Atria and mezzanines: Rand Hall’s latest Code fiction

[Updated Oct. 8, 2018: I just made a video based on the blog post below. Also, I’ve removed two of the six mezzanine “issues” I had initially written about: first, the 200-foot limit for exit access travel within the atrium doesn’t prevent a different path of exit access travel from being compliant, since only one of the two egress paths (the shortest) defines the exit access travel distance; second, while I still think that the area of the so-called mezzanine at the roof level is greater than half of the area of the atrium below, it’s too hard for me to definitively measure such floor area to be absolutely sure. There is the additional issue that the open-air roof gallery is not exactly “sprinklered,” so it’s unclear if it’s area should be 1/3 or 1/2 of the room it is in. In any case, there are still four problems with the roof-top mezzanine assumption being argued by Cornell and the City of Ithaca, any one of which would render the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library scheme noncompliant. These four remaining problems are explained below, and in the video.]


I received an email yesterday from the Director of Code Enforcement for the City of Ithaca Building Division claiming that Cornell’s proposal for a fifth-floor roof gallery—above the Fine Arts Library now being constructed in Rand Hall—was actually a mezzanine within the atrium below. This is important since a 5-story building would be absolutely noncompliant, whereas a 4-story building (with mezzanine)—while still egregious—is supported by numerous Code variances that Cornell has obtained over the years. The Building Division Director wrote: “The roof top gallery must meet the code requirements for a mezzanine otherwise the building is non-compliant. I have discussed this issue with the design team several times and have been assured that it will be sized so that it does meet the code requirements for a mezzanine. The sizing of the roof top area must include the permanently enclosed space at that level and all the open area that can be occupied. I do not believe that the code requires the mezzanine to be open to the atrium because the mezzanine has two exits.”

He then quoted a portion of the 2015 NYS Building Code (based on the 2015 International Building Code, or IBC) which seems to support his argument: “Exception 2. A mezzanine having two or more exits or access to exits is not required to be open to the room in which the mezzanine is located.”

In response, I replied as follows (where all references to the Code can be found here):

You have quoted only part of the mezzanine requirements, which state that a mezzanine need not be open to the room in which the mezzanine is located if it meets certain criteria (having at least 2 exits). However, there are six other criteria for qualifying as a mezzanine that the roof gallery does not meet. If even one of the following six criteria is not met, then the building, as designed, is noncompliant.

1. The definition of a mezzanine in Chapter 2 of the 2015 IBC states that a mezzanine is “an intermediate level or levels between the floor and ceiling of any story and in accordance with Section 505.” Clearly, the open roof gallery is not between a floor and a ceiling of any space, since there is no ceiling above it. Therefore, it is not a mezzanine.

2. The definition of an atrium in Chapter 2 of the 2015 IBC states that an atrium must be “closed at the top.” Therefore, it is impossible to include an open-air roof gallery as part of an atrium, since the atrium, in that case, would not be “closed at the top.”

3. Section 505 states that a mezzanine must be “in” the room for which it is so designated, not “on top of” the room, as is the case with the roof gallery. Specifically, Section 505.2.1 states: “The aggregate area of a mezzanine or mezzanines within a room shall be not greater than one-third [can be increased to one-half with sprinklers] of the floor area of that room or space in which they are located.” [emphasis added]. This section twice reiterates that the mezzanine must be “within” or “in” the room or space. This is not just a figure of speech, but is deliberate and important. Mezzanines are allowed to have certain fire safety benefits, unlike ordinary stories, precisely because they are “in” another room, where occupants of the mezzanine are more aware of any fires that may originate in that room, since the mezzanine has what used to be called a “common atmosphere” with the room in which it is located. Being “in” the room is therefore integral to the very essence of a mezzanine, whether or not the “opening” between the mezzanine and the room it is in has been closed off per the exception; the advantages of being “in” the room still apply. It is improper to ignore that part of the definition, and just look at the requirements for maximum area. If one used only the logic of maximum area, then any space, say a third-floor office, could be considered a mezzanine of a larger second-floor space that happened to be below it, even if there were no logical connections between the two spaces, but only a vertical adjacency.

4. It is also problematic to even consider that an atrium can have a mezzanine within it, since atriums are just “openings connecting two or more stories … which are closed at the top and not defined as a mall. Stories, as used in this definition, do not include balconies within assembly groups or mezzanines that comply with Section 505.” What this definition refers to when it states that mezzanines do not count as stories is not a mezzanine within the atrium (which would make no sense), but rather a mezzanine adjacent to the atrium, i.e., within a story surrounding the atrium opening. Only a conventional room or space can have a mezzanine. An atrium is not a conventional room or space, but rather is defined as an “opening” adjacent to such rooms or spaces. Once “mezzanine” floor area is inserted into an atrium, that floor area is, by definition, no longer an opening between stories, and so cannot be part of the atrium. Rather, it would be part of the adjacent stories that surround the atrium.

[Updated Oct. 8, 2018: Issues #5 and #6 are no longer applicable, for the reasons explained in the update note at the top of the blog post.] 5. Even if the roof gallery were considered as a mezzanine within the atrium, it still would be noncompliant, since Section 404.9.3 of the 2015 IBC limits the “portion of the total permitted exit access travel distance that occurs within the atrium” to no more than 200 feet. If the gallery is considered as a mezzanine within the atrium, then the exit access travel distance within the atrium, measured from the most remote point of the roof gallery, and following the atrium exit access stair “B” all the way down to the 2nd-floor exit, would be far greater than the 200-foot limit for exit access travel distance “that occurs within the atrium.”

6. The total area of the enclosed and open occupied spaces at the roof level (what is being called a mezzanine) is approximately 2,275 square feet; whereas the floor area of the atrium (measured at the 2nd floor) is approximately 4,335 square feet. Therefore, the so-called mezzanine exceeds the allowable area, based on the atrium floor area.

You correctly state that the building is noncompliant if the roof-top gallery, including all enclosed and occupied open spaces on the roof, does not qualify as a mezzanine. I think it is clear that—for the 6 reasons given above—the roof-top occupied spaces cannot be considered as a mezzanine. Therefore, the building is noncompliant.

Please reconsider your preliminary Code interpretation and let Cornell and their architects know that their notion of a roof-top mezzanine cannot be logically sustained.


I’m scheduled to undergo a robot-assisted radical prostatectomy on Aug. 29, 2018. Scary shit, especially given the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds such operations—and not just the operation itself, but also the underlying rationale for even getting tested in the first place.1

Robot-assisted prostate cancer surgery

Nevertheless, I’m hoping for the best, and finding comfort in the brilliant lyrics of Donald Fagan, whose “song oozes with cynicism for futures that never came to pass,”2 and so seems completely appropriate in this context: “A just machine to make big decisions/Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision/We’ll be clean when their work is done/We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young…”3

1 Richard Ablin, “The Great Prostate Mistake, ” NY Times, March 9, 2010.

2 Sief, “What a beautiful world this will be,” Futures Words, May 15, 2012.

3 Donald Fagan, “I.G.Y.,” The Nightfly, released October 1, 1982.

New Rand Hall code compliance drawings raise additional safety issues

Without the Code variances that have been granted, Cornell’s Rand Hall Fine Arts Library, as a Type V-B building with A-3 occupancy, would be limited to two stories; as it is, the current proposal (including the anticipated roof-top pavilions) is for a five-story building. The proposal, without the variances, would also greatly exceed the allowable per-floor area permitted by the Code, owing to its attachment, without any fire wall separation, to Milstein and Sibley Halls.

Not only does the current proposal exceed the height limits granted by prior variances, but the variances themselves do not even appear to apply to the current proposal at all, since the prior variances were for a 3- or 4-story library, not a 5-story library. This is a classic bait-and-switch move, entirely unjustified by any fire science rationale.

I have already written extensively about the flawed logic underlying these Code variances and also underlying the Fine Arts Library proposals themselves, so I won’t repeat those arguments.

What I will comment upon are the new (for me) Code analysis drawings supplied by the architects that are now available in the Architecture, Art, and Planning Dean’s Office, based upon which a building permit was granted.

There are at least five serious Code violations that I have noticed in these new drawings:

1. The art gallery will become a fifth story as soon as even temporary pavilions are constructed. As such, these pavilions would not be permitted under the Code, even given the already egregious assumptions made about Code compliance for the proposed 4-story building. Because these pavilions are not shown in the drawings, any such construction will require a new building permit, even if the pavilions are only temporary. The pavilions will not be compliant if the Code is followed, since an A-3 assembly space (art gallery with pavilions) is not permitted above the third floor of a sprinklered Type II-B building, and certainly not on the fifth floor.

2. The entire egress strategy for the building, based on having unenclosed interior exit stairs in the atrium, is flawed, to the extent that it is based on 2015 IBC Section 1023.2, exception 2. This section allows interior exit stairways to forgo construction of otherwise required fire-barrier enclosures if they are within an atrium enclosed per 2015 IBC Section 404.6.

However, 2015 IBC Section 404.6 requires the atrium to be separated from adjacent spaces (not only adjacent “stories” but any adjacent “spaces”) by a 1-hour horizontal assembly (and/or fire barrier). There is an occupied space above the atrium (the roof-top art gallery) and yet a 1-hour fire-rated horizontal assembly is not provided that would separate the atrium from the art gallery above. In fact, there are even roof hatches designed to pop open in the event of fire, between the art gallery and the atrium, a strategy which completely violates both the spirit and letter of this Code requirement. Since the requirements of Section 404.6 are not met, having unenclosed interior exit stairways in the atrium is not permitted (and, of course, the atrium itself is noncompliant).

3. Along those lines, the architect’s Code drawings incorrectly state that the second-floor slab provides a non-required 1-hour horizontal fire barrier as per variance 2015-0432. First, there is no such thing as a horizontal fire barrier (it would be called a horizontal assembly). Second, this 1-hour fire rating is not discretionary, but is absolutely required, in order to separate the first floor occupancy from the atrium above. It does not provide “extra” fire safety beyond Code requirements, as is implied.

4. The atrium is improperly labeled; it is drawn as if it consisted of the entire space within the exterior walls of Rand Hall, above the first floor and excluding the “bump” on the southern side. In fact, the atrium consists only of an “opening connecting two or more stories” and not the stories themselves. Therefore, all the stack floor areas are not part of the atrium itself, but are simply stories, adjacent to the atrium, for which atrium smoke calculations must be made. This means that the justification for the roof-top mezzanine is flawed, since it is based on a calculation that its area is no greater than 1/2 the area of the “atrium” it is in. But the mezzanine as drawn is not “in” the atrium; only the stair to the mezzanine is conceivably in the atrium, while the rest of the mezzanine is directly over the stack floors and the mechanical room serving Milstein Hall. It therefore does not qualify as a mezzanine, but would be considered a fifth story.

5. Glazed openings in Stairway A appear to be too close to glazed openings in the southern wall of Rand Hall (unless this glass has a sufficient fire-rating, which is not indicated in the drawings I have examined). Per 2015 IBC Section 1023.7: “Where nonrated walls or unprotected openings enclose the exterior of the stairway or ramps and the walls or openings are exposed by other parts of the building at an angle of less than 180 degrees, the building exterior walls within 10 feet horizontally of a nonrated wall or unprotected opening shall have a fire-resistive rating of not less than 1 hour. Openings within such exterior walls shall be protected by opening protectives having a fire protection rating of not less than 3/4 hour. This construction shall extend vertically from the ground to a point 10 feet above the topmost landing of the stairway or ramp, or to the roof line, whichever is lower.”

[Update Aug 26, 2018: Correction made to the statement in the second paragraph contending that prior Code variances were for a 3-story building. In fact, Cornell’s third, 2016, variance was for a 4-story building, although its logic was entirely flawed. Since the current proposal, purported to be for a 4-story building, is actually for a 5-story building, the argument I am making—that prior variances do not apply to the current proposal—still stands.]


Harry Chapin was, briefly in the early 1960s, an architecture student at Cornell University. Thankfully, that career choice short-circuited and, after several other initiatives (including an Academy Award-nominated boxing documentary that he wrote and directed in 1968), he ended up as a rather successful singer-songwriter in the 1970s. I arranged and recorded this version of his hit song from 1972, “Taxi,” at home in Ithaca, NY.

I actually went to see Chapin play a benefit concert at Cornell, when I was an architecture student there, perhaps around 1973 or 1974. He was an excellent performer and it was a memorable concert which, in addition to Taxi, included a song he wrote when he was a student at Cornell, about taking the Greyhound bus back to NYC: “Take the Greyhound/ It’s a dog of a way to get around/ Take the Greyhound/ It’s a dog gone easy way to get you down.” If my memory serves me well, the benefit event also featured Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.

More of my covers, as well as original songs, can be found here.

New Rand Hall windows invite bird collisions

According to the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library’s June 18 to June 29, 2018 construction activity highlights and project update: “A full mock up window has been installed on the northern facade. It can be viewed from the sidewalk on University Avenue.”

Rand Hall’s highly reflective trial window appears as an opening to sky and trees, inviting bird collisions.

Based on the trial window, shown in the image above, it seems likely that these highly-reflective windows will be problematic for birds: the windows appear (to the birds) as openings to trees and sky, thereby inviting collisions. There are better bird-safe glazing techniques that are widely known, for example using patterns on the glass that mimic the multi-pane steel-framed “factory” windows that were recently removed. For more information, see the American Bird Conservancy website.

[Update: July 9, 2018] Here’s another image of the same highly-reflective window.

Another image of Rand Hall’s highly-reflective glazing.

[Updated Oct. 16, 2018: The image below shows how it looked on Oct. 8, 2018, with a few more windows installed.]

View on Oct. 8, 2018 (photo by Jonathan Ochshorn)

Additional writings and blog posts on the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library project are linked here.

What LEED Gold Certification Gets You

I just read an article in the May 2018 ASHRAE JOURNAL about Discover Elementary School in Arlington, Va. designed by VMDO Architects; it is currently the largest zero energy elementary school built in the US. It’s interesting to compare its size, cost, and “sustainable” qualities with Cornell’s LEED gold-certified Milstein Hall, the architecture building designed by OMA and Rem Koolhaas. Both are two-story academic buildings.

  Size (sq. ft.) Cost ($ millions) OFF-SITE Energy USED
Discover 97,000 32.3 None
Milstein 50,000 60+ Lots

So, in a nutshell, Milstein Hall is half the size, twice the cost,* and barely meets minimum ASHRAE energy standards,** while the Arlington school actually returns energy to the grid.

Aerial views of the Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA (top) and Milstein Hall at Cornell University (bottom)

*To be clear, the Arlington school is half the cost and twice the size; in other words, its cost per square foot is approximately 25% that of Milstein Hall.

**Cornell’s stated goal (see my video) since 2008 is for new buildings “to use 30% less energy than current energy standards and strive towards 50% less energy.” Milstein Hall’s energy model projects a whopping 2% energy reduction compared to this minimum standard.

Handrail problem in Milstein Hall

Milstein Hall, the architecture facility at Cornell designed by OMA and Rem Koolhaas, has a “growing” handrail problem: the vines intended to cover the exterior egress stairway have penetrated the metal grid on which they’re supported, and have rendered the handrail noncompliant.

Vines intended to cover the exterior egress stair for Milstein Hall have penetrated inside the structure and rendered the handrail noncompliant (photo by J. Ochshorn, May 28, 2018)

Handrails must be continuous; the NYS Building Code has this advice: “Handrail gripping surfaces shall be continuous, without interruption by newel posts or other obstructions.”

You Can Close Your Eyes: New Cover

I recorded James Taylor’s 1971 classic, “You Can Close Your Eyes” and made a quick video using the new Final Cut Pro video editing software that I got with my new iMac.


Between writing and recording new songs, I’ve been recording covers that were somehow meaningful to me, in chronological order starting with 1963’s Surfer Girl (Beach Boys). All my music, with links to additional videos, can be found here.

I saw James Taylor at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester during my senior year in high school, in 1970. I had already been playing guitar for about 6 years; seeing him perform solo (just voice and guitar) was unforgettable and I’ve been a fan ever since. “You Can Close Your Eyes” came out the following year and became one of my favorites. Beginning about 20 years after that, I starting singing it as a bedtime lullaby for my children.

I also finally created a video for my prior original song, If I Could Sing Like That.