Driving a car in London just got a lot more dangerous. A soon-to-be-completed skyscraper in the downtown area is having an impact that no one could have imagined: it is starting fires and melting cars. The building— designed by internationally renowned architect Rafael Viñoly—is a dramatic edifice with curved exterior walls. Built at 20 Fenchurch Street in London’s financial center, the 38-story skyscraper is known locally as “the WalkieTalkie” for its unusual shape. But that curvilinear shape is exactly what’s causing the problem. The south-facing exterior wall is covered in reflective glass, and because it’s concave, it focuses the sun’s rays onto a small area, not unlike a magnifying glass directing sunbeams into a superhot pinpoint of light. The beam caused by the curved skyscraper concentrating the sun’s rays was measured at more than 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) in September. So far, the building has been responsible for partially destroying a parked Jaguar XJ luxury car, catching carpets on fire in nearby shops, and shattering slate tiles at local restaurants. This is likely to be a recurring problem for any structure built within range of the powerful reflected light coming from the building. Because the effect is caused by the sun’s elevation in the sky at certain times of the day and during a specific time of the year, experts expect the intense light and dangerous heating effect will last about two hours a day over a period of three weeks. To help in the short term, the building’s owners have contracted with local authorities to block off a limited number of parking spaces that are right in the reflected beam’s path. Longer-term solutions are more problematic; the design of the building will not change and of course, the sun’s path is not likely to alter in the near future! Melting cars and causing fires are not the only problems that have been reported because of the unique building design. In fact, it appears that the Walkie-Talkie building has a residual feature—the ability to blow people away. The 37-story building has a downdraft wind problem caused by its shape, and during breezy days, it has almost blown pedestrians into the road and has regularly toppled food carts parked along the street. In fact, this phenomenon has led city planners to revise the guidelines for building design and insist that independent wind studies be conducted on future building projects during their planning phase. This isn’t the first time Viñoly’s architecture has
been the subject of similar controversy. His Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas has been criticized for directing sunbeams onto the swimming pool deck that are hot enough to melt plastic and singe people’s hair. The technical term for the phenomenon is a solar convergence, but the hotspot soon became known as the “Vdara death ray.” The Vdara resolved the death ray effect with larger sun umbrellas, but fixing the problem in London might take a lot more work. “There are examples in the past where an architect has had to rebuild the façade,” said Philip Oldfield, an expert in tall buildings at the University of Nottingham’s Department of Architecture. “If this is serious, then I dread to think how expensive
it will be.” Architectural critic Jonathan Glancey says the story is not unprecedented. In 2003, the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed by architect Frank Gehry, had a similar problem. The building is covered in stainless steel panels and includes many graceful, curvy ripples along its surface. Unfortunately, that design also meant that certain angles of the sun shining on the building refocused the sun’s rays and caused hotspots on the sidewalk, with reflected temperatures measuring up to 140F (60C). Blinding glare also affected drivers passing the building. After computer models and sensor equipment identified the panels causing the problem, they were sanded down to break up the sun’s rays. In the case of the London Walkie-Talkie building, developers could employ several possible solutions. One suggestion is to coat the windows to reduce the harshness of the reflection, although this would have the side-effect of reducing the amount of light that could enter the building. A much more expensive solution would be to deliberately misalign the window frames, altering them little more than a millimeter, just enough to offset the solar concentrating effects of the building’s windows. Whatever solution the building’s owners ultimately adopt, it will prove an expensive solution to an unexpected problem that gives the “Walkie-Talkie”
building one more nickname – “the building that melted cars.”18
1. Search “London Walkie-Talkie Building” on the internet, then click through pictures of the structure
and read some of the articles posted. For example, note that the building won the “Carbuncle Cup”
by the Building Design Magazine for “Worst Building of the Year” in 2015. What are some of the reasons the building has been so ridiculed?
2. What are some of the challenges with assessing risk when constructing a building? In other words, what risks can be assessed up front, and what risks are examples of “unknown-unknowns”?
3. Consider this statement: “With construction, the risk is simply the residue of creative designs. You cannot account for it in your plans.” Pick either the “pro” or the “con” side of this debate and develop an argument supporting your position. Is risk a natural result of creativity?