Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 50% design development


UPDATED Feb. 13, 2017 (see comments below).

I’ve been out of the country since August 2016, so I was not able, until now, to examine the 50% Design Development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Arts Library that have been made available for viewing in the Dean’s office. This post, therefore, may well be old news. However, having already noted numerous problems with the schematic design proposal, I was curious to see if any or all of them had been resolved. As far as I can tell, the proposal still has many problems, some old and some new. In particular, it appears that the fire wall shown in the schematic plans has been eliminated (replaced with various “fire barriers”) so that the advantages of considering Rand Hall as a separate building (only possible with a fire wall) have apparently been discarded. I’ve sent out an email today with a bunch of questions for the contact person at Cornell Facilities, reprinted below, and will update this post if I get any answers.


1. The Building Department Notes in the 50% DD set list the 2010 NYS Building Code and 2010 NYS Existing Building Code as governing Code documents. Will the drawings be changed to reflect the 2015 NYS Building Code and 2015 NYS Existing Building Code now in effect?

2. There is no comprehensive Code analysis in the 50% DD set that explains the basis of the design. For example, the schematic design proposed a fire wall between Milstein Hall and Rand Hall, allowing Rand Hall to be considered as a separate building. There is no fire wall shown in the 50% DD set (except for “mobile fire wall” notations on one of the elevations — see Question #6 below); therefore Rand-Milstein-Sibley Hall must be considered as a single building with a single construction type. This construction type is V-B, based on the 3rd-floor wooden wall construction of Sibley Hall, and not II-B as noted in the DD set.

A Code variance granted in November, 2013 acknowledges the fact that the existing library as designed and constructed on the third floor of Rand Hall (or a proposed, but not yet designed, library on the second and third floors of Rand Hall) would be noncompliant under the 2010 NYS Building Code, and requests that two specific 2010 Code sections be waived. As a result of the variance hearing, certain requirements in Sections 503.1 and 504.2 of the 2010 NYS Building Code were waived, allowing an increase in the allowable floor area of the second floor from about 22,500 square feet to 70,000 square feet and permitting the library to exceed the second-story limit stipulated in the Code (based on its V-B construction type and A-3 occupancy class) and to occupy the third floor of the “Rand Hall” portion of the combined building. A third Code section waiver, not originally requested by Cornell but suggested by the Hearing Board, waives portions of Section 715.1 of the 2010 NYS Building Code so that the requirement for opening protectives (for the windows that penetrate the fire barriers between Milstein, Rand, and Sibley Halls) no longer needs to be applied in considering the Code compliance of the existing library.

This variance clearly allows the current third-floor library to remain in Rand Hall. It does not, however, change the construction type of the combined buildings from V-B to II-B. It should be emphasized that without a fire wall, Rand Hall is not a separate building, even with the variance, and its construction type remains V-B.

On what basis is the construction type for this project listed as II-B?

3. A Code variance specifies what can be constructed, not merely by enumerating practices that are deemed allowable for a particular project, but rather by waiving specific Code sections that would otherwise render the construction noncompliant. The Code variance granted Cornell in November 2013 waives three Code sections in the 2010 NYS Building Code, allowing the current third-floor library to remain. However, those Code sections are no longer applicable to new construction or renovation, since a new 2015 Building Code has taken effect. The variance granted in 2013 for the current library did not waive any Code sections in the 2015 NYS Building Code. Do you believe that a new library built under the 2015 NYS Building Code (and 2015 NYS Existing Building Code) can waive floor area, story height limits, and window protective requirements in the new Code on the basis of a waiver of three Code sections that were granted with respect to the existing library under the 2010 Building Code?

4. Since the building construction type of V-B is neither Type I or Type II, the maximum aggregate area of a mezzanine is 1/3 of the floor area of the room in which it is located. On the basis of what Sections in the 2015 NYS Building Code can the mezzanines shown in the 50% DD set exceed this 1/3 floor area limit?

5. Section 712.1.9 (Two-story openings) of the 2015 New York State Building Code requires that all floor openings must be “separated from floor openings and air transfer openings serving other floors by construction conforming to required shaft enclosures.” Mezzanines, while not counted as “stories,” are still counted as “floors”; therefore openings connecting any more than two such floors are not permitted unless protected by a shaft enclosure, or designed as atriums. How are floor openings connecting all four floors (not stories) in the Fine Arts Library permitted under the 2015 Building Code?

6. There are two notations on the West Elevation in the 50% DD set that say something like “mobile fire wall” (the font is so small that, even with my reading glasses on, I can’t make out the exact words) and point to the north-west and south-west corners of Rand Hall. What do these notations mean? What is a “mobile fire wall”?

7. A sectional drawing in the 50% DD set shows a dimension of 2’-3” below the hanging 2nd-floor stack area, but seems to show protruding objects on the south side of this hanging floor that are higher than 2’-3” and therefore in violation of the 2015 NYS Building Code and ADA. Can you explain what these protruding objects are (see sketch below) and why you believe that they are Code-compliant?

UPDATE Feb. 13, 2017: I received a brief email response from the Project Manager/Sr. Engineer at Cornell Facilities: “Thanks very much for your thoughts and input and I will forward your email to our design team.  It appears that you are reviewing a 50% DD set, which has evolved considerably.  Once the DD phase is complete there will be new drawings that may address many of your questions.” In other words, it looks like I won’t have any definitive answers to these questions until the 100% Design Development drawings are released.

Links to all my writings and posts concerning the Fine Arts Library proposal can be found here.

Koolhaas delivers “junk-space” to Cornell, in his own words…


“There are no walls, only partitions, shimmering membranes frequently covered in mirror or gold.”


“Structure groans invisibly underneath decoration, or worse, has become ornamental…”


“…huge beams deliver cyclopic burdens to unsuspecting destinations…”

Rem Koolhaas, “junk-space,” Brendan McGetrick, ed., Content, Taschen (Köln, London, etc., 2004), p. 163. Images are of Milstein Hall, Cornell University, designed by OMA.

The NY Times Interprets Architectural History


“He became fascinated by architects like Louis Sullivan, who stripped the veneer off their buildings and let the strength of their construction shine through.”

Huh? Louis Sullivan? Stripped the veneer off his buildings?

Louis Sullivan's Prudential Guaranty Building, in downtown Buffalo, New York (photo by TomFawls, Wikipedia)

Louis Sullivan’s Prudential Guaranty Building, in downtown Buffalo, New York (photo by TomFawls, Wikipedia)

Quote is from: Jon Mooallem, “One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 3, 2017.

Teaching at Tianjin University School of Architecture


I received a U.S. Fulbright Scholar grant to teach at Tianjin University School of Architecture for the fall 2016 semester. We leave in late August and return in late January 2017. The plan is to teach two courses about architectural practice: one for undergraduates dealing with building technology and the other for graduate students dealing with politics and sustainability. I’m looking forward to the adventure, with just a bit of trepidation about the pollution.

This is me PhotoShopped into the Beijing marathon; original image from

This is me PhotoShopped into the Beijing marathon; original image from

Exit signs in E. Sibley Hall at Cornell


Exit signs are supposed to clearly show you the way out of a building. The Building Code of New York State puts it this way: “Where required: …The path of egress travel to exits and within exits shall be clearly marked by readily visible exit signs to clearly indicate the direction of egress travel in cases where the exit or the path of egress travel is not immediately visible to the occupants…” With all the best intentions, Cornell University replaced some old and ordinary doors and walls within the main egress stairwell of its architecture building (E. Sibley Hall) with fire-rated glazing and installed a bunch of illuminated exit signs to show the way out.

Views of exit signs from inside the E. Sibley Hall egress stair

Views of exit signs from inside the E. Sibley Hall egress stair

Unfortunately, as can be seen in these recent photos, the transparency of the doors and walls violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Code. This happens because as one reaches the second floor in the stair (image “b” on the right), one sees an exit sign apparently pointing to an exit outside the stair, just like the sign that one sees on the first floor (image “a” on the left). However, while the sign on the first floor actually points to the exit discharge, the sign on the second floor points away from the exit discharge. In fact, this second-floor sign in intended to get you into the stair from the outside, not to induce you to leave the stair. However, because people using the stair shaft can now see exit signs outside the stair that were not meant to be seen from within the stair itself, what was a simple path of egress has become confusing and therefore dangerous.

Steel truss design


I’ve written a paper (not yet online) [Update 5/28/17: now online here] about graphical statics. In order to demonstrate that the “form-finding” objectives of such techniques are often superficial and flawed, I needed to provide a case study of an actual structural design problem, using real materials and real design methods, that accounts for things (like the buckling of bars in compression, or shear lag and effective net area of bars in tension, or deflection issues) that graphical statics ignores. So I created an enormous spreadsheet to find the optimal (lightest) steel double-angle Pratt or Warren truss for any given span, spacing, and loading condition. The spreadsheet actually designs 105 different trusses (with aspect ratios ranging from 2:1 to 16:1; and with from 2 to 14 “panels,” as shown in Figure 1) in order to find the optimal combination of aspect ratio and panel geometry for a given span, spacing, and loads.

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Well, the spreadsheet had well over 1,000,000 cells and couldn’t be converted to an online calculator using the software I have. Therefore, I made a smaller version of the same spreadsheet — this one only designs a single truss (rather than 105 versions) and only considers whatever aspect ratio and panel geometry have been selected. However, this calculator can also be used to find the lightest truss, but only by trying out numerous geometries while keeping track of the truss weight.

Happy birthday to me (When I’m Sixty-Four)


When those of us born in 1952 turned 15 (or were about to turn 15) and the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper (including McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”), actually being 64 was just an incomprehensible abstraction. Well times change: here’s my live cover of the classic song (with background vocals, bass, drums, and organ added) that I’ve just posted on YouTube to celebrate my 64th birthday.

Ode to Fluff


I was asked by the architecture students running Thumbnail, a PechaKucha style event, to submit a song consistent with the event’s theme of “fluff.” The song itself can be heard on SoundCloud; the video, which includes the song as well as a spoken introduction (consisting of twenty 20-second segments as required—for a total length of 400 seconds, or 6 minutes 40 seconds), can be seen on YouTube; or, if you want lots of additional information about the lyrics and production, see the video on my music page.

This "fluff" image was created by the architecture students running Cornell's "Thumbnail" event, April 15, 2016.

This “fluff” image was created by the architecture students running Cornell’s “Thumbnail” event, April 15, 2016.