The continuing saga of Milstein Hall’s nonstructural failure


Cornell seems determined to create a series of building disasters on the entire north side of its historic arts quad. I’ve been discussing the problematic 100% schematic design proposal for a Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall recently. Also in the news lately is a lawsuit filed by Cornell against I.M. Pei’s new addition to the Johnson Museum. And Milstein Hall continues to self-destruct in both predictable and unexpected ways. The following videos describe a recent failure of the retaining wall and glass guard rail adjacent to Milstein Hall’s loading dock, as well as another leak in the green roof directly over the design studios.

The glass guard rail and retaining wall failure may have resulted from an inattention to the redesign of Milstein Hall when an underground parking structure was removed from the project as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. What was to be an ordinary reinforced concrete wall supporting the parking structure seems to have transformed into a retaining wall when the underground structure was canceled and replaced by soil, which exerts a lateral pressure, especially when saturated with water. Perhaps, thinking that someday the parking structure would be built, the wall was left in place, but without adequate attention paid to its new structural role. Water easily migrated through the construction joint between the building and the retaining wall, corroding reinforcement that for some reason connected the two structures. The detailing of the glass guard rail, as shown in this unedited construction video from August, 2011, also seems to help water get into the concrete wall by acting like a lever when subjected to horizontal loading, allowing small cracks to open up between the concrete wall and the metal channel which holds the glass in place.

The leak in Milstein Hall’s green roof is at least the third roof leaking incident since the building opened a few years ago. Students noticed water dripping on their desks in the vicinity of one of Milstein Hall’s many skylights; a large section of the green roof was subsequently removed so that the leak could be identified and repaired.

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