Buildings are meant to shelter and protect people. But sometimes they have elaborate designs that cause harm instead.
When the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, was first built in 2003, for instance, its shiny, curved exterior reflected sunlight into nearby buildings. The heat forced air conditioners to work overtime—and electric bills skyrocketed. It wasn’t until workers sanded the shiny stainless steel panels that the problem went away.
“When an architect tries a new idea, they don’t know what all the problems will be until the building is finished,” says Kathy Dunne, a professor of architecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, who teaches about construction failures. “That’s sometimes the consequence of innovation.” Check out three more examples of building designs gone bad.
THE PROBLEM: REFLECTED SUN RAYS
A London skyscraper nicknamed the “Walkie-Talkie” is one of the hottest new building designs in the world. Literally. The 37-story building has melted parts of cars and burned holes in bicycle seats. It has even set the carpet in a nearby building on fire.
The Walkie-Talkie—scheduled for completion this year—features curved surfaces and reflective materials just like the Walt Disney Concert Hall does. The difference is that the Walkie-Talkie is covered in glass. Because the building’s faces are made of glass, radiation from the sun is naturally reflected. “If the surface were made of a nonreflective material, the rays would be absorbed,” says Todd Gabbard, a professor of architecture at Kansas State University.
The building’s curved surfaces are concave like those of a satellite dish. As a result, the sun’s rays reflect and gather into a single, concentrated point, says Gabbard. It reflects that light—like a laser—onto the ground (see Concave Reflection, below). It’s been estimated that the hot spot created by the Walkie-Talkie reaches a temperature of 120°C (248°F).
To prevent more cars and bikes from being melted, parking is no longer allowed in the spot where the skyscraper focuses the sun’s rays.
THE PROBLEM: FALLING ICE
One World Trade Center, located in New York City, is the tallest building in the U.S. The 104-story skyscraper soars 541 meters (1,776 feet) above the city. It sits near where the original One World Trade Center was located before terrorists attacked it and its twin on September 11, 2001, causing both buildings to collapse and thousands of people to lose their lives. Architects of the new skyscraper focused on safety features like wide stairwells, sprinkler systems, and emergency lighting. What they didn’t count on, however, was safety problems caused by the building’s exterior.
Last winter, commuters were forced to dodge ice that was falling from the building’s slanted sides. The city had to shut down a nearby subway station and redirect car and foot traffic to protect people from the flying shards of ice. Luckily no one was injured.
According to Dunne of the Pratt Institute, ice formation is a relatively new problem for skyscrapers. Most older buildings have vertical sides, but newer ones—like the new One World Trade Center—often have a mix of vertical, horizontal, and slanted surfaces. “Ice can form anytime you have a horizontal surface,” says Dunne.
To prevent ice, architects often install heating strips through which hot water flows, heating a building’s exterior. One World Trade Center is still under construction, so it’s unclear whether heating strips were in use at the time—and whether they’ll prevent ice formation once construction is complete.
THE PROBLEM: WIND GUSTS
Bridgewater Place, a 32-story skyscraper in Leeds, England, is taller than any other building in the vicinity. As a result, the skyscraper generates powerful winds at ground level. Gusts have been so strong that they’ve toppled a moving truck, blown down trees, and caused serious injuries and even one death.
In cities with a lot of skyscrapers, strong gusts hit all the tall buildings. This distributes wind through streets like a rushing river, says Gabbard of Kansas State University. But since Bridgewater Place is the only skyscraper around, a burst of wind makes a direct hit and then rebounds off the surface. Gabbard likens it to a leaf blower blowing leaves at a wall. “Some leaves will blow off to the sides,” he says, “but some will hit the wall straight on, travel downward, and shoot back toward you.” When wind rebounds off Bridgewater Place, it hits the ground and moves in a powerful circular motion, called a standing vortex (see above).
Designers hope to safely redirect winds upward by installing structures called baffles around the building.