Category Archives: Milstein-Rand-Sibley Hall

Update on life- and fire-safety violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

I have identified nine serious life- and fire-safety violations in the newly-opened Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell University and am still unable to appeal the ruling of New York State’s Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC) because the DBSC has not completed their “re-opened” review of the case. Here is what I wrote to them today:

It has been three months since our last conversation in which you said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened,” that you were not “leaving any stone unturned,” and that your work was close to being done (i.e., that you would likely be finished before January 2020). I have also been told … that “there has been a request by DBSC for additional information from the consultants that provided the smoke control modeling for the project.” As I wrote in my email copied to you on Feb. 11, 2020, I believe that my complaint should be adjudicated based on whether the City of Ithaca appropriately granted a building permit, irrespective of whatever documentation may have been provided after my complaint was filed.

It has been eleven months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and nine months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have still not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints.

The Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University remains 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). Please let me know (1) the status of my complaint, (2) when your “work” will be completed, and (3) your specific reasoning for discounting each of the nine code violations that I described in detail. Please provide answers in writing: your prior requests to “give me a call at your earliest convenience”—on Nov. 5, 2019 and Dec. 3, 2019—have proven to be unsatisfactory.

Links to all of my writings on Cornell’s Fine Arts Library can be found here.

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.

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

[Updated below] 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.]

[Update March 3, 2020 can be found here.]

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

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.

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. oversight@dos.ny.gov.

Sincerely,

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. 

Fine Arts Library code complaint filed with New York State

Today, I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes concerning fire- and life-safety violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University. This complaint contains essentially the same material that I submitted to the City of Ithaca on April 1, 2019, but in addition contains, as an appendix, the City of Ithaca’s response, along with my commentary on their response.

Links to all my writings about the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University can be found here.

Update (Sept. 30, 2019) here.

Cornell, following Trumpian playbook, refuses to release Ryan-Biggs report

Follow up: see Aug. 19, 2019 blog post.

Figure 1. Cornell Chronicle parody headline created by J. Ochshorn

After I noticed column misalignment, slack tension cables, unintended girder curvature, and sloping attic joists in the newly-renovated Frances Shloss Studios on the third floor of East Sibley Hall, I requested information from Cornell about its structural design and, on March 21, 2018, was provided with a structural conditions assessment that had been prepared by Ryan-Biggs Associates in 2009, as well as four pages of structural plans prepared by Robert Silman Associates in March 2015.

On April 2, 2018, based on my examination of these documents, I sent a detailed, though speculative, critique of the structural design to various interested parties, including the director of facilities for Cornell, the director of facilities for the College, and the Director of Code Enforcement for the City of Ithaca. My critique suggested that the consulting engineer’s structural analysis was flawed, not only misrepresenting the behavior of the existing structure but detailing new structural elements that might well have triggered or worsened structural misalignments in the nineteenth-century building. The next day, Ithaca’s Director of Code Enforcement sent me the following note: “Thank you very much for copying me on your email, as of yesterday I am following up on it. Based on your excellent detailed analysis and photos documenting the conditions, I share your concern.”

Cornell—rather than heeding my advice to engage the services of an independent consulting engineer who was not involved in producing the Assessment report or the structural drawings for the E. Sibley renovation—hired Ryan-Biggs Associates to assess the conditions in East Sibley Hall, the same firm that did the initial conditions assessment in 2009. It took over a year for this process to come to a conclusion and, having finally received the report from Ryan-Biggs, Cornell is now refusing to release it. I received the following explanation from the College’s facility director on May 3, 2019: “Hi Jonathan, The report was paid for and is the property of Facilities & Campus Services. It isn’t a public document that I can share. However, I can share that the final results showed that the East Sibley structure is sound and there is no need for additional reinforcement at this time.”

Hence, the Cornell Chronicle parody headline above (Figure 1). I have not been told what top-secret or otherwise sensitive information is in the report that precludes its release. The original structural engineer for the third-floor renovation, Robert Silman—who died in 2018—is a well-respected Cornell alumnus who, as explained here, was influential in directing some of architect Edgar Tafel’s estate to Cornell as a gift. Is there something in the Ryan-Biggs report that might implicate Silman’s firm in a negative or embarrassing way? Is the condition of East Sibley Hall “sound” because of their structural design, or in spite of their structural design? How did the latest Ryan-Biggs report model current structural conditions (i.e., as conventional roof rafters creating an outward thrust or as a collection of unstable mechanisms tending to rotate inward)? Was a dynamic analysis used to assess the response of this highly unusual structure to wind and earthquake forces? How were nineteenth-century clamps—intended to connect girders to the columns for gravity loads only—assessed in terms of their capacity to resist dynamic tension forces induced by winter blizzards or seismic events (Figure 2)? Were members of Cornell’s facilities staff embarrassed by their role as facilitators of this flawed design project? Or did the report conclude that all structural design assumptions for the third-floor renovation were valid, that the supervision and execution of the project was properly done, and that, therefore, all of my concerns were unfounded? None of these questions can be answered unless Cornell releases the report. The City of Ithaca Building Division should require Cornell to submit the report as evidence that the structural renovation meets standards outlined in the New York State Building Code (thereby making the report public), but the Building Department has shown little interest in holding Cornell accountable when it comes to Code compliance.

Finally, the misalignment of the third-floor East Sibley columns—whether caused by or just exacerbated by the Shloss Studio renovations; and whether presenting an imminent threat to safety or not—should be corrected.

Figure 2. The left image shows column misalignment on the third floor of East Sibley Hall, with tension cables effectively pulling the columns further out of vertical alignment; the right image shows a nineteenth-century clamp connecting girders to columns, a fastener never intended to resist tension forces induced by the columns pushing laterally on the girders (photos by J. Ochshorn, May 4, 2019)

On a related note, Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) has also refused to include news about my Title-19 code complaint—which outlines numerous life- and fire-safety violations in the Rand Hall Mui Ho Fine Arts Library—in its “News & Events” postings, or any of its other social media venues. Demonstrating contempt for academic freedom by engaging in egregious “viewpoint discrimination,” Cornell AAP has chosen to censor my critique of life- and fire-safety violations, not because it isn’t newsworthy or of interest to its target audience, but because Cornell administrators oppose its point of view and, apparently, fear an open and vigorous debate about these important issues.

Formal building code complaint submitted about Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

I submitted a formal code complaint today about the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University. As far as I can tell, the project—under construction and expected to open before the Fall 2019 semester begins—has at least nine substantial fire safety and life safety violations, all explained in my complaint document:

Violation #1: Unenclosed egress stair in the atrium.

Violation #2: Inadequate number of plumbing fixtures in the roof-top bathrooms.

Violation #3: Fifth floor incorrectly labeled as mezzanine within the atrium.

Violation #4: Lack of 1-hour horizontal assembly between the atrium and roof-top spaces.

Violation #5: Smoke control system does not protect building occupants.

Violation #6: Elevator too small for an ambulance stretcher.

Violation #7: Allowable story height exceeded for library occupancy without Type I construction.

Violation #8: Allowable floor area is exceeded at the second story.

Violation #9: Vertical openings in bookstack floors.

This schematic section through Rand Hall (Figure 8 in my formal code complaint; drawn by J. Ochshorn) illustrates just one of the nine code violations I have identified: a smoke control system that does not “provide a tenable environment for the evacuation or relocation of occupants” as the New York State Building Code requires.

All of my writings about the Rand Hall library project are linked from this website.

ICC Code opinion confirms fire safety problems in Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

[Updated below: Feb. 27, 2019] I have just received written confirmation from a Senior Staff Architect at the International Code Council (ICC) that the unenclosed stairs in Cornell’s Fine Arts Library atrium are noncompliant with the International Building Code (IBC), and that the roof-top gallery above the atrium is also noncompliant as designed. The 2015 New York State Building Code is derived from the IBC and contains the same Code language cited in the Code opinion by ICC. Of course, this Code opinion has no legal force, but it does indicate that the fire safety problems I have identified are real and need to be addressed. Here is the written opinion in full: 


Date: Thursday, February 14, 2019 at 11:17 AM
Re:  2015 IBC Sections 404.6, 1005.3.1, 1017.3.1, 1019, 1023.1, 1023.2,
 
Question 1:  Can the path of egress travel to an exit pass through more than one adjacent story in an atrium?
 
Answer 1:  There is nothing saying someone could not follow the stairway in the atrium as a path of egress travel for as many stories as they wanted.  However, if the stairway in the atrium is a considered a required exit access stairway, the egress path for the required means of egress (i.e. number of exits off of a floor) can only go down one story till occupants could choose to move to the required exits (1006.3.1, 1017.3.1, 1019).  If the stairway in the atrium is considered a required exit stairway, while Section 1023.2 Exception 2 does allow for the atrium to meet the construction requirements for the exit stairway, the atrium must meet all the remaining provisions for an exit stairway in Section 1023, including termination at the exterior, not be used for any other purpose other than exit (e.g. no uses on the ground floor of the atrium) and no paths that go through the atrium to get to the 2nd exit.
 
Question 2:  Can an unenclosed interior exit stairway, as permitted in Section 1023.2 Exception 2, terminate in the middle of an atrium floor that is above the level of exit discharge.
 
Answer 2:  No.  Exit stairways must discharge directly to the exterior (1023.1) and cannot stop at an upper floor.  There are the options for the stairway to discharge through a lobby or vestibule (1028), however, this lobby cannot be within the stairway/atrium enclosure and it cannot be at other than the level of exit discharge.
 
Question 3:  Does an occupied roof (Group A-2 assembly) above an atrium need to be separated from the atrium with a 1-hour horizontal assembly?
 
Answer 3:  Yes, an atrium must be separated from occupied spaces.  While a roof is not a story, it is an occupied space, so it must be separated from the atrium where the floor of the occupied roof is over the atrium.  Where an occupied roof floor is around the atrium, a separation would not be required.
 
Code opinions issued by ICC staff are based on ICC-published codes and do not include local, state or federal codes, policies or amendments. This opinion is based on the information which you have provided. We have made no independent effort to verify the accuracy of this information nor have we conducted a review beyond the scope of your question. This opinion does not imply approval of an equivalency, specific product, specific design, or specific installation and cannot be published in any form implying such approval by the International Code Council. As this opinion is only advisory, the final decision is the responsibility of the designated authority charged with the administration and enforcement of this code.
 
I hope that this answers your question in full.  Please feel free to contact me again if you have any additional questions on this issue.
 
“Copyright © 2018 International Code Council, Inc. All rights reserved.”
 
Kimberly Paarlberg, RA
International Code Council
Codes and Standards, Senior Staff Architect
5332 Woodfield Drive, Carmel, IN
888-422-7233, Ext. 4306

 

[February 27, 2019 update: I just received a code interpretation from the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes that agrees in full with the ICC answers shown above (“We reached the same conclusions as did the ICC representative, Kimberly Paarlberg”). I have forwarded their response to the City of Ithaca Director of Code Enforcement and other parties involved in this fiasco. Depending on how they react, I may well need to file a formal complaint.]

Links to all my writings on the Fine Arts Library at Cornell can be found here.