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At Walkie-Talkie, a burning issue.

Standing tall: A man reacts to a shaft of intense sunlight reflected from the glass windows of the Walkie-Talkie tower in central London. The 34-storeyed Walkie-Talkie has earned the nickname of Walktie-Scorchie. By Steff Gaulter London's new skyscraper is a very eye-catching design. The gleaming sides gently lean outwards as it climbs to an impressive height of thirty-four storeys. Locals fondly nicknamed it the Walkie-Talkie, but it has a rather large design flaw.

The building isn't yet complete, but it's already made all the wrong headlines after melting a car which was parked in front of it. The car wasn't the only object to feel the heat from the building, but it was rather a nice Jaguar, so it forced the issue into the spotlight. News reporters descended on the scene, and found they could cook eggs using only the glare from the building; a hairdressing salon said its doormat had caught fire spontaneously; and the Walkie-Talkie was quickly renamed the Walkie-Scorchie.

The reason that the building generated excessive heat wasn't only because it was made of glass and reflected sunlight. The curvature of the glass ensured that a large proportion of the reflected sunlight was concentrated on one area. It's the same effect as using a magnifying glass to start a fire; the heat can be quite incredible. It was not helped by the treatment of the glass either, which was designed to reflect more sunlight to ensure the people inside the building didn't get too hot.

The failure to foresee the formation of a powerful beam does seem like rather a fundamental error, after all, we all know that the sun is incredibly powerful. Without it, the earth would be uninhabitable and we would all simply freeze to death. In Qatar, we only need to nip outside in order to see how strong the sun can be. We should be grateful that the Walkie-Scorchie was built in London and not in Doha, because the sun is more powerful in Qatar than it is in the UK. Near the equator, the sun's rays are always fairly direct, despite the movement of the sun during the year. However, because the earth is spherical, elsewhere the rays are at more of an angle, and that angle increases towards the poles. You can visualise this as a football directly hitting the centre of your forehead, rather than by a glancing blow to the top of your head. If the sun is shining at an angle, the beam is spread over a larger area and is therefore weaker.

Away from the equator, the sun's rays also have to shine through more of the earth's atmosphere before they reach the ground. This again means more energy is lost the further away from the equator you travel.

The loss of energy of the sun's rays is quite dramatic. The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day near the equator is a thousand watts per square metre. At the latitude of London, it's only sixty percent of this. Imagine how strong the burning beam of light would have been if the Walkie-Scorchie had been built in Qatar.

Perhaps, as a one-off error, the burning nature of the building could be excused, but it may surprise you to learn that it wasn't a one-off. A similar problem was found at the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas. Remarkably this hotel was built by the same Uruguayan architect, Rafael Vinoly. The fifty-seven storey hotel melted plastic sun loungers and burnt holes in guests' newspapers. Some visitors even reported being burnt by the glare, which the staff lovingly referred to as the 'death ray'.

The problems at the Vdara Hotel were almost identical to those of the Walkie-Scorchie: the hotel was a curved gleaming structure which concentrated the sunlight into one place. Another important factor is that both of these structures point southwards. In the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east, curves across the sky to the south, then sets in the west. If the hotel had curved towards the north, all the problems would have been avoided.

To fix the issue, the Vdara Hotel had to go through a costly modification, not to mention a string of personal injury claims, yet the architect still designed a curved, south-facing glass structure in London. A curved structure like the Walkie-Scorchie is bound to concentrate the sun's rays in one place, and the fundamental question is: where is that one place? It's not too difficult to calculate the answer, all you need to know is where the sun will be in the sky at different times of the year, and then calculate the reflection. The sun is lower in the sky in winter than it is in summer, so the 'death ray' would move during the year. The calculation might sound complicated, but don't forget that we know where the sun will be at all times of the year, after all, this is how our ancestors made sun dials in the centuries before clocks were invented.

Essentially, the architect made a basic error not once but twice, let's hope he has now learnt his lesson. However, if you hear that Rafael Vinoly is building a structure close to where you're living in Doha, my advice would be to move or start to fry eggs!

Gulf Times Newspaper 2013

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 14, 2013
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