Dragon Day 2014

This year’s Dragon Day parade was scheduled a bit later than usual, owing to the new spring semester calendar at Cornell. Actually, it’s a good thing it was later than usual, as our mid-March weather was anything but springlike. Here’s my video documentation of the event:


Kleinman on Milstein Hall’s “so-called” fire safety issues

Readers of AN are no doubt wondering just how Cornell University managed to receive a building permit and a certificate of occupancy for Milstein Hall, what with its alleged monstrous conditions: an auditorium with only one means of egress, no properly rated area separations between connecting buildings, neglect of ADA requirements, and gross indifference to energy consumption. — Kent Kleinman

In a letter to the editor of The Architect’s Newspaper dated Feb. 11, 2014 (and echoing  a Building Safety and Code Compliance Q&A posted in November of 2013), Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning Dean Kent Kleinman cites “alleged monstrous conditions” in Milstein Hall, referring to “an online interview with Cornell Professor Jonathan Ochshorn.” Unsuspecting readers must be wondering, he writes rhetorically, how such a building could have received a building permit and a certificate of occupancy if it really were so bad. In fact, the question of how Milstein Hall received a building permit remains a puzzle to this day: after the permit was filed on May 18, 2007, the “issued-for-construction” working drawings showed (1) a large critique room designed for hundreds of occupants with only a single legal means of egress; (2) numerous noncompliant protruding objects (primarily, but not exclusively sloped framing elements) in the egress path; and (3) a noncompliant fire barrier separating Milstein from adjacent Sibley Hall. A few years later, a noncompliant library proposal for adjacent Rand Hall was similarly given a building permit and constructed. All of these instances of noncompliance were not only permitted by the City of Ithaca, but were actually built by Cornell and occupied by Cornell students, staff, and faculty.

Therefore, with the exception of the auditorium (more on that later), Kleinman’s claim that “the auditorium, fire separations, and accessibility were built in compliance with ADA and other codes and to the highest professional standards” is patently false. But first, a few words on the Milstein Hall auditorium that, according to Kleinman, has “not one but four exits.” I personally believe that the auditorium is Code-compliant, and I have never stated otherwise. I certainly did not appeal this alleged issue to any State Code Review Board. Kleinman has probably read something about the auditorium’s alleged deficiencies in The Architect’s Newspaper article he cites, and simply assumed that the false claim originated with me. As a scholar at a major research university, he should check his facts before implying that such “shocking claims” were made by a member of his faculty. However, while we’re on the subject of the Milstein Hall auditorium, it should be pointed out that Kleinman is not only careless in his fact-checking, but he is also wrong about the number of exits in the auditorium, incorrectly assuming that since there are four doors, there must be four exits.

The space in Milstein Hall with deficient exits that I actually complained about was not the auditorium, but the “crit room” under Milstein’s reinforced concrete dome. Photos were proudly published by Cornell AAP showing hundreds of people celebrating Milstein Hall in that very space, even though it only has a single legal means of egress.

Photo published by Cornell AAP under the headline: "AAP buzzes as hundreds of alumni, students, and faculty gather during Celebrate Milstein Hall," March 15, 2012

And it’s not as if Kleinman and others were not aware that the space had serious egress problems. I wrote to Dean Kleinman on March 5, 2012 (and copied my email to the Milstein Hall Project Manager at Cornell and the City of Ithaca Building Department among others) expressing my concern “that events are being planned ‘under the Milstein Hall dome’ and in other spaces in Sibley Hall that may involve more than 49 occupants… Two exits separated by a minimum Code-specified distance are required in such cases, and neither the Milstein dome crit space nor room 261 E. Sibley Hall meet those standards. I have already raised this concern about the Milstein dome with [Milstein Project Manager] Gary Wilhelm and [Assistant Dean] Peter Turner (email dated 9/30/11, copied to [acting Building Commissioner] Mike Niechwiadowicz)… Wilhelm explained to me that a second remote exit from the dome crit space is actually further down the corridor outside the dome itself — an explanation that does not satisfy the egress requirements for fire safety in the NY State Building Code (Wilhelm’s interpretation is explicitly contradicted by a ‘technical opinion’ requested from the International Code Council which I have attached; this opinion strongly confirms my judgment that the dome space cannot legally support occupation by more than 49 people… Cornell, through the ILR school, maintains an excellent web site devoted to the Triangle Factory Fire of March 25, 1911 (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/), a disaster that was caused, in part, by a cynical and dangerous attitude toward egress. One would think that over 100 years later, the lessons of that tragedy would resonate more clearly in the actions taken within the architecture school.”

The next day, Kleinman responded as follows: “Dear Jonathan, Thank you for your note of concern regarding the occupancy figures for the Milstein Hall dome and parts of Sibley Hall. As before, we take your observations seriously. However, the university and the City of Ithaca building officials, copied on this message, have come to a different conclusion and I have confidence in their competency. I can assure you that, as far as I am aware, there are no cynical attitudes here regarding the importance of providing proper egress for our building occupants. Thank you, Kent K.”

Ultimately, the Capital Region-Syracuse Board of Review agreed with me that the crit room was noncompliant. Six and a half years after a building permit was issued, Cornell is finally being forced to consider options that provide additional exits from that space.

But what about the other issues that I filed with the Review Board on May 28, 2013? In all, there were eight separate “Exhibits,” each describing an alleged Code violation. Exhibit 1 concerned inadequate exits from the crit room, and — as described above — the Review Board supported my contentions and overturned the City of Ithaca’s code ruling that Kleinman had such “confidence” in.

Exhibit 2 described noncompliant protruding objects in the egress paths which present a risk, especially to people with visual handicaps, and are therefore illegal.

Milstein Hall lacked ADA-mandated guards at the sloping curtain wall even after the building was occupied in September, 2011 (left); some, but not all, of these deficiencies were rectified in 2012 (right)

As in Exhibit 1, the Review Board supported my appeal, and reversed the determination of the City of Ithaca Code Enforcement Official. The Review Board also accepted Cornell’s explanation that they had subsequently corrected a number of deficiencies and that therefore, “although in favor of the Petitioner [i.e., me], the building will be in compliance with the Code.” While it is true that Cornell “fixed” many of the more egregious code violations related to protruding objects long after a building permit had been granted, I still believe that the Review Board incorrectly ruled that the building is now in compliance. For example, sloping framing elements at the edge of egress paths in Milstein Hall — exactly comparable to sloping columns in recently-completed Gates Hall at Cornell that were fitted with appropriate and necessary guards — are still without any “cane detection” devices or guards.

Cornell's recently completed Gates Hall provides "cane detection" on sloping columns at the edge of egress paths (left); Milstein Hall still has sloping elements at the edge of egress paths with no such protection (right)

Exhibit 3 described inadequate fire barriers between Milstein and Sibley Halls. The story of these fire barriers is almost too bizarre to recount, but here is a short summary: Cornell and its architects submitted “issued for construction” drawings claiming to have created adequate fire barriers separating Milstein Hall from the adjacent buildings it was attached to (Sibley and Rand Halls). In fact, the fire barriers were not adequate when built, and are not adequate now. After I pointed out to the Milstein Hall Project Manager that the aggregate width of openings in the fire barrier exceeded limits specified in the Building Code, Cornell proposed to install special sprinklers on both sides of several fire-rated glazing panels in order to meet the standards for opening width. But these sprinklers did not meet Code requirements for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the so-called “legacy report” upon which Cornell built its defense of the sprinkler system was no longer active. And even if it had been active, that same report prohibits the sprinkler design that Cornell used in at least three separate ways: it prohibits horizontal mullions in the glazing; it prohibits any combustible material within two inches of the glazing; and it seems to require a 3-foot high “pony wall” below the glazing — none of these conditions are met in the sprinklered fire barrier openings between Milstein and Sibley Halls.

And it gets worse: the sprinklers actually installed (long after the building permit was issued) for the basement and first floor fire barrier openings are only one-sided (i.e., not on both sides of the glazing) in direct violation of the product specifications for use in fire barrier walls. Finally, the alleged fire barrier between Rand and Milstein Hall was never even created — there are still window openings and duct penetrations in the wall separating Milstein from Rand Hall without any protective devices at all.

Rand Hall's alleged fire barrier was never completed: the wall still contains windows and exhaust ducts without any fire-resistive ratings

The Review Board upheld the decision of the City of Ithaca on this matter, but required a submittal from the City on “the testified approvals from the compliance testing lab.” Obviously, since there were no “approvals” from the testing lab to be found, the City of Ithaca was unable to comply with this requirement. Instead, a copy of the legacy report was submitted that was not even applicable, since it was inactive, and that contradicted the City’s own contentions that the opening protectives were compliant. Now, fast forward to a Code Variance Hearing on Nov. 21, 2013, requested by Cornell so that they could build a noncompliant library in adjacent Rand Hall (more on this below): this request for a variance was based, in part, on the the assumption that Rand and Sibley were separated from Milstein Hall by Code-compliant fire barriers. After I provided (once again) evidence that the fire barrier was completely inadequate, the Hearing Board simply granted another Code variance — one that had not even been requested by Cornell — so that opening protectives within the fire barrier would no longer be required!

Exhibit 4 described an improper mezzanine designation. The Review Board upheld the City of Ithaca’s determination that the mezzanine designation was correct. While I disagree with this conclusion, there is, admittedly, a degree of ambiguity in how the Code defines a mezzanine, and so the Review Board’s ruling, in this case, is plausible.

Exhibit 5 described a fundamental problem with Milstein Hall — that it exceeds the floor area allowed by the Code. While the Review Board upheld the City of Ithaca’s determination, I still believe that this ruling covers up some impossibly incoherent Code language contained in Appendix K of the 2002 New York State Building Code, under which Milstein Hall was permitted. This section was unique to New York State, unique to the 2002 iteration of the NYS Code, and it never made sense. In fact, it was subsequently deleted from all later NYS Codes. In other words, under all other known Building Codes (i.e., every Code in recent history, including past and present NYS Codes, including all International Building Codes, and including the 2007 NYS Code that was actually in effect when Milstein Hall was built), Milstein Hall would not be Code-compliant and could not be built, because it exceeds the allowable floor area, not just by a little, but by a factor of more than two.

If you’re wondering why Cornell filed its building permit application for Milstein Hall on May 16, 2007 even though construction didn’t begin until July of 2009 — i.e., more than two years later — correspondence in the Building Department files (see p.71 of Addendum 3 to my “Application for Variance or Appeal“) clearly shows that Cornell was advised that filing before the 2002 Code expired would allow the building to be constructed with only a fire barrier instead of a more difficult, expensive, and design-threatening fire wall required by the 2007 NYS Code. Amazingly, the first set of “issued for construction” working drawings for Milstein Hall in the Building Department files are dated Dec. 5, 2008, more than 1-1/2 years after the permit was filed and long after the 2007 NYS Building Code had already taken effect. But because of the early permit filing, the City of Ithaca allowed Milstein Hall to be designed and built according to the 2002 Code.

The bizarre and incoherent language of Appendix K in the 2002 Code seemed to offer a “loophole” for the construction of Milstein Hall. But even though I continue to believe that the building is noncompliant under that Code, the Review Board ruled otherwise — without providing a consistent and coherent explanation for their position. Email correspondence with Charles Bliss (Department of State, Building Standards and Codes regional representative) shows that the State’s opinion about Appendix K — never actually formalized — was treated as something quite flexible and changeable over time. As a result of the Code Appeal hearing that I initiated, the Review Board ruled that the entire Milstein-Rand-Sibley Hall building must be designed with a single construction type based on Sibley Hall’s wood framing. Clearly, the Review Board believed that Milstein Hall considered alone (i,.e, with its own area and occupancy, but with the governing construction type determined by Sibley Hall) would still be compliant. Only after I pointed out that Milstein Hall, considered alone, exceeded the allowable floor area determined by the Building Code did the NYS Department of State representatives change their opinions about Appendix K, contradicting the prior ruling by the Review Board.

Exhibit 6 described a transparent attempt by Cornell and its architects to circumvent Code sections that would have made it impossible to change the occupancy of studio spaces in Milstein Hall to any “higher-hazard” occupancies, such as large lecture rooms or libraries, in the future. Cornell attempted to do this by giving the studio spaces a “double” occupancy classification that included a higher-hazard designation, even though the Code specifically requires every space to be given an occupancy designation corresponding to the use actually present (and not to some hypothetical future use).

While upholding the City of Ithaca’s ruling, the Review Board actually supported my contention by reminding Cornell “that there is specific requirement from the City of Ithaca Building Department for any changes in occupancy classification or use of this space.” That being the case, I have no idea why their findings supported the City of Ithaca on this matter.

Exhibit 7, like Exhibit 6, actually supports my contention — in this case, that the space in East Sibley Room 261 cannot support an occupancy of 240 people with only a single means of egress — while still upholding the City of Ithaca’s ruling. The Review Board’s requirement that “the posting of the occupant load as stated today needs to be immediately reviewed for the current use and altered as required” validates my position. Yet, even today (Feb. 18, 2014), the posted occupancy has not been changed.

The posted occupancy for Room 261 in East Sibley Hall has still not been changed, as of Feb. 18, 2014, and still permits 240 occupants in a space with only one exit

Cornell (and the City of Ithaca Building Department) have apparently decided that it’s OK to allow 240 occupants in a space with a single exit. Go figure.

Exhibit 8 describes a noncompliant change in occupancy in Rand Hall, where a library replaced studio spaces in violation of the Code. In this case, the Review Board upheld my appeal, ruling that the library was indeed noncompliant. Cornell subsequently filed a variance request which was granted. I have described this variance in detail in a prior blog post.

This summarizes the eight Exhibits that I provided to the State’s Review Board. What does Dean Kleinman say about all this? “The so-called fire safety issues were appealed by Professor Ochshorn to the state code review board last spring. The review board ruled against Ochshorn and upheld the code official’s interpretation in six of them. Of the two issues for which Ochshorn’s appeal was sustained, one has since been granted a variance. For the other, Cornell is still reviewing its options while using the space in the interim for a less demanding occupancy that is satisfactory to the code official.”

Kleinman’s characterization of my Code appeal as dealing with “so-called fire safety issues” is really quite outlandish, and an insult to all Code Officials and fire fighters who struggle with the enormous economic and human costs of fires. Kleinman claims that of the eight issues I raised, only two of them were supported by the Review Board. Even if that were true, designing a building addition containing a dangerous assembly space with only a single exit along with a library that violates one of the most basic requirements of the Code (that all occupancies comply with allowable floor areas and heights) is hardly an inconsequential blunder. These are serious, not just “so-called,” fire safety issues.

But Kleinman’s statement is false. The Review Board ruled explicitly in my favor on three of the eight issues that I raised, not on two, while implicitly supporting my position on two additional issues (Exhibits 6 and 7, as described above). And because the Variance Review Board felt compelled to issue a variance related to my complaint on Exhibit 3 (inadequate fire barriers), one can conclude that, in the final analysis, the arguments that I raised in Exhibit 3 were also validated — otherwise, a variance would not have been needed.

Adding together the Exhibits where my position was explicitly supported by the Review Board (3 in all) and those implicitly supported either by the Review Board (2) or the Variance Board (1), I think it fair to conclude that at least six of the eight issues I raised were judged to have merit.

Milstein Hall at Cornell University, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is an interesting building, in some ways an amazing building, and, by virtually any conceivable objective criterion, a disaster. That something amazing can simultaneously be a disaster is hardly a paradox. In fact, disasters are often amazing, and our amazement often increases proportionally with the range and scope of the disaster.

I will not be criticizing the visual appearance of this building, or making judgments about its subjective, aesthetic merit. I personally find the building interesting, and its underlying formal rationale provocative and compelling. But I am not particularly qualified to render such judgments, and other authorities or connoisseurs of architectural taste may well disagree. What follows, instead, is an objective critique of Milstein Hall, looking at the building in some detail from a series of different points of view, none of which are driven by aesthetic considerations. — Critique of Milstein Hall, Introduction

I stand by my qualified assertion that Milstein Hall — as I wrote in my online Critique and as I reiterated in the podcast that triggered the article in The Architect’s Newspaper to which Dean Kleinman responded — was, and remains, a disaster.

Higher Resolution

I wrote this song after thinking about the advances in technology that have occurred since I was a kid, and how — or whether — these changes made a big difference in the quality of my life. Certainly, some things have become easier (like typing using an editable word processor instead of a manual typewriter) and some things have become newly possible (like distributing this blog post to the entire English-speaking world), but I concluded that, in the final analysis, not much has qualitatively changed. Things have gotten faster, but they’re largely the same old things.

Moore’s Law holds that processing power doubles every two years, while Marx wrote that technology (“machinery”), while mastering the forces of nature, makes man the slave of those forces when in the hands of capital.

So in this song, higher resolution (Moore’s Law) is contrasted with the reality of technological advances under capitalism. The advances are real and significant, as is the damage they inflict on both human and natural “factors” of production.

I use the term “freedom” in this song to describe a fundamental condition of capitalism — that one is free to use one’s own property and to exclude others from it — a condition enforced by state power. Instead of getting seduced by the speed and resolution of technological toys, and by the freedom to buy them and to use them (this is the “siren’s song” I sing about in the chorus), I note that the rich are still getting richer and the poor are still staying poor — that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

You can see my YouTube video (embedded below), download an MP3, or listen to Higher Resolution at a somewhat higher resolution on SoundCloud.

Just a few more notes on the recording and video production:

I recorded the song using Logic Pro 9, playing the “electric piano” live on my midi keyboard. I added bass and drums, and just a bit of organ (also played live on the midi keyboard). Thanks to Kurt for help on the mix.

I shot the video myself, placing my low-resolution Flip camcorder on a tripod, or — for the close-ups — holding it in my outstretched hand. The Red5 Audio RV8 mic with the shockmount that I appear to be singing into is, alas, just an image layered above the video track, courtesy of Photoshop. The photo album I’m looking at at the start of the video is really my old album, with many of my b+w prints, shot with Kodak Verichrome Pan 127 film using a Kodak Hawkeye Flash Fun Camera that I purchased in the early 1960s for $4 with a coupon from the back of a box of Nestlé’s Quik chocolate powder.

Kodak Hawkeye Flash Fun Camera purchased in the early 1960s for $4 with a coupon from the back of a box of Nestlé's Quik chocolate powder.

The image of “New York Children,” asleep in the areaway of a tenement building, is from Jacob Riis’s How the Other half Lives, taken in 1888. Several video clips are captured (fair use) from the internet: Gloria Borger and Wolf Blitzer of CNN are our “talking heads on high-def screens,” debating the tea party’s impact on US public opinion; Trump and Romney pledge their mutual support in a February, 2012 Las Vegas press conference; and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer “goes crazy” in one of many such viral moments.

The entire video was shot after the audio recording was already complete (lip-synched), with one exception: since I wanted to capture the improvised and spontaneous piano instrumental solo and couldn’t adequately duplicate it after the fact, I re-recorded the solo while filming it “live.”

Higher Resolution
words and music by Jonathan Ochshorn (copyright 2013 Ochshorn)

verse 1. i used to take these photographs – twelve small prints per roll
every one felt special to me just like they were made of gold
no one uses film these days – images are cheap
i threw out my old camera – just  one less piece of junk to keep

[chorus] higher resolution greater speed
wonder why you don’t get what you need
freedom’s just a siren’s song
the poor get played while the rich get strong
not so strange when you figure out its aim
the more things change the more they stay the same

verse 2. everyone can read the signs  – nothing is dependable
leaps in productivity just make us more expendable
while talking heads on hi-def screens check out all their tv dimples
primped with cargo blu-ray powder for their pores and pimples  [chorus]

[bridge] sycophants cry “human nature” when we fight against each other
as if, forced to act that way, we really could refuse
this is what your freedom’s good for: to compete against your brother
with every social interaction just a game of win or lose

[instrumental break] [bridge]

verse 3. billions struggle to survive while the rich revel in their vanity
businessmen compete within this organized insanity
there is no new paradigm – not even a change in mood
no revolution no revelation – everyone’s still getting screwed  [chorus]

[chorus 2] higher resolution greater speed
no one’s ever getting what they need
freedom’s just the rich man’s tool
profit is the golden rule
rearrange the purpose of this game
or the more things change the more they’ll stay the same

Production notes:
arranged and produced by J. Ochshorn
recorded at home with Logic Pro software January, 2014
vocals: J. Ochshorn
software instruments played live on midi keyboard (electric piano, organ, drums, bass): J. Ochshorn


I was recently at a department faculty meeting when someone was asked to comment on our first-year design studio program and mentioned that “defamiliarization” was one of its goals or strategies. This was stated in such a matter-of-fact manner that I had to wonder if, perhaps, the goal of defamiliarization has already become so familiar that it no longer has the power to jolt us out of our formulaic habits of perception. Rather, it is precisely the unfamiliar that has become both predictable and formulaic. This is expressed perfectly in Saul Steinberg’s drawing of a National Academy of the Avante-Garde: having institutionalized the unfamiliar, we have nothing left to aim for — except perhaps the familiar (which, for at least the briefest of moments, may serve as the new unfamiliar).

Saul Steinberg cartoon from The Inspector (1973) reprinted in: E.H. Gombrich," The Wit of Saul Steinberg," Art Journal, Winter 1983, p. 380.

Cornell’s request for a code variance is granted

On Nov. 21, 2013, the Syracuse Board of Review granted Cornell’s request for a variance to place a noncompliant library in Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall. I have already described the variance request in great detail elsewhere.

Cornell engaged the services of Tim DeRuyscher of GHD, an “international network of engineers, architects and environmental scientists serving clients in the global markets of water, energy and resources, environment, property and buildings, and transportation,” who made a presentation to the hearing board.

DeRuyscher requested a variance to the floor area and height limits in the New York State Building Code, specifically Sections 503.1 and 504.2, in order to increase the allowable floor area from about 22,500 square feet to 70,000 square feet and in order to permit the library to exceed the second-story limit stipulated in the Code and occupy the third floor of the “Rand Hall” portion of the combined building. The current floor area of the combined building is over 56,000 square feet and so greatly exceeds the 22,500 square feet limit.

Section 503.1 states: “The height and area for buildings of different construction types shall be governed by the intended use of the building and shall not exceed the limits in Table 503 except as modified hereafter. Each part of a building included within the exterior walls or the exterior walls and fire walls where provided shall be permitted to be a separate building.”

Section 504.2 states: “Automatic sprinkler system increase. Where a building is equipped throughout with an approved automatic sprinkler system in accordance with Section 903.3.1.1, the value specified in Table 503 for maximum height is increased by 20 feet (6096 mm) and the maximum number of stories is increased by one. These increases are permitted in addition to the area increase in accordance with Sections 506.2 and 506.3. For Group R buildings equipped throughout with an approved automatic sprinkler system in accordance with Section 903.3.1.2, the value specified in Table 503 for maximum height is increased by 20 feet (6096 mm) and the maximum number of stories is increased by one, but shall not exceed 60 feet (18 288 mm) or four stories, respectively.”

In his presentation, DeRuyscher repeated many of the questionable assumptions that appeared in the actual variance application, and supplied no additional “fire science” evidence that these assumptions were actually valid. The content of the presentation was essentially: “Trust me, I’ve been a paid consultant for many years.”

Some of his questionable assertions were as follows:

1. DeRuyscher stated that concrete floor slabs in Rand Hall provide some fire protection for structural steel beams and girders, even though the bottom flanges of those steel elements are exposed. While this may be true to some degree, the degree of fire resistance is uncertain, and may be no more than 30 minutes or less in any case. Moreover, immediately adjacent and connected to Rand Hall are two buildings (Milstein and Sibley Halls) with absolutely no fire-rated material protecting their wood or steel structural elements. The point of having floor area limits is to control the allowable area of buildings based on both occupancy type as well as construction type and fire resistance of the various building elements, and not to selectively identify a small part of the total combined building that — while still entirely deficient in terms of having fire-resistance rated columns, beams, or girders — has slightly more fire resistance because part of the beams and girders are encased in the concrete floor slab.

2. DeRuyscher stated that fire growth in noncombustible construction (i.e., the steel-concrete structure of Rand Hall) is less than in combustible construction (i.e, in the wood-framed structure of Sibley Hall). This is not necessarily true. Fire codes look not only at the fire growth potential of a building’s structure but also at the “fuel” provided by the nature of the occupancy. For that reason, libraries are considered to be relatively high hazard occupancies, whether in Type VB (Sibley) or IIB (Rand) construction. In fact, there will be a far greater density of books in a Rand Hall library than in a Sibley library because the book stacks in Sibley must be widely spaced due to the limited capacity of the wooden floor structure. Since both buildings (Sibley and Rand) have no fire-proofing on columns, beams, or girders; since both wood and steel structures (without fire-proofing) behave quite poorly in fires; and since there is far more “fuel” in the form of combustible books within a Rand Hall library, it is misleading to presume that a library in Rand Hall increases the level of fire safety compared to a library in Sibley Hall. Furthermore, this misses the point: the combined building is already nonconforming in respect to existing building code standards: why grant a variance that allows Cornell to “lock in” forever what would otherwise be an additional level of noncompliance?

3. DeRuyscher stated that the occupant load in Rand Hall would be lower with a library, compared to the current studio/classroom use. This is true, but irrelevant: building codes look not only at the occupant density, but also other potential hazards in a given occupancy class. In the case of libraries, the quantity of “fuel” (books) makes it far more dangerous than a classroom/studio, in spite of having fewer occupants. This fact shows up in IBC-derived building codes within Table 503, where A-3 occupancies (including libraries) have more stringent area and height limitations than B occupancies (college-level classrooms).

4. DeRuyscher stated that a fire would have difficulty moving from Sibley to Rand Hall because of (1) the sprinklers, (2) the distance between Rand and Sibley, and (3) the two fire barriers separating Milstein Hall from Sibley and Rand respectively. This is irrelevant, and misses the point:  building codes limit the floor area of buildings based on their occupancy and construction type (and whether they have sprinklers and adequate distance — frontage — from adjacent buildings) because both fire science and the historical record of building fires indicates that size matters. The building code already accounts for the fact that Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall is fully sprinklered. The building code already provides some floor area relief where fire barriers are used to separate occupancies — although no such relief would be available to Rand-Sibley-Milstein because the governing occupancies separated by fire barriers are all the same. To use the large building area (which DeRuyscher refers to as “distance” between Rand and Sibley Halls), the sprinklers, and the fire barriers as a reason to grant a variance — when these are the precise parameters that the building code establishes to limit floor area — is more than a bit peculiar.

Not only that, but the fire barriers cited by DeRuyscher are not even properly installed, per the Code requirements that allowed fire barriers to increase the area of the existing buildings (Rand and Sibley Halls) when Milstein Hall was constructed as an addition under Appendix K of the 2002 Building Code of New York State. After I provided copies of email correspondence from technical experts that demonstrated that the fire barrier between Sibley and Milstein Hall appeared to be noncompliant, and after providing photographs showing that the alleged fire barrier between Milstein and Rand Hall included at least one unprotected window leading directly into a wood shop in Rand Hall, the response of the Hearing Board was not to require the fire barriers to be fixed — rather, the response was to suggest that an additional variance be granted (one not even requested by the petitioner) to void Section 715.1 of the Building Code so that opening protectives (for the windows that penetrate the fire barriers) would no longer be required!

Section 715.1 states: “Opening protectives required by other sections of this code shall comply with the provisions of this section.”

5. DeRuyscher stated that in the event of a fire in Milstein Hall, the skylights and exterior glazing provided ample opportunity for venting smoke. Good luck breaking those heavy laminated glass elements in both the skylights and curtain wall of Milstein Hall. There are no operable windows or roof hatches anywhere in the building, and the construction of the glazed elements makes it extremely difficult to “break them” using ordinary fire department hand-held equipment.

6. DeRuyscher stated that Cornell has a robust testing and inspection program. What he didn’t mention are the numerous fire code violations that have occurred over the years in the architectural design studios of Sibley, Milstein, and Rand Hall. In other words, the inspections — mentioned as a reason to grant a variance — actually revealed over the years that these buildings are prone to fire safety violations because of the nature of their occupancy.

7. DeRuyscher stated that fires only “burn up” as a reason not to worry about a fire on the third floor of Sibley Hall migrating over to Rand Hall, or even to Milstein Hall. First, the strategy of identifying random fire scenarios and then stating, without any “fire science” evidence, that such scenarios were unlikely to have a negative impact on a Rand Hall library, is absurd. If we could identify all the ways that fires start and spread, and then rule them out as unlikely without any scientific basis, there would be no need for building code regulations.

Second, the idea that fires “burn up” is one of the reasons that a library on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Rand Hall — immediately above the 1st floor wood shop — is such a dangerous proposal. For an A-3 (library) and an F-1 (wood shop) to be designed as separated uses requires a 1-hour separation (and the actual fire-rating of the floor-ceiling assembly between the wood shop and proposed library is zero). On the other hand, if designed as nonseparated uses, then the 1-story height limit of the F-1 occupancy (2 stories with sprinklers) applies to the entire building. In either case, the wood shop on the first floor of Rand Hall makes the entire proposal noncompliant, even with the variances granted.

8. DeRuyscher stated that Milstein’s roof structure consists of a 5-inch concrete slab covered by a green roof. What he neglected to mention, or consider, was the fact that the beams, girders, and columns, as well as the corrugated metal deck supporting the concrete, are not fire-proofed. Because of this, the roof structure of Milstein Hall — as of Sibley and Rand Halls — has absolutely no fire-resistance rating and could collapse in the event of a fire on the upper-level floor plate.

9. DeRuyscher stated that the steel in Milstein Hall is “super-heavy,” presumably providing additional protection against collapse in a fire. It is true that some of the steel elements are quite large. However, aside from the moment-resisting column-frame assemblies that cantilever over University Avenue and towards the south, the remainder of steel beams and corrugated deck elements in Milstein Hall are quite normal, and would not provide any additional fire resistance compared to an ordinary steel-framed building.

10. DeRuyscher stated that the Milstein project somehow allowed the existing buildings (Rand and Sibley Halls) to be reused rather than “thrown away.” This is disingenuous: both Sibley and Rand Hall could have survived quite nicely without being physically connected by the Milstein Hall addition. In fact, a small addition to Sibley dome, or a free-standing “Milstein Hall” design with more modest connections to Rand and Sibley, would have preserved all the existing buildings while at the same time improving their fire safety compared to the current situation. Perhaps DeRuyscher needs to be reminded that the only reason he was hired as a consultant to appear before the Review Board was because the design of Milstein Hall compromised the fire safety of the existing buildings to such an extent that a library — which would have been perfectly compliant in Rand Hall before the Milstein addition — now required his “expert” testimony in order to obtain a code variance.

11. DeRuyscher stated that there were instances where a row of sprinklers stopped a major fire, including the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas (Nov. 21, 1980 — by coincidence, exactly 33 years to the day before the hearing). What DeRuyscher somehow failed to mention was that these sprinklers may have been effective in controlling the spread of the fire, but only after 85 people were killed, mainly because of smoke. And this raises an important point: the issue is not only the potential spread of fire, but also the effects of smoke — especially where the requirements for opening protectives in fire barriers have been completely voided through the action of the hearing board. Smoke is the major killer in fires — not the flames themselves.

Architect’s Newspaper item of interest

Not sure when this came out [updated below] in the Architect’s Newspaper — they spelled my name wrong and they got a few facts wrong; but basically it describes my Critique of Milstein Hall accurately.

Updated 12/11/13: Here’s the citation for the article: “OMA GOSH, WHAT A DISASTER,” Architect’s Newspaper, November 13, 2013, #13, EAST edition, page 5.

Cornell’s latest attempt to preserve its noncompliant fire barrier

Cornell has installed a noncompliant fire barrier between Milstein and Sibley Halls and, in response to a “Code appeal” Hearing Board stipulation, submitted a document that proves that their as-installed fire barrier is noncompliant. They then have asserted that this document, which establishes beyond any shadow of a doubt that what they have done is illegal, actually proves the opposite.

Please read the letter written by Cornell’s Associate University Counsel and then read my full email response (excerpted below), which I sent today to Brian Tollisen at the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA):

I received a copy of a letter addressed to you from Shirley Egan of Cornell, dated Oct. 15, 2013 (attached to this email). In it she states that a party must first “request permission from the court or (as in this case) quasi-judicial board, to reopen and reargue a matter” and that therefore “Mr. Ochshorn’s purported re-argument is improper.” Ms. Egan also requests that my email (copied below) “be deemed a motion to the Board of Review requesting its permission to allow him to reargue.”

Perhaps you can sort through the apparent contradictions in Ms. Egan’s attempt to prevent further discussion of Cornell’s noncompliant fire barrier between the Milstein Hall and Sibley Hall portion of the combined Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall building. On the one hand, she asks you to consider my email as a motion requesting permission to reargue; on the other hand, she claims that this request is improper because I must first request permission to reargue. Go figure.

Ms. Egan further claims that the City of Ithaca’s submittal of the NER-516 document — a document that was already shown to the Hearing Board and referenced by the City of Ithaca in testimony at the July 18, 2013 Hearing (Petition No. 2013-0250) — somehow satisfies the Hearing Board’s requirement for “submittal from the City of Ithaca on the testified approvals from the compliance testing lab.” The “testified approvals from the compliance testing lab” sought by the Hearing Board cannot simply be that Tyco sprinklers, when installed correctly, meet certain fire-rating standards. This fact was never in doubt, and was never the subject of the Petition. The only issue raised by the Petition was whether the sprinklers, as installed, were compliant. The document submitted by the City of Ithaca proves, with absolutely no ambiguity, that these sprinklers, as installed, are noncompliant.

Does the hearing Board really want to accept this document as evidence that the “testified approvals” meet the standards of the testing lab, when this document proves the exact opposite?

Ms. Egan also claims that “the Board of Review heard — fully — from all three parties concerned, including Mr. Ochshorn, and then exercised its independent, considered judgment to reach its own decision on the matter. The fact that the decision does not coincide with Mr. Ochshorn’s position does not mandate further review, no matter how many times he requests it.”

Neither Cornell nor the City of Ithaca provided a copy of NER-516 (the document they presented in testimony at the July 18, 2013 hearing, and the document ultimately submitted per the Review Board’s request) to me before or during the Hearing, so I had no way of challenging its use as “testimony” in support of the City of Ithaca’s claim that the Tyco sprinklers, as installed, were compliant. Therefore, I am not simply rearguing the same point over and over again, as Ms. Egan claims, but am responding to new evidence submitted by the City of Ithaca after the Hearing that I have never before seen, and that I was never able to challenge at the Hearing.

I’m not even sure that a re-opened Hearing is necessary in this case: the City of Ithaca’s submittal did not satisfy the requirements stipulated in the hearing Board’s decision. Therefore, it may be possible for the Hearing Board to simply reject the City of Ithaca’s submittal, since it doesn’t provide any documentation supporting the as-installed compliance of the sprinkler system, and revise its decision accordingly. Either way, letting the City of Ithaca and Cornell University build this dangerous and noncompliant fire barrier in complete disregard for fire safety considerations regulated under the Building Code of New York State would make a mockery of the whole Code Review process.

Jonathan Ochshorn