Published on November 28, 2022.

Arab Style

The Middle East is home to some of the biggest, brashest, and most complex buildings the world has ever seen, and the design and construction processes can include a wealth of fire and life safety challenges. A Beirut-based fire safety expert shares compliance problems she’s encountered on some of the region’s most ambitious building projects.


In 2009, 
I was working as an architect in Cairo for Dar Al Handasah, the international engineering, consulting, and design firm. One day, my director asked me if I would be interested in learning fire and life safety. I can still remember his words: “You love learning, and you are good at dealing with people and solving problems. If you learn this rising field you will thank me 10 years from now when you excel in it.”

At the time, I was handling the life safety coordination between the architecture team and the company's fire and life safety (FLS) specialist for a large project in Saudi Arabia. I’d started at Dar in 2007, shortly after I received my degree in architecture from the Lebanese University in Beirut, where I’d grown up. I’d been an enthusiastic, ambitious girl, born and raised in that beautiful Mediterranean city, and my interest in innovation and creativity led me to choose architecture as my major. I wanted to design buildings from an artistic perspective and never thought that I would be concerned with what would happen if they caught fire. It didn’t help that the area of fire and life safety was not yet a priority in many Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) nations.

Even so, Dar had already established a small team at its offices in Beirut that was dedicated to reviewing its projects to make sure they were in line with a country’s FLS regulations. In part through efforts like these, the awareness around designing buildings and structures to comply with local and international codes and standards had begun to increase, and Dar was taking steps to expand its FLS team. The more I thought about it, and the more I learned about the possibilities in the field of FLS, the more excited I became. After giving it a bit more thought, I told my director I wanted to be part of this rising engineering field.

What began as a new learning opportunity quickly grew into a huge passion for this remarkable field. I started my career as an FLS expert by reading NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, which I found fascinating. My early FLS work at Dar was to check a project’s compliance against the Life Safety Code, which is used widely throughout the region, and help the architect design buildings based on the code. When I attended my first NFPA 101 trainings in the United States, I literally fell in love with the code and wanted to learn more about this fascinating field. Over the following years, I attended trainings on NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, as well as several NFPA conferences.

My passion for the field grew with every project I took on. I set my goals and aimed high, which kept me busy as I learned more about FLS while taking on additional responsibilities in the company. Two of my goals were to become an NFPA instructor and to get the chance to present an education session at the NFPA conference. To many, this might have sounded impossible, but I have always believed that hard work pays off when driven by passion, dedication, commitment, and self-confidence. Today I am based in Beirut as Dar's global head of fire and life safety, managing the FLS teams across the company’s numerous design offices. I am also a code expert dealing with many international codes and standards and an approved NFPA instructor. Last June, I presented two education sessions at the 2022 NFPA Conference & Expo in Boston.

Perhaps the most satisfying development I have witnessed over the past decade is how the fire and life safety field has evolved from a secondary concern to a top priority in most MENA countries. The tremendous construction growth that has occurred in the MENA region—especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—was triggered by an economic expansion that was a key factor in generating a wealth of business opportunities. As a result, international companies continue to seek expansion opportunities in the region, and this often includes the construction of new facilities, many of them architecturally daring, in MENA’s rapidly growing cities.

The growth in construction in GCC countries was also driven by the long-term economic development visions created by national and city governments. These included Saudi Vision 2030 and Qatar National Vision 2030, as well as more focused plans created by the UAE cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These big-picture plans aim to shape their national and local economies in ways that more accurately reflect people’s needs, and they articulate groundbreaking social infrastructure plans, ongoing development of tourism programs, and more. These visions take into account the major international events that are being hosted throughout the region, such as Expo 2020 that took place in Dubai between October 2021 and March 2022, and the upcoming FIFA World Cup soccer tournament that will take place in Qatar in November and December.

The built environment is an important way of expressing these ambitious national visions, and the resulting structures and facilities—mainly in the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are among the world’s biggest, boldest, and most complex. They include the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, standing 2,717 feet (828 meters), and King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest airport, at nearly 300 square miles (777 square kilometers). Clients, private and governmental, are all aiming to build projects that can be recognized as distinctive landmarks. There are no limitations in the type, size, or form that construction designs are based on. These types of projects are typically accompanied by a wealth of engineering challenges, and for me and the teams that I oversee, the most important challenge is to make sure that those designs are in line with FLS requirements.

That work doesn’t come without its challenges. As the head of fire and life safety at Dar, I’ve been involved with an array of unique large-scale projects in the MENA region, including airports, mixed-use complexes, health care facilities, shopping malls, hotels, residential compounds, and more. As part of that work, I’ve faced a variety of major compliance challenges in our efforts to deliver a comprehensive and coherent safety strategy, where every aspect of the FLS equation is considered and implemented correctly while preserving the client’s vision and design intent. We achieve this by adopting the minimum relevant code requirements and applying additional safety measures set by the local authorities—and by being as creative and flexible as we can.

This trend shows no sign of letting up throughout the region, and one of our goals is to learn something from each project that we can apply to future projects. What follows is a short list of some of the most common fire and life safety challenges presented by these projects, along with specific examples of how we addressed the problem.


Doha, Qatar

CHALLENGE: Find a solution for a noncompliant safety aspect for a building already under construction

In early 2017, I was assigned to review a multi-use building in Doha to rectify a number of items that were not code compliant. Among the challenges was the fact that the foundation of the building had already been laid, even though the project design was still undergoing many changes.

The distinctive design of the Katara Hotel was inspired by the symbol of Qatar, with the two crossing “blades” of the structure creating a pair of luxurious hotels. The hotels sat atop a huge podium, with the entire structure rising to a height of 709 feet (216 meters), with nearly 29 feet (9 meters) below grade. The structure included 31 exit stairs with no possibility to change most of the stair locations or their width. For the building to be approved, we would need to ensure it complied with NFPA 101, Section 7.7 (“Discharge from Exits”), where not more than half the number of exits, and not more than half the required egress capacity, discharged inside the building. The remaining exit stairs, meanwhile, would discharge directly outside or through an exit passageway.

One of the problems with the plans that I reviewed was that the area of the discharge level was 443,473 square feet (41,200 square meters), and most of the exit stairs were not located near enough to the external elevation to create a direct exit discharge to the outside that was in line with NFPA 101, Section 7.7. Creating exit passageways to cover the code requirement wasn’t an easy task due to the depth of the floor and the nature of the uses it included, from assembly to industrial and storage. Another challenge was that the NFPA discharge rule applied to each tower's stairs and the podium stairs.

To meet the code requirement, I first created a table that included the locations, widths, and connectivity of all of the exit stairs. I then made sure to fix the discharge of each exit, either by allowing direct exit discharge to the outside where possible or by creating exit passageways. I rectified all of the interior exit discharge issues so that all exits provided a free and unobstructed path to the exterior of the building.

Working on this project was challenging but enjoyable, especially since I was able to find a solution for every noncompliant aspect—despite the immense complexity of the building, we were able to make it fully code compliant. Today the Katara Hotel has become a distinct reference point in the city’s skyline that you can see from an airplane window when you’re landing in Doha. I hope one day I get the chance to enjoy a stay in one of its sophisticated hotel rooms and dine in the top-floor restaurant, with its uninterrupted views of the city and the sea.


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

CHALLENGE: The need to adopt an individual or multiple engineering-based solution rather than a prescriptive-based approach for complex projects

Many of the projects we participate in are simply too large and complex for a strict application of the prescriptive requirements of codes and standards. Those projects include airports, shopping malls, stadiums, and huge assembly buildings. One or several aspects of these projects may need to be designed following an engineering solution, as allowed by Section 1.4 of NFPA 101, to fully account for the distinct design characteristics of the building and their impact on fire and life safety.

A vivid example of this kind of adaptation is The Avenues Riyadh, an enormous mixed-used development poised to become the largest commercial and leisure destination in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Constructed on a plot of nearly 4.2 million square feet (400,000 square meters), the built-up area will comprise nearly 19 million square feet (1.75 million square meters) and include a shopping mall, hotels, a residential building with more than 1,000 units, a medical building, office space, commercial facilities, 18,000 vehicle parking spaces, and related facilities. The multibillion-dollar project, scheduled for completion soon, is envisioned by its owners as a shopping and entertainment hub not just for the city but for the entire country.

Our task was to review and adjust, where required, the concept design of the shopping mall, which included six floors above grade plan and three basements dedicated to car parks and services. One of the challenges we encountered in our fire and life safety work on the project had to do with the scale of some of the shopping mall floor spaces—due to their great size, it was impossible for ground-floor occupants, as many as 28,000 at peak times, to reach the exit doors located at the periphery within the allowable travel distance limit.

To address this issue, we adopted a performance-based approach by running several computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models following critical fire scenarios. In addition, we calculated the time needed for evacuation using Pathfinder—an egress simulator that uses steering behaviors to model occupant motion—to make sure that the available safety egress time resulting from the CFD scenarios was more than the required safety egress time produced by the Pathfinder calculation. That way, occupants could evacuate the building safely within extended travel distance limits following any critical fire.

The rest of the project’s FLS strategy followed a prescriptive base approach. For example, to solve the problem of excess travel distance on other floors, exit passageways were added to exit stairs so that occupants at any point on the floor could reach an exit passageway door within the allowable travel distance limits. Location, design, and protection of exit passageways were determined according to the prescriptive code requirements.

Another fascinating example of this kind of adaptation is the ongoing expansion of the Great Mosque of Mecca, the focal point of the Muslim world that is considered the largest human assembly facility in the world. The expansion of the Mosque complex itself, as well as the addition of surrounding buildings—including the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, with a height of 1,972 feet (601 meters), making it one of the tallest buildings in the world—have added millions of square feet of indoor and outdoor space in recent years. Mosque renovations have included new stairwells, tunnels beneath the structure, a new gate, additional minarets, and more. The complex now covers an area of more than 4.3 million square feet (400,000 square meters) and can accommodate between and 3 million and 4 million worshippers.

The scale of the mosque required a very creative approach as we considered its fire and life safety design strategies. When we began our consultancy services on this project, we knew we would have to combine NFPA 101’s prescriptive requirements with equivalent alternative solutions accepted by the AHJ—in this case the Saudi Civil Defense—to accommodate the unprecedented number of pilgrims simultaneously occupying each part of the expansion during peak times of Hajj and Umrah. The alternative-solutions approach appealed to us because we knew it would help us meet the FLS goals that would have been difficult to achieve using only prescriptive requirements. Those solutions varied from one structure to another and followed a variety of parameters, including the architectural design, whether a structure was new or rehabilitated, the number of pilgrims in a given space, site constraints, and many other factors. In one building, for example, we had to validate the use of open exit access stairs during the evacuation process, and in another one we had to account for an excess in the travel distance limitation stated in the Life Safety Code.

In every case, this project required us to think as innovatively as we could and combine the prescriptive requirements of the code with creative engineering solutions. We also brought our previous experiences and all of the lessons we’d learned from that work to the Mecca project. I believe we ended up with a reliable and realistic way to provide this one-of-a-kind project with a safe environment for occupants to evacuate, relocate, or defend in place during any fire event.


Doha, Qatar

CHALLENGE: The rehabilitation of an existing building with limited ability to change or adjust the building’s design

I’ve worked on many types of rehabilitation projects as part of my fire and life safety work with Dar: modification, change of use or occupancy, additions, reconstruction. Every project has had its specific issues that must be resolved sensitively in order to minimize the design changes due to various restrictions.

One of our current projects is the conversion of an office building—the former Ministry of Interior in Doha, Qatar—into The Ned Doha Hotel, a five-star hotel and member club located on the dramatic waterfront Corniche in Doha, Qatar. The vision for the luxurious new facility includes 90 guest rooms, several dining venues, a large outdoor pool, and a wellness area. In this case, the conversion has resulted in three rehabilitation work categories: reconstruction, change of occupancy, and addition.

A major challenge we typically face during rehabilitation work is how to deal with the existing exit stairs, which can’t be relocated or enlarged. Additionally, in many cases the discharge capacity of the stairs can’t be adjusted. In a similar scenario, the designer had to find logical alternatives that are in line with, or equivalent to, the code requirements and are acceptable to the AHJ.

In the Ned Doha project, the client wanted to fit a restaurant and leisure space on the top floor, which resulted in an occupant load that exceeded the existing stair capacity. The client also wanted to add a ballroom at the lower ground level, which resulted in a shortage of required exits for the building. Fortunately, the fire and life safety solutions were relatively straightforward. For the top-floor restaurant, the only feasible solution was to limit the occupancy to comply with the available capacity limit according to Chapter 43 in NFPA 101. For the ballroom, I added an exit stair connecting the lower ground level to the level of exit discharge. Both solutions were accepted by the client and the AHJ, which was the Qatar Civil Defense. The hotel is scheduled to open by the end of this year.


Doha, Qatar

CHALLENGE: Make changes to a building project that do not comply with the approved design

The process of erecting a building can include many twists and turns, such as changes to some aspect of the building that is not in line with the approved design. These changes can be the result of new requirements from the client, the lack of availability of building materials or other products, tight construction schedules, value engineering, and a host of other reasons. There are cases where the changes do not affect the FLS design, or even if they do, the new design is still in line with the requirements. In these cases, validating the change can be easy. But there are plenty of instances where it’s not so easy.

The problems start when the change affects the FLS design and necessitates a deviation from a previously approved strategy. I’ve faced this situation on many projects, and I can assure you that repeating the process of approval usually results in delays in the building’s execution and inauguration, and that likelihood creates big concerns for all parties. Regardless of the pressures that can build in these situations, I start by studying the alternative solutions that are available to determine what I believe to be the safest substitute to the original design.

I was recently involved with a project on Marsa Arabia, a manmade island in Doha. The development includes seven luxurious St. Regis-branded high-rise apartment blocks and two other blocks dedicated to a St. Regis hotel as well as retail, restaurants, and other amenities. The complexity of this unique design was due in part to those blocks being connected on most of the levels via one continuous exit access corridor running along the entire length of the project. The client decided to add additional restaurants to this mixed-use residential complex. The problem was that he wanted to locate the restaurants above the level of exit discharge, and the exits and exit accesses weren’t enough, or suitably accessible, for the additional assembly occupancies. In this case, the solution was to add external exit stairs that allowed egress from the restaurants down to the level of exit discharge, and also provide access to the nearest apartment building means of egress where possible.

I’ve also had cases where I faced two or more challenges in the same structure, which made it even more exciting to find a suitable solution that satisfied all stakeholders. In my experience, airport projects are examples of huge-scale facilities that are especially prone to these kinds of challenges—but airports are worlds unto themselves, and the fire and life safety challenges they present are topics for another article.

Every project I have worked on has taught me something new. Being a fire and life safety expert in the MENA region brings endless learning opportunities and comes with great responsibilities. It is very rewarding to be part of a regional design, engineering, and building effort that is characterized by some of the most innovative work happening anywhere in the world.

To maintain this level of design and safety innovation, GCC countries must remain on an evolving track to improve their regulatory practices around building planning and construction and to stay up to date on important tools, including codes and standards. GCC nations are moving forward by aligning with their international counterparts in an array of building and construction fields, including fire and life safety. Taking a stricter approach toward fire protection and prevention and empowering AHJs can only help GCC nations—and MENA as a whole—continue to attract the kind of investment that has generated ambitious economic goals and produced scores of stunning buildings and other structures.

I should add that fire and life safety is still known as a man’s world, and I often find myself the only woman in a room full of men—another type of challenge I have had to overcome throughout my career. I entered the field at a time when women were still fighting hard to increase their role across engineering sectors and to be heard and respected for their intellect. With this challenge and many others, I have overcome obstacles by remaining resilient, enriching my knowledge, and broadening my analytical perspective, and today I am proud to be a fire and life safety expert based in the country where I was born and raised, working across the MENA region. It has been very satisfying to see many more women enter the field and flourish, contributing energy and ideas to critical areas of fire and life safety. They remind me how honored I am to work among the dedicated professionals—women and men—who strive to make this world a safer place.

SAWSAN DAHHAM is global head of fire and life safety at Dar Al Handasah in Beirut, Lebanon

Photo and illustration credits: Lead and Katara photographs, Getty Images. The Avenues Riyadh and Ned Doha renderings, EHAF. St. Regis Apartment Towers, Marsa Arabia Resort.