Atlantic Cities

Can Reflective Buildings That Produce 'Death Rays' Be Prevented?

Can Reflective Buildings That Produce 'Death Rays' Be Prevented?
Stefan Wermuth/Reuters


The slightly warped facade in central London's Walkie Talkie is responsible for the burning rays. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Imagine parking your car downtown for an hour and coming back to find parts of it melted. That's what happened to London motorist Martin Lindsay, who told the BBC that the wing mirror and badge portions of his Jaguar had melted due to intense sun rays reflecting off the Walkie Talkie tower. The 37-story skyscraper, due for completion in 2014, has a mildly curved facade, which results in a convergence of sunlight and extremely strong beams.

The building's developers, Land Securities Group PLC and Canary Wharf Group PLC, were quick to respond, releasing a statement blaming the car-melting rays on a particular elevation of the sun in the sky that day. Based on preliminary computer modeling, they say the phenomenon happens two hours per day and expect it to go on for two or three more weeks.

The developers have already paid for the Jaguar's repairs and have blocked three parking spaces near the building. They're now working with the city of London to find solutions. According to the BBC, some possibilities may be applying a finish to the glass to reduce reflection or realigning the window frames slightly. 


Pedestrians walk in the reflection of sunlight from the Walkie Talkie tower (Stefan Werrmuth/Reuters) 


This burnt spot on the doormat of a shop across from the Walkie Talkie is believed to be caused by reflected rays from the building. (Matt Dunham/AP)

This isn’t the first time strong rays from extremely reflective building facades have caused harmful burns. When Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles heated a nearby sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the fix involved sanding down the especially reflective panels. When the “Vdara death ray” from Las Vegas's Vdara hotel scorched a pool guest’s hair and melted plastic bags, the building owner employed a low-tech fix by setting up umbrellas in the affected area. The architect responsible for the Vdara hotel, Rafael Viñoly, is, not coincidentally, the same architect behind London's Walkie Talkie tower.

But if computer models and sensor equipment can identify problematic panels after-the-fact, why can’t Viñoly and other designers fix the issue before construction?

According to William Braham, an architecture professor and director of the Environmental Building Design program at the University of Pennsylvania, the problem of preventing "death rays" from reflective buildings is a bit like the problem of medical diagnosis. "The limitations are largely time and resources, not the tools," he writes in an email.

So how can we prevent more Walkie Talkies and Vdaras from being built in the future? Christoph Reinhart, an architecture professor at MIT, has been working on a paper on detecting glare from specular objects (i.e. PV panels, reflective glazings) based on computer simulations. Reinhart says the current guidelines for predicting glare are insufficient, citing limitations like the erroneous assumption that PV panels and glazings act as ideal mirrors, as well as the lack of readily available detailed data on the reflective properties of those surfaces. Reinhart hopes legislators and the design professions will adopt the more advanced modeling method explored in his forthcoming paper, which takes into account more accurate behaviors of reflective surfaces. 

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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