Upskirting at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

I asked about the upskirting potential of the Fine Arts Library at Cornell University before it opened, and was told that the issue had been carefully studied and that the architects insisted that the floor grating could not be seen through. Well, reality has a nasty habit of correcting such obvious falsehoods, as you can see in this video I took of myself in February 2020.

Elvis Costello cover: Alison

I’m up to 1977 in my chronological quest to record songs that were influential in my musical development. The rule I’ve set for myself is that I can only record one song by any given artist or group, and only one song for each year. This particular choice has a rather nasty lyric, but—what can I say—I’m a sucker for these rock ballads.

Links to all my music can be found here.

Status report on code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

Having not heard back from the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes about appealing their ruling about my complaint concerning code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University, I sent this email to Brian Tollisen, Deputy Director of the New York State Division of Building Standards & Codes, on December 3, 2019:

It’s been a month since our last conversation in which you said that a “response letter” was being finished up and would be sent to me. We discussed waiting for this letter to be sent, and resolving the question of whether I had standing, before I submitted a formal appeal to the Syracuse Regional Office.

Please let me know when this response letter will be completed and whether your “legal people” have determined if I have standing to bring a complaint.

It has been eight months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and six months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints. I have shown in each of these nine instances how specific sections of the New York State Building Code have been violated. Not even one specific allegation that I have made has been challenged with a coherent counter-argument. In fact, James Harding of the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes has confirmed that my reasoning in Violation #1 (Unenclosed egress stair in the atrium) and Violation #4 (Lack of 1-hour fire-rated construction between the atrium and roof-top spaces) is correct.  

In my view, the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University is unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason,  I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660), and await your response letter in order to pursue this appeal.

[Update Dec. 4, 2019: I spoke to Brian Tollisen, at his suggestion, later on Dec. 3, 2019. He said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened” and that they were not “leaving any stone unturned.” He also said that their work was close to being done, so that I should expect to hear from them in the near future. We’ll see.]

All my writings about the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library are linked from this webpage.

Don’t Take Me Alive

Well, I’m up to 1976 in my series of musical covers: that means The Royal Scam album by Steely Dan, from which I’ve selected “Don’t Take Me Alive.” I  needed to lower the key 5 semitones, since I don’t have Donald Fagen’s rock ‘n’ roll voice, and I attempted to “interpret” the amazing guitar work of Larry Carlton on keyboards—really an impossible task. I recorded the song live—i.e., keyboards and vocals simultaneously—after recording a drum track using Logic Pro X. After that, I added a bass line (played on my MIDI keyboard) and some background vocals. That’s it. The video was created using Final Cut Pro; the introductory police scene is taken from a YouTube video of the Kalamazoo police surrounding a condemned building. I found the police sirens from another generic YouTube video created for that purpose. Links to all my music videos are here.


Cornell Daily Sun reports on dysfunctionality of Mui Ho Fine Arts Library

An article in the Cornell Daily Sun reports on the obvious: that the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library that was recently completed in Rand Hall at Cornell University is, in many ways, dysfunctional. The Sun mentioned the architect’s specification of see-through steel grating for all stack-level floors. I have written previously about the fire-safety implications of such floor construction, but the Sun article focuses on the ability of people to look up through the gratings at women wearing dresses. (I’m mentioned in the Sun article as Prof. “Oschorn.”)

Transparent grated floors in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University. Photo by J. Ochshorn.

All of my writings about the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Reforming Cornell’s architecture curriculum: a manifesto

Architecture students, as future professionals, need real guidance on how to make zero-carbon (aka sustainable) buildings. This needs to be implemented primarily through Environmental Systems courses, but also—importantly—through Design Studio courses. My feeling is that the current design sequence at Cornell adequately addresses virtually none of the important architectural issues discussed within the Environmental Systems/Construction/Structures sequences in a coherent and systematic manner, focusing instead on design as a means of formal expression.* This is increasingly anachronistic, as the planet spirals into some sort of climate-change catastrophe. Michael Pollen famously summarized his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One could summarize viable strategies for sustainable building design, per Joseph Lstiburek, in a similarly concise manner: “Use lots of insulation, airtight construction, controlled ventilation, and not a lot of glass.” Similarly concise words of wisdom could certainly be found for life safety, structural design, and construction. But such sage advice needs to be reinforced within all the design studios (and not just one “sustainable” or “integrative” studio). Of course, this poses a threat to the way we foster design consciousness in our students.

So be it. It’s the only way I know of to make a curriculum that takes issues of human and environmental well-being—including global warming—seriously.

* To the objection that our design studios actually deal with issues affecting human and environmental well-being, I offer this passage from Veblen: “The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men—and women perhaps even in a higher degree—abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure,—much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense.”
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1912—originally published 1899), 176–77. (Emphasis added.)

Update on Mui Ho Fine Arts Library Code Issues

[See Dec. 3, 2019 update here] This is an update on fire- and life-safety issues in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University. Links to all my writings about the library project can be found here.

On September 26, 2019, I was notified by the Oversight Unit of the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC) that my complaint about fire- and life-safety violations in the new Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University was “closed with prejudice.” Not a single substantive reason was provided, nor were any of the arguments I made mentioned, let alone refuted. My next step is to appeal these determinations with the Regional Syracuse Review Board, assuming that they waive the $500 filing fee.

For the record, here is the letter I received from the DBSC:

Sept. 26, 2019

Dear Mr. Ochshorn,

Thank you for contacting the NYS, Department of State, Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC), Oversight Unit. The DBSC is authorized by Part 1208, Section 1208-6 of Title 19 NYCRR to investigate complaints against a Code Enforcement Official (CEO) or Building Safety Inspector (BSI), alleging a failure to uphold his or her code enforcement duties as described in Section 1208-6.2 (b)(c).

After review of the complaint and a preliminary investigation of the allegations stated against Mr. Michael Niechwiadowicz, it has been determined that Complaint Case Number 4660 is closed with prejudice.

This determination is based on the review of the information you provided, documentation submitted by the City of Ithaca Building Department as well as reviews of plans and correspondence provided by the City of Ithaca Building Department, interviews and correspondence with Mr. Niechwiadowicz, the Designers of Record and site visits by the Division of Building Standards and Codes Staff.

After considering all the information provided, it has been determined that the allegations against Mr. Niechwiadowicz “not upholding his code enforcement duties” are not supported by the evidence. It does appear, for all intents and purposes, that there is a disagreement between you and Mr. Niechwiadowicz regarding the “intent” of certain technical aspects of the ICC Building Code. Mr. Niechwiadowicz is the representative of the City of Ithaca who is the “Authority Having Jurisdiction” (AHJ) for the enforcement of the Uniform Code as it applies to this project.

The Uniform Code provides for the process to Appeal a determination by the AHJ through Regional Review Boards located throughout the state. If you choose to appeal the City of Ithaca’s determination, please contact James King at our Syracuse Regional Office at 315-428-4434. Further, if you have any questions or concerns regarding this determination, please do not hesitate to contact the DBSC Oversight Unit.


Gary A. Traver
Assistant Director
Oversight Unit, DBSC [Division of Building Standards and Codes, New York Department of State]

Sibley Hall column misalignment follow-up

This is a follow-up to my April 2, 2018 blog post on column misalignment in E. Sibley Hall, Cornell University. As a result of that blog post (contained in an email to relevant parties), a new study was commissioned. One year later, the report was submitted to Cornell, but I was not permitted to see it. Finally, after meetings and email communication, the Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning agreed to make the report accessible to me, and I read it today in the Dean’s Office. Following is an edited version of my email response to that report, sent to all relevant parties.

I have reviewed the “Global Stability Study: Sibley Hall, Cornell University” prepared by Ryan Biggs Clark Davis Engineering & Surveying (dated April 23, 2019) and, in particular, the portion of the report that deals with column misalignment in E. Sibley Hall. In general terms, the report supports my observations from April 2, 2018, but there are several problems with the report that need to be addressed. In particular, their structural analysis appears to assume rigid joints between wooden roof elements rather than pinned joints, and ignores the role played by the steel girder supporting the attic joists.

The report has two key findings:

  • The report notes that “tie rods (installed in 2015) provide tension resistance at the skylight openings but do not provide resistance in compression. Under additional load, due to snow or other loading, additional inward deflection of the columns is likely.” [Executive Summary, p. iii]
  • The report notes that “at the third floor, many of the interior columns are not plumb. … In general, the tops of the columns lean toward the center of the building.” [p. 12]

However, the structural model shown in their Appendix C, in particular drawing SK-4, does not accurately represent the 3-dimensional nature of the actual structure. Specifically, joints between wooden elements are assumed to be rigidly connected, rather than pinned, and there is no mention of the steel girder holding up the attic joists. As I stated in my April 2, 2018 email, “the inward bowing of the steel girders over the misaligned columns on the third floor of E. Sibley … indicates that these girders—designed to transfer the gravity loads of the roof structure to the columns—are now also acting as parabolic tension chains, resisting the further inward movement of the columns and attic joists. Clearly, these girders were not intended to act in this manner, and there has been no mention, in either the Assessment report or in Silman’s structural drawings, of this potentially dangerous condition.”

In other words, the latest structural analysis in the April 2019 report continues to misunderstand the structural behavior of the E. Sibley roof, and has modeled the structure in a way (i.e., with rigid joints for wood elements) that underestimates the danger inherent in the structure, while completely missing the role played by the steel girder in holding this unintended “mechanism” together. The report also notes that the new tension cables are slack and notes that they don’t provide “resistance in compression,” but somehow does not draw any conclusions about the fact that the engineering assumptions that led to the specification of these cables—made by Silman Associates—were flawed.

Rigid connections are extremely difficult to achieve in wooden construction, especially where there are no steel gusset plates or other types of bolted or riveted connecting devices. It seems unreasonable (and unsafe) to make such assumptions for the ordinary wooden roof structure in E. Sibley Hall. Furthermore, the assumption of rigid joints is not even explicitly stated in the report; only the curvature (caused by internal bending) in the wooden roof elements modeled in Figure 4 gives us any clue as to the underlying assumptions used.

One further comment on the cracks noticed in E. Sibley Hall (especially in Room 144 ES). The report describes “cosmetic cracks noted in East Sibley and the diagonal crack in Room 144 of East Sibley” and suggests that they “may be associated to minor movements or vibrations associated with the construction of Milstein…” [p. 19]. The report fails to note the underpinning of the Sibley foundations during the construction of Milstein Hall which effectively “lifted” the masonry structure on top of an unstable new foundation wall (unstable since it had not yet been backfilled or tied back). This condition undoubtedly contributed to the problem of wall movement. Here’s what I wrote in my Milstein Critique in 2013: “While no officially-sanctioned study of the causes of these masonry cracks has been made public, one plausible explanation is that inadequately-braced foundations, together with excessive vibrations from caisson drilling, contributed to the cracking (Figures 5 and 6). The century-old foundations of East Sibley Hall were underpinned by creating a new reinforced concrete foundation wall under the existing shallow foundation. However, no tiebacks were used to prevent lateral movement of this new wall, which runs in an east-west direction. Some combination of lateral thrust originating in the brick arches cut into the perpendicular (north-south) walls and from the mansard roof above, along with vibrations from the drilling of caissons immediately adjacent to this new wall, may have triggered these substantial cracks in the perpendicular masonry walls of E. Sibley Hall. That is, the entire north wall of Sibley Hall appears to have moved laterally towards the excavated Milstein Hall construction site, because (1) the arches in Sibley Hall already provided a discontinuity—a line of weakness—in the perpendicular bracing walls; (2) a horizontal force (thrust) was already present in those walls due to the action of the arches themselves as well as the geometry of the Mansard roof above; (3) the vibration of the masonry structure by caisson drilling facilitated the cracking of relatively weak brick mortar joints; and (4) the laterally-unbraced underpinned foundation wall was able to rotate on its footing since no horizontal tie-backs were provided.”

I believe that Ryan-Biggs misunderstood the problems with the E. Sibley structure in their earlier “Building Envelope and Structural Conditions Assessment” from 2009, and that their current report is still inadequate. It would have been useful, in any case, to have provided them with my own analysis. 

Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin

I wrote a chapter for a book edited by some of my Fulbright colleagues who were in China with me in 2016. The book is called Narrative Inquiries from Fulbright Lecturers in China: Cross-Cultural Connections in Higher Education, and my chapter, which you can read online here, is called “Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin.”

I make a map showing directions to the Tianjin Museum, the German Bakery, the Mighty Deli, and the Zhou Enlai Memorial — we ended up getting to only the Bakery and the Memorial on Sept. 25, 2016