What were they thinking?

You may have heard the story about the so-called “walkie talkie” building in London that has taken to melting cars and setting things on fire. As an engineer all I can say is what were they thinking!

I mean, you create a large curved mirror, placed in a south facing direction, what could possibly go wrong? Are you telling me that nobody on the design team saw the obvious problem here? Have they ever heard of this thing called a lense? :no:

I would pin a good deal of the blame for this on the architect. One of the problems I’ve noticed of recent years is we seem to be getting an increasingly airy fairy breed of architects :crazy:, who’ll propose ever more grand and unorthodox buildings. However, often the buildings turn out to be impractical (university library I was in a while back had lots of big open spaces and places for people to chat…first complain from the students, it’s too noisy to study! :**:) or expensive and difficult to build.

Often they’ll do this to try and win some building award given out by other airt fairy types :lalala:, which sits on their shelf and is forgotten after a month. While the building/mess they leave behind lingers on for years. I mean we just moved into such a building last year and the builders have had to come back and fix everything over the summer, as one year of term knocked chunks out of it.

Normally it’s the job of the engineer and to a lesser extend the quantity surveyor, to constraint the architect and make sure he’s aware of these things called “the laws of physics”. My favourite tale, an architect designed a building such that the corner of the roof swept down to a glass fronted wall supported by a cantilever slab…i.e. he was expecting a sheet of glass a few mm’s thick to hold and support ¼ of the weight of the roof of the building! |-| The civil engineer drew a small cloud above the corner of the building, with a chain and a hook out of it and asked the architect if he thought that would work ;D. In the end he compromised and allowed us to install a pillar!

However this doesn’t seem to be happening anymore. I don’t know why, it might be that QS’s aren’t as prominent in the design team (the QS and engineer are often natural allies in this regard as they want to make the build as cheap and painless as possible), it could be that the client’s representatives tend increasingly to be the clueless air head types, or that engineers just aren’t as willing to stick their neck out. Or is it the contractors trying to make buildings as expensive as possible so they can push up their profit margins? I don’t know but it’s got to stop.

I mean don’t get me wrong, if we engineers designed buildings every building would be a dry drab concrete filing cabinet :yawn:. We need architects, but we need them to do the “architecture” stuff and leave the engineering to someone else. The best buildings I find tend to be the ones where there is that balance between good architecture, good practical engineering and a price that doesn’t break the bank. Many of New York’s skyscrapers are all the more iconic, and I suspect will still be standing, long after mistakes of the past, such as this “walkie-talkie” are pulled down.


5 thoughts on “What were they thinking?

  1. An interesting post. I tend to agree with most of what you say, but in my experience over-zealous quantity surveyors can often completely balls-up an otherwise potentially successful design by cutting out the one feature that makes the building habitable.
    An example being one building I worked on as a junior architect which was required by the site and the client’s brief to have a south facing glass wall, which we protected by brise-soleil – the first thing the QS did was cancel the sun-screening and his clients near sizzled to death until they painted all the glass and turned the building into an eyesore. Unfortunately, on the same building, the engineers had plumped for a waffle type concrete floor system, so there was nowhere to put additional air-conditioning ducts. It is still there but has the reputation of having severe sick-building syndrome.


    • Okay Engineer’s and QS’s can also screw up from time to time. Indeed I mentioned this in my energy blog recently, people putting large south facing facades, great in winter but turns the building into an oven in the summer and/or you have all the blinds pulled and the lights on! Whereas a bit of a sun shade can cure all ills.

      Sick building syndrome, sounds more like deep fat frier syndrome to me!


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