House & Home

London Skyscraper on a Car Melting Rampage

Posted September 7, 2013

20 Fenchurch Street in London is home to a futuristic, sleek, striking skyscraper that's been dubbed the "Walkie Talkie" due to its distinctive shape. Maybe not the most dignified of nicknames, but the developers were happy to see their building becoming a part of the city's slang. Until recently, that is, when it started to gain a rather notorious reputation that's going to be hard to live down after a man accused the building of melting part of his Jaguar.

Say what? It turns out that the distinctive curved design combined with an impressive array of windows amounts to a solar collector that creates a concentrated beam of light, which is cast on the sidewalk and streets below. As the day progresses, the light moves, creating a scorching environment on ground level. For a man unlucky enough to park his car in the wrong spot at the wrong time, the result can be melted and warped quarterpanels, damaged windows, and problems with the interior of the car as well.

This isn't the only building with a similar problem. Any kind of curved design paired with a sweeping expanse of glass, as is common in modern architecture, can become a solar collector when it's facing the right direction. Las Vegas has experienced similar problems with its flashy architecture, and it's an issue on a smaller scale in some other cities as well. One would think this would be a known issue and consideration for architects preparing building plans, but evidently no one thought ahead with the Walkie Talkie.

Martin Lindsay, who runs a tiling company, is understandably irritated by the damage, as are other vehicle owners who came forward when his report made the news. Intrepid journalist James Waterson had to check the situation out for himself, so he took a frying pan and an egg to the site and, yes, fried an egg. The heat is so intense that he said it's comparable to cooking on a hob at home. The Walkie Talkie is even setting local carpets on fire -- as the glare intrudes through windows and doorways at street level, it's so hot that it's enough to ignite fibers. 

Clearly, the City of London has a problem. For now, it's suspending parking in the most affected region in the hopes of preventing any further damage to vehicles, and that's a radical step for a city where parking spots are at a desperate premium. The City is also calling upon the developers of the building to come up with a long-term solution to the hazards of the Walkie Talkie. In the long term, this will likely involve a screen or window treatment that will cut the reflected glare without compromising the stunning look of the Rafael Viñoly-designed building. For now, the developers are putting up screens at street level.

The lessons of the Walkie Talkie are important; while beautiful, gorgeous, eye-catching design is always a good thing, it's also a good idea to step back and think about practicalities at the same time. In regions of the world that tend to get a lot of sun, buildings need to be constructed with care to avoid turning them into effective death rays. A Phoenix contractor, for example, needs to think carefully about the positioning of a building and the array of windows while working with an architect and other members of a design team.

A mistake early in the design process could result in years of frustrating work to fix the problem, as may be the case with the Walkie Talkie.

Katie Marks writes for

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