to make Alubond panels from a US company based in Rockford, Illinois in 1999. Soon the panels were exported worldwide as the company spread from its Ajman factory to open plants in India, Africa and Europe.
The name led many to assume Alubond USA was from the United States. At a time when the perception of quality was often tied to where building products were made, it was effective marketing.
But competitors seethed.
One even sent an investigator to verify the company’s address in Rockford. A summary seen by The National describes the premises as a very small strip mall where the group “may have a post office box”.
Mr Ul Mulk rejects the claim that the brand name is misleading.
“We never claimed anywhere we had a manufacturing facility in the US. We are by far the largest panel manufacturer in the world. The perception of the word ‘USA’ is neither here nor there. The competition can talk.”
The classification and testing of aluminium composite panels is an alphabet soup of technical terminology. But most of the panels that are used today can be separated into a few main grades closely aligned with how much plastic they contain.
The best ones that are described as being “non-combustible” contain virtually no plastic material. They are increasingly specified for skyscrapers in the developed world, as well as in some developing countries. The worst ones contain a high proportion of plastic, which when ignited burns with spectacular speed and ferocity. These are commonplace in the region and are thought to be on most skyscrapers
They are as much as 30 per cent cheaper than non-combustible alternatives, which perhaps best explains their popularity.
“If you asked me how many buildings had fire-rated minerals before 2012 I would say ‘negligible’,” he says.
The videos of fires on buildings with plastic-filled cladding are remarkably similar.
They tend to burst up the facades of skyscrapers within minutes, while falling panels dripping black molten plastic can ignite lower floors, causing secondary fires. The Address blaze took less than two minutes to leap 40 storeys.
Several recent UAE blazes followed a similar pattern.
The Address, originally called the Burj Lake Tower, was an important project for Alubond. It was being built alongside the world’s tallest – then known as the Burj Dubai. The client was Emaar Properties, the best-known developer in the city, and the designer was the internationally renowned Atkins. It immediately became the poster child of the company. For years it was used to promote the “fire resistance” of Alubond USA panels in brochures and magazine advertisements.
But in a cruel twist, it has now become a totem of public anger over the fire safety of hundreds of high-rise buildings.
“Everything before 2012 had only LDPE (low-density polythene), that is the reality,” he says. “Most of the cladding you see in the whole country, the whole GCC for that matter.”
He argues that the focus on the panels is only part of the story.
The silicone used to seal the gaps between panels as well as the “backer rods” that are found directly behind those strips of silicone to hold them in place could also be responsible for rapid flame spread, he claims.
His solution is to make suppliers responsible for the entire installation of exterior wall systems, and so have direct responsibility for materials used.
The tightly knit world of the cladding industry is one of smoke and mirrors.
Architects, consultants, developers, contractors, fire engineers and regulators work closely with each other on projects where billions of dollars are at stake. Their public and private comments are often very different.
It appears easy to blame the developers that used the flammable panels as well as the manufacturers that made them, but the reality is more complex.
Manufacturers typically sell panels of varying quality from the highly combustible to the non-combustible, depending on what their customers require.
That in turn is determined by the relevant building codes that apply.
Property developers may award a lump-sum contract to a builder, who in turn subcontracts the cladding to a specialist. That company will then seek out the cheapest product able to meet the specification.
Because facades are often sourced in the late stages of a project, when budgets may have already overrun, specifications can be reviewed and cheaper products used.
It is the narrative of an entire supply chain rather than particular players within it.
“We sell what the customer asks for. We are not the installers, we are not the architects, we are not the engineers,” he says.
This summarises the basic position of the aluminium composite panel manufacturing industry when challenged about the fire safety of its product.
They know precisely how their panels perform when ignited and have done for decades. But if a market exists for them, they will supply it – at least until now. The Address fire may yet change that system.
Mr Ul Mulk says he would like to get all the main manufacturers to collectively commit to stop supplying plastic filled panels. Significantly, he is also about to build a production line to manufacture the sort of non-combustible panels the company already makes in Turkey, where their use is mandatory on tall buildings.
Demand for non-combustible panels regionally has been minimal.
But the move by Mulk Holdings to start a production line indicates that he anticipates a change in demand.
“From what we understand about what is coming, the implementation will be very strict,” said Mr Ul Mulk.
At the sprawling Alubond factory in Ajman, he rigs up an impromptu demonstration of a polythene-filled panel of the type used on most of the buildings in the country before 2012.
When a blowtorch flame is applied, it quickly starts to drip black molten plastic and in less than a minute and a half is burning fiercely. He does the same to some strips of silicone and backer rods to demonstrate their combustibility in support of his claim that these materials should also face increased scrutiny.
The plastic mix inside the panels used on The Address Downtown remains a secret. He insists he does not know their exact composition.
“In those days the mix was some part of LDPE and some part minerals. We can only assume that LDPE was more than minerals. We didn’t ask the question. You are talking about ten years ago – we had no codes, no awareness, no need.”
More than one month on from The Address blaze, skyscraper design faces a reckoning. The dangers posed by flammable materials, which may extend beyond the panels themselves as Mr Ul Mulk suggests, are becoming increasingly evident.
The regulatory response has to be comprehensive.
The reasons go beyond health and safety and encompass reputation protection, the avoidance of litigation and the restoration of investor confidence.
If regulators stop short of specifying the use of non-combustible panels for new skyscrapers building insurers may eventually make their adoption effectively mandatory anyway by refusing to underwrite the associated facade fire risk.
It is hard to imagine the full-scale replacement of flammable building facades of skyscrapers in Dubai, as the cost involved would be ruinously expensive.
Dubai Civil Defence has indicated one option is to install fire breaks using non-combustible panels that would at least limit the potential for fires engulfing an entire elevation.
They would act like huge aluminium band aids around buildings – stopping a fire spreading up or down. But it remains an unproven solution, and as some engineers point out, it does not address the risk of secondary fires starting from falling burning debris and molten plastic.
Neither would it necessarily prevent a “domino fire”, as occurred in Doha in May 2006, when burning panels fell from one tower and started a fire in another. But until now no better financially realistic response has emerged.
Mr Ul Mulk believes developers now have a moral responsibility to make their buildings safer by undertaking such works. He says there is also a commercial incentive.
“If I was a building owner I’d be the first one to do it because you immediately bring value to your building. In the worst scenario, if it burns it will only burn three floors. The feeling of social responsibility has to be there. I’m sure all the developers have made enough money from the buildings.”
He says he too would be willing to undertake such work at cost.
“It should not be about making money,” he says.
Mr Ul Mulk is not a man who likes to look back. It is clear he sees The Address fire as in the past – an event he cannot change, however much he would like to. But what also comes across is a desire to change his industry and to play his part to make buildings safer.
Does he feel any remorse for what happened on New Year’s Eve 2015?
He acknowledges the human impact of the fire and for a second the businessman facade disappears.
“Nobody envisaged so many fires,” he says. “We will come forward and do our bit to give back to society where we can. That’s all you can do.”
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