Unbelievable Engineering Blunders That Could Have Been Much Worse

The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt

The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt by Elias Rovielo (CC BY-NC-SA)

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt
The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt by Elias Rovielo (CC BY-NC-SA)

Building Blunders

The Taj Mahal. The Hagia Sophia. The Parthenon. The history of human engineering is filled with many such gems, grand architectural projects known for their elegance and feats of engineering. At the other end of the spectrum are those grand architectural projects known for some embarrassingly bad failures. Here are a few examples.

Related: America’s Most Iconic Buildings and Monuments

Tacoma, Washington, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, November 7, 1940
Tacoma, Washington, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, November 7, 1940 by photolibrarian (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Tacoma, Washington

The first bridge to span the Tacoma Narrows strait of Puget Sound lasted only four months before becoming one of history’s most infamous bridge collapses. Even during construction, design flaws became apparent: on windy days the roadbed swayed up and down enough that construction crews nicknamed it “Galloping Gertie.”  


The bridge opened July 1, 1940, and collapsed November 7, after winds of only 40 miles per hour made the road move so much it tore itself apart. Rebuilding efforts halted when the US entered World War II, so the next bridge to cross the narrows didn't open until 1950. Many pieces of the original bridge remain beneath the water and have since become one of the world's biggest artificial reefs.

Related: Incredible Feats of American Ingenuity Across the Country

Air Canada Boeing 767-233
Air Canada Boeing 767-233 by Aero Icarus (CC BY-SA)

Air Canada Flight 143 Runs Out of Fuel

On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143 left Montreal for Edmonton, Alberta. While 41,000 feet above Ontario, hundreds of miles from its destination, it ran out of fuel. Amazingly, the pilot landed safely, with no casualties and minimal damage to the plane, which became known as the “Gimli Glider” after landing at the former Gimli Air Force Base (which had been converted to a race track).


The new plane was Air Canada’s first to measure fuel in metric kilograms; other gauges still used imperial pounds. The fueler took a reading in pounds and gave this number to the cockpit crew, which input it without metric conversion — so the plane took off with only a quarter as much fuel as needed.

Related: Unbelievable Airline Incidents Throughout the Years

MARS THE RED PLANET by Madhav fallusion (CC BY-SA)

The Mars Climate Orbiter Disappears

In December 1998, NASA launched a space probe called the Mars Climate Orbiter. In September 1999, it reached the Red Planet, fired its main engine to enter orbit, passed behind Mars — and was never heard from again. A project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “We had planned to approach the planet at an altitude of about 150 kilometers (93 miles). … It appears that the actual altitude was about 60 kilometers (37 miles). We are still trying to figure out why that happened.”


A few days later, NASA discovered why: of the two different teams working on the project, one used Imperial units (inches, feet, and yards), while the other used metric (centimeters, meters, and kilometers).


For more fascinating trivia, please sign up for our free newsletters.

Utah Desert
Utah Desert by Bob Tilden (CC BY)

The Nasa Genesis Mission Crash Lands

Five years after the Mars Climate Orbiter, NASA lost another spacecraft. The Genesis probe was supposed to leave Earth, collect some of the charged particles generated by the sun’s atmosphere, and bring them back to Earth so scientists could study them.


The probe successfully launched on August 8, 2004, and the mission went perfectly until the very end, a month later, when the probe crash-landed in the Utah desert after its parachute failed to deploy. The crash landing contaminated many of the particle samples collected during the mission.


An investigation determined that the probe's deceleration sensor failed to trigger the parachute sensor because the acceleration sensor had its “internal mechanisms wrongly oriented” — in other words, they were installed backward.

AquaDom at the Radisson Blu in Berlin, Germany
AquaDom at the Radisson Blu in Berlin, Germany by Vxla (CC BY)

Raddison Blu’s Massive Aquadom Explodes


From 2003 until 2022, the lobby of Berlin’s Radisson Blu hotel featured its own tourist attraction: an 82-foot-tall aquarium known as AquaDom, then the world's largest cylindrical fish tank.


But early on the morning of Dec. 16, 2022, the tank suddenly shattered, flooding the lobby and the street outside with a combination of water, broken glass, and dead exotic fish. Two people were hurt by flying glass, but luckily nobody was killed — though the situation surely would have been far worse had the tank burst during the middle of the day, rather than at six in the morning. Early investigations suggested “material fatigue” led to the break, but an official cause has not yet been announced.

Pier one playground
Pier one playground by jeanphony (CC BY-NC-ND)

Pier One Playground’s Searing Temperatures

Brooklyn, New York 

In 2010 the city of New York opened a new children's playground in Pier One of Brooklyn Bridge Park. The play equipment included three metal climbing domes made of shining steel and surrounded by an expanse of flat, unshaded pavement punctuated by sapling trees.


But on sunny days the steel was too hot to touch without getting scorched.  In April, the president of the New York City Park Advocates reported measuring the steel's temperature at 127 degrees. Things got even hotter in June when a toddler blistered her skin after touching the steel. Officials covered the domes with white cooling tarps and later dismantled them.

Project City Center, Las Vegas
Project City Center, Las Vegas by s.yume (CC BY-NC-ND)

Vdara Hotel’s ‘Death Ray’

Las Vegas

The Vdara Hotel and Spa, a 57-story mirrored skyscraper, opened in December 2009. The crescent-shaped building curves inward around a ground-level swimming pool, where visitors complained that the curved mirrors focused and magnified the sun's rays hot enough to melt plastic cups and singe hair. The heat was so intense that hotel staff jokingly named the building the “death ray” (though a hotel spokesman said he preferred the terms “solar convergence” or “hot spot”).


Whatever you call it, the owners installed a thin layer of film over the windows, which reduced but did not eliminate the glare. So the owners installed a series of dark blue shade umbrellas around the pool area to protect visitors from the reflected glare.

Walkie Talkie Building
Walkie Talkie Building by 35mmMan (CC BY)

The Scorching Rays of the ‘Walkie Talkie Building’


The architect who designed the Vdara in Las Vegas used a similar concave-mirror shape for a skyscraper at London’s 20 Fenchurch Street in 2013. The building was soon nicknamed the “walkie-talkie building” because its unusual top-heavy shape was said to resemble a two-way communication device.


The nickname soon changed to “walkie scorchie” after the concave windows intensified the sun's rays enough to scorch carpets and melt plastic car parts on the street below. Also, the building’s shape forced winds into downdrafts strong enough to knock passing pedestrians off their feet. These issues were eventually alleviated with the addition of sunshades to dim the reflection from the glass, and wind turbines to weaken the downdrafts.

Leaning Tower at night
Leaning Tower at night by Neil Howard (CC BY-NC)

How the Leaning Tower of Pisa Began to Lean

Pisa, Italy

This iconic Italian attraction started out as a medieval engineering blunder. Construction on the white marble monument, originally intended as a cathedral’s bell tower, began in 1173. Before builders finished the second story, it had already begun settling unevenly on its foundation. When the eighth and final level was added in 1370, the builders angled it toward the north, hoping to counterbalance the southward lean of the tower. (Spoiler: this didn't work.) 

In the 1990s the structure closed to the public while engineers sought to prevent it from toppling altogether. The ten-year restoration project included adding 900 tons of lead counterweights, extracting and rearranging soil from the foundation itself, and adding special equipment to adjust the natural water table.

John Hancock Tower
Wikimedia Commons

John Hancock Tower’s Falling Window Panes


Boston's John Hancock Tower, named after the insurance company which originally occupied it, is New England’s tallest skyscraper. Unfortunately, numerous engineering problems plagued it from the start. The most notorious involved the glass in its distinctive blue windows. Each pane weighed 500 pounds and hadn’t been properly bonded to the window frame to expand or contract in response to temperature changes. These stresses periodically caused windows to break. Things got worse during a 1973 windstorm when gusts reaching up to 75 miles per hour blew out entire panes.


The structure soon got the nickname “Plywood Palace,” after more than an acre of glass panels were temporarily replaced by wood. All the original glass — 10,344 panes —  eventually needed replacing.

W.E.B. Du Bois Library
W.E.B. Du Bois Library by Steven Brewer (CC BY-SA)

W.E.B. Du Bois Library’s Crumbling Bricks

University of Massachusetts, Amherst 

The W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts holds the distinction of being the tallest library in the United States, at 26 stories high. 


A couple of months after its opening in 1974, small pieces of brick started falling off the side of the building, a process known as “spalling.” The university responded initially by using bales of hay to isolate the spalling zone, later replaced by a “temporary” chain-link fence which remained until the late 1990s.


An urban legend says the spalling problems stemmed not from faulty bricks, but from the architect's failure to account for the weight of the library's books. While the university denied that, it did move 60,000 books out of the building.

Kemper Arena
Kemper Arena by Americasroof (CC BY-SA)

Kemper Arena’s Roof Collapses

Kansas City, Missouri

When Kemper Arena opened in the early 1970s, it was praised for its innovative design. It won an award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which held its 1979 convention there. Kemper had previously hosted the 1976 Republican Convention and the Kansas City Kings basketball team. Its flat roof doubled as a temporary reservoir, reducing rain runoff into the city sewer system. 


The AIA convention took place on June 3, 1979. The next day, after the building’s architect was honored, an intense storm dropped several inches of rain. It overwhelmed Kemper’s rooftop reservoir and the roof collapsed, taking some arena walls out with it. Fortunately, the building was empty except for one employee, who heard “strange noises” from above, and fled just in time.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall by Pedro Szekely (CC BY-NC-SA)

Walt Disney Concert Hall Shines Too Brightly

Los Angeles 

In 2003, the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles. Designed by Frank Gehry, the building was covered in enormous panels of curved steel. But it turned out to be too shiny in direct sunlight: the glare blinded passing drivers, and residents in the condominiums directly across from the building complained about the increased heat.


At first, a gray tarp covered the very brightest parts of the building, but that was not sufficient. Workers eventually had to sand down the entire surface, to reduce the shine.

Shangri-La at the Shard Hotel
Shangri-La at the Shard Hotel by David Jones (CC BY)

Shangri-La at the Shard Hotel Reveals Too Much


London's Shard building is the tallest skyscraper in the UK, and floors 34 through 52 comprise a luxury resort hotel called Shangri-La. The high-altitude rooms, with their floor-to-ceiling windows, offer guests spectacular views of London and the surrounding countryside.


But a design flaw makes some of those views even more spectacular than intended. The building's shape, combined with the windows' tendency to act like mirrors at night, make some of the guest rooms and bathrooms visible to guests in other rooms. The hotel says it offers window-covering blinds to people who want privacy, but visitors have complained that the hotel did not warn them that without the blinds, their bathroom activities would be visible to others.

The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt
The Bent Pyramid, Dahshur, Egypt by Elias Rovielo (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Bent Pyramid Took an Unexpected Turn

Dahshur, Egypt

Egypt's Bent Pyramid dates back to when pyramid-building was still new, cutting-edge technology, and engineers hadn't worked out all the bugs. The lower part of the pyramid angles inward at 54 degrees until roughly two-thirds of the way up when the angle abruptly switches to 43 degrees. Archaeologists think this was because the builders realized a 54-degree pyramid would be too heavy to support its own weight. Today the Bent Pyramid is considered an important step toward the development of the smooth-sided pyramids Egypt is best known for today.

Lake Peigneur
Lake Peigneur by Ryan Cheung (CC BY-NC-ND)

Lake Peigneur


Once upon a time, Lake Peigneur was a shallow freshwater lake in southern Louisiana — around ten feet at its deepest point, until a drilling accident transformed it into a 200-foot-deep saltwater lake.


The original lake was over an underground salt mine. On November 21, 1980, a team from a Texaco oil rig did some exploratory drilling in the lake. They knew a salt mine was nearby but didn’t realize they had the wrong mapping coordinates until they drilled through the mine’s roof and created a massive whirlpool that swallowed up the drilling platform (and a nearby one) along with boats, trees, and acres of terrain. Luckily, the miners on duty escaped the flooded mine shaft before they drowned. Once the lake drained into the mine, a canal connected to the lake reversed course and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico flooded into the drained lake bed.