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.

5 thoughts on “Cornell’s request for a code variance is granted

    1. jon Post author

      A building code variance is not quite as common as a zoning variance; the latter are generally handled locally, while the former — at least in NYS — are handled at the state level. Still, the impression I get is that the NYS Review Board is inclined to support the decisions of the local building department where possible. After the long presentation by Cornell’s consultants, and by the Ithaca Building Department representative, I was not even given the opportunity to fully respond to their contentions — not that it would have mattered: the New York State DCEA representatives were actively supporting the variance request even before the hearing testimony was complete. In fact, it was the DCEA — and not even the consultants for Cornell — who proposed an additional variance that would allow a defective fire barrier to be used. I could see the representative from DCEA reading a copy of an email I had sent to him — that criticized the existing fire barrier openings — while suggesting to the Board that they should void all requirements for so-called opening protectives in the fire barrier wall.

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