More building safety issues in East Sibley Hall at Cornell

I’ve described numerous fire safety problems in Milstein Hall, an addition to Rand and Sibley Halls at Cornell University that was designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA. While Cornell and its architects, along with the City of Ithaca Building Department, refused to acknowledge these problems until they were forced to, and continue to claim that nothing really serious was ever at stake, new building safety issues have emerged more recently, described in the video embedded below. The site for both of these issues is East Sibley Hall at Cornell: an exit sign pointing to a door that opens inward, and a noncompliant guard rail.

The case of the in-swinging door is puzzling on two counts. First, although the door isn’t required to be a legal exit, it’s not clear why it was designed (as part of the Milstein Hall project) to open inward, since such doors can be dangerous in a panic situation whether they’re legally required to open outward or not. Perhaps the architects were concerned that an out-swinging door would interfere with circulation patterns for an adjacent outside stair, also redesigned as part of the Milstein Hall project. This description of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire, in which 492 occupants were killed, shows that inward-acting doors can be deadly:

Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly married couple.

Second, it’s not clear why an exit sign pointing to this door was installed in the hallway of Sibley Hall, since it is not a legal exit, and is not required to be.

The case of the noncompliant guardrail is equally puzzling, since legal and compliant guards are neither hard to design, fabricate, or install. In this case, an existing stair with old fashioned and nonconforming guardrails was modified as part of a renovation of the third floor of East Sibley Hall for the Department of Architecture. Instead of replacing the guard at the top landing with a safe and legal one, a new guard was fabricated and installed that mimicked the dangerous conditions in the existing stair. As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of  children are injured or die annually because of things like inadequate guards [link updated May 4, 2017]:

Falls are the leading cause of emergency room visits for nonfatal injuries. 2.8 million children visited emergency departments for fall-related injuries in 2010; 40 percent of them were toddlers. On average, over 275,000 children suffer traumatic brain injuries annually from falls. Most of these fall-related deaths and injuries are predictable and preventable.

Increase amount and use of protective devices. For example, review building codes to ensure construction that limits fall hazards (e.g., requiring handrails in all stairwells and American Society for Testing and Materials-compliant window guards for windows on second story or higher).

In any case, Cornell fixed both the exit sign and the guard rail within a few days after I alerted them to the problems. Given the torturous history of prior building safety issues involving Milstein, Rand, and Sibley Halls, and in spite of the fact that serious mistakes are still being made, I take this as a sign of progress.

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