Category Archives: Writings

Cornell’s COVID research on human subjects

Example of human subject research (smog chamber breathing) at the Stanford Research Institute in 1956 (photo by Jack Carrick).

Cornell University is organizing an enormous research project involving human subjects that appears to violate its own guidelines—based on the so-called Common Rule promulgated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS)—as well as principles embedded in the Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the Belmont Report of 1979.

Specifically, Cornell is bringing together thousands of students, faculty, and staff during a global pandemic and subjecting them to in-person instruction where the risk of contracting and spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus are high. Cornell acknowledges the risk and likelihood of serious consequences: President Pollack wrote, in her June 30, 2020 announcement of Cornell’s reactivation plans that “there is simply no way to completely eliminate risk, whether we are in-person or online; even under the best-case projections, some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease.” The Nuremberg Code directly prohibits such activity, stating: “No experiment should be conducted where there is a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”

Cornell’s own Institutional Review Board for Human Participant Research (IRB) would, in principle, evaluate such “experiments” with human subjects, but the Board has come to the conclusion that no such evaluation is required. Why? Because they claim that Cornell’s proposal to expose its human subjects to these known risks is not “research.” In an email to me on July 30, 2020, the IRB justified this conclusion as follows:

The regulatory definition of “human subjects research” has two components: the “human subjects” piece and the “research” piece.  While Cornell will be obtaining information and biospecimens from living individuals through intervention and interaction (so, meeting that “human subjects” piece of the definition), the activities are not being performed for the purposes of research. Here is the “research” definition from 45 CFR 46 (the “Common Rule”): 

  • 46.102(l) Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

Cornell’s surveillance activities are not designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge, but rather, to track the transmission and prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in the Cornell community, and develop practices to help curb that transmission. In addition, there is a public health surveillance activities carve-out from the Common Rule (i.e., deemed not to be research):

  • 46.102(l)(2) Public health surveillance activities, including the collection and testing of information or biospecimens, conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized by a public health authority. Such activities are limited to those necessary to allow a public health authority to identify, monitor, assess, or investigate potential public health signals, onsets of disease outbreaks, or conditions of public health importance (including trends, signals, risk factors, patterns in diseases, or increases in injuries from using consumer products). Such activities include those associated with providing timely situational awareness and priority setting during the course of an event or crisis that threatens public health (including natural or man-made disasters).

The HHS Office for Human Research Protections also published guidance on COVID-19 this past spring, which might interest you.

I hope this helps clarify our determination that Cornell’s current proposed surveillance activities do not meet the definition of “human subjects research.”

In other words, the IRB argues (1) that Cornell’s activities are not “research” because they are not “designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge,” and (2) that public health surveillance activities are, in any case, exempted from review. Both of these arguments, however, can be challenged. On the question of whether Cornell’s proposed activities constitute research, compare the HSS definition of research to Cornell’s own research statement, embedded in its reactivation plan, in which Cornell describes behavioral surveillance and surveying strategies that are designed to “provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission”:

Behavioral surveillance is an important tool for monitoring compliance with these directives. A standard survey instrument will be developed to observe adherence in public places (only) on campus, such as classrooms, libraries or dining facilities. In addition, Cornell will monitor infections on a daily basis. In collaboration with TCHD, Cornell Health will receive identified information of positive students and will determine activities or practices associated with becoming COVID-19 positive. Using this information, the university will be able to correlate clusters of infections in individuals sharing residences, classrooms or other activities. This may allow for the identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.

In an email reply to the IRB on July 30, 2020, I argued that Cornell’s intended surveillance and survey activities do constitute “research” and that the HSS public health exemption does not apply to these research activities:

First, it seems to me that Cornell’s surveillance and surveying activities are designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. In their reactivation plan document, Cornell draws upon the results of research conducted elsewhere (for example, Cornell writes that “experiences at other institutions of higher education indicate that there will likely be individuals positive for COVID-19 among those returning to campus” — p.4). In the same way, it can be safely assumed that the results of Cornell’s surveillance and surveying will not merely be used internally but will also be disseminated. This is, by definition, a contribution to generalizable knowledge.

Second, the public health exemption does not seem to apply to Cornell’s research since Cornell’s activities are not “conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized by a public health authority.” Cornell is collaborating primarily with Cayuga Medical Center, which is not a public health authority. It is true that Cornell is coordinating some of its reactivation planning with the Tompkins County Health Department (and TCHD is a public health authority), but this relationship is not connected to Cornell’s research on human subjects: TCHD will provide counseling to students who test positive (p.5), TCHD is conducting its own independent “syndromic surveillance system among outpatient providers in Tompkins County” (p.13), and, per state law, TCHD will conduct contact tracing. Similarly, Cornell has consulted with the NYS Department of Health Wadsworth in order to use the Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) at the College of Veterinary Medicine to expand PCR testing capabilities in Ithaca (p.3). But such ad hoc contact with public health authorities is entirely separate from the independent research—the behavioral surveillance and surveying of their human subjects—that Cornell is undertaking. And these independent research activities are not “conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized” by TCHD or by any other public health authority.

The OHRP Guidance exception for “actions taken for public health or clinical purposes” does not seem to apply to the research activities Cornell is undertaking on its human subjects. The example given, of a hospital implementing “mandatory clinical screening procedures related to COVID-19 for all people who come to that institution” is clearly not research, as its purpose is simply to identify patients carrying the virus. Cornell’s surveillance and surveying, on the other hand, is undertaken as research, to enable “identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and [to] provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.”

Third, the OHRP Guidance document, in response to this global health emergency, states: “Given the current circumstances, the research community is encouraged to prioritize public health and safety.” Yet Cornell is not reacting to a health emergency, as it was when shutting down the campus last spring. In the present case, Cornell is actually creating the public health emergency for which it has organized its research program with human subjects. The campus was shut down, and Cornell has decided to open it back up knowing that infection, disease, and—possibly—death will inevitably follow. This was a choice Cornell made, not one forced upon it. Other universities have opted not to engage in in-person instruction.

But this should not be a debate about whether Cornell made the right decision, or whether other options would have an even worse outcome. The only question here is whether Cornell’s research on human subjects should be evaluated by the IRB. I believe that the facts and definitions cited above show that Cornell’s planned activities constitute research and that this research involves human subjects.

On July 31, 2020, the IRB sent me the following reply:

The IRB staff have discussed this together with the IRB Chair, and using our collective knowledge of U.S. human subjects research regulations and the compliance community’s accepted interpretation of them, we have determined that Cornell’s surveillance activities are not research, as defined by the Common Rule. As I noted in an earlier email, if any human subjects research is proposed in conjunction with or using data from these surveillance activities, those research projects will require an IRB review.

In other words, the IRB is willing to let Cornell expose its human subjects to a highly contagious and dangerous virus, knowing that—in President Pollack’s words— “some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease”; is willing to let Cornell implement behavioral surveillance and surveying tools that, in Cornell’s own words, are intended to “provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission”; but does not consider any of this to be worthy of IRB review unless the data gathered from these activities are used in what the IRB determines is human subject research, i.e., after Cornell’s human subjects have already been exposed to a virus that is likely to cause severe disease or even death in some of the human subjects. To repeat, the Nuremberg Code states: “No experiment should be conducted where there is a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”

There is certainly some potential ambiguity between what constitutes research and what constitutes ordinary practice, and Cornell’s behavioral surveillance and surveying may well fall into this gray zone. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes IRB review essential. As argued in the Belmont Report cited above: “The general rule is that if there is any element of research in an activity, that activity should undergo review for the protection of human subjects.”

Cornell’s pandemic reactivation plan

There are many problems with Cornell’s reactivation plan. Consider the following (page numbers refer to the PDF linked above):

1. Probably the most serious problem with Cornell’s plan is its stated intention to conduct research on its own human subjects, in apparent violation of protocols established by the Institutional Review Board for Human Participant Research (IRB): see the IRB’s “decision tree.”

Cornell outlines its human-subject research goals in the plan itself, describing how behavioral surveillance and the use of survey instruments will enable researchers to determine which activities or practices—that Cornell itself has put into place—are associated with viral infection with SARS-CoV-2. Knowing that its practices will have a high probability of spreading infection (Cornell President Pollack wrote, in her June 30, 2020 announcement of Cornell’s reactivation plans: “There is simply no way to completely eliminate risk, whether we are in-person or online; even under the best-case projections, some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease”), Cornell seeks to gather statistically valid information that can only be obtained by placing its human subjects in jeopardy (p.12–13):

Behavioral surveillance is an important tool for monitoring compliance with these directives. A standard survey instrument will be developed to observe adherence in public places (only) on campus, such as classrooms, libraries or dining facilities. In addition, Cornell will monitor infections on a daily basis. In collaboration with TCHD, Cornell Health will receive identified information of positive students and will determine activities or practices associated with becoming COVID-19 positive. Using this information, the university will be able to correlate clusters of infections in individuals sharing residences, classrooms or other activities. This may allow for the identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.

[Updated July 29, 2020: Not surprisingly, Cornell’s IRB has determined that “the public health surveillance work currently proposed by Cornell does not meet the regulatory definition of human subjects research, and, therefore, does not require IRB review or approval.” (Email to me from Senior IRB and COI Administrator, dated July 29, 2020). Added July 31, 2020: see my detailed blog post on Cornell’s human subject research.]

2. In describing local medical capacity (p. 3) Cornell states that “Cayuga Medical Center has 212 beds and its three-phase surge plan would increase capacity for a total of 318 critical care and ICU beds and 50 ventilators.” Yet, it is well known that effective treatment of COVID-19 is not only constrained by the number of beds or ventilators, but also by the number of doctors and nursing staff. Cornell does not say how many such trained personnel are available locally.

3. Cornell suggests that “faculty who wish to meet with advisees in person may do so, provided they are able to maintain strict distancing, wear masks and keep their office doors open (for air flow and to increase compliance with health precautions).” (p.6) While modern building codes have eliminated the requirement for fire-rated corridors and self-closing fire-rated doors in many cases, there are still instances where such advice (to “keep office doors open”) would violate fire-safety regulations.

4. Cornell references the ASHRAE guidelines for restarting operations—dealing primarily with HVAC and related systems—but both ignores and contradicts their recommendations in at least one of Cornell’s linked (and restricted1) documents, stating: “Restore all set-points and scheduled modified during NY-pause.” In other words, the advice is to return to “business as usual” by restoring default set-points, rather than disabling certain default conditions to provide more fresh air circulation. The ASHRAE start-up checklist mentions things like flushing out buildings, and so on, which are not mentioned at all in Cornell’s version.

Where Cornell does repeat some of the AHRAE guidelines that contradict this advice to return to default settings—for example, to disable demand control ventilation (p.8)—there is no mention of the fact that providing sufficient outdoor air in some buildings may not even be possible, since existing HVAC equipment may be incapable of dealing with the extra loads caused by the use of more effective filters (MERV-13 or better) and high humidity associated with the conditioning of outside air (at least in summer; this problem could be reversed in the winter). Where are the actual metrics on a building-by-building, or even a space-by-space basis? Faculty, students, and staff have no idea about the number of air changes per hour (of fresh air) that will be provided in academic buildings and classrooms.

5. Cornell states that “vulnerable” faculty are being “urged” to avoid in-person instruction (p.9): “According to the World Health Organization, people of all ages can be infected by COVID-19. However, individuals over 65, as well as individuals with preexisting medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease) or compromised immune systems are considered to be at higher risk. While the university cannot compel individuals in higher-risk categories to avoid in-person instruction or other work, the university will urge these individuals to do so.” This is, simply, not true. Faculty (myself included) have never been “urged” to avoid in-person instruction, neither at the university, college, nor departmental level. I’ve received scores of emails from provosts, presidents, deans, and department chairs, none of which suggested that I should not teach in-person because I’m 68 years old. In addition, the statement ignores the obvious fact that even younger faculty who become infected face serious risks to their health, and also risk spreading infection to other household members who may well be more vulnerable than they are. The truth is that the various administrative missives I’ve received often contain an implicit request that more faculty volunteer to teach in-person, since the university’s financial model depends upon having enough in-person instruction so that they can promise students who return to campus that they will have at least one in-person teaching experience.

6. Cornell claims to have booked 1,200 local hotel rooms “for various blocks of time” to provide for isolation or quarantine if needed. But what does this actually mean? Over the course of the summer and the fall semester, there are approximately 100 or more days (let’s say 100) which means that Cornell could have booked a mere 12 hotel rooms per day and met its goal of reserving 1,200 hotel rooms “for various blocks of time.” So how many rooms are actually available on any given day? Is the number 12 rooms per day, or 24 rooms per day, or something else? Cornell doesn’t say.

7. Cornell, in one of its bullet points (p.16) talks about how often its buildings will be cleaned, referring to “frequent cleaning and/or disinfection of high-touch surfaces …” This “frequent” cleaning turns out to be just once a day, except that “high-touch items such as light switches, door handles and push bars, elevator call buttons and handrails … will be sanitized twice per day” (p. 10). One has to wonder about the seriousness of Cornell’s reactivation plan if they can state that wiping down a door handle twice a day is part of a viable strategy for controlling this virus.

Actually, my own experience with Cornell and hygiene, in a related context, may be of interest. See Appendix below.

Appendix
I raised the issue of poor sanitation practices in Cornell’s fitness centers more than a decade ago, in September, 2009. After more than two years of follow-up complaints, Cornell’s solution was, and remains, highly problematic. There are still no sinks for hand-washing in Teagle or Helen Newman Hall fitness centers, and no mandatory wipe-down protocols for equipment. The paper towel dispensers and Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner that were provided are patently inadequate, especially since this particular cleaner is useless against transmission of the virus causing COVID-19. Here is my initial email complaint from 2009:

On 9/8/09, 7:29 AM, “Jonathan Ochshorn” <jo24@cornell.edu> wrote:
TO: fitness@cornell.edu; Thomas W. Bruce <vpcommunications@cornell.edu>; Gannett Health Center <gannett-mailbox@cornell.edu>
 
The fitness centers at Cornell (I only refer to Helen Newman and Teagle) should take more account of hygiene, especially given the incidence of flu this season. Gannett has written: “HELP STOP THE SPREAD: Watch for seasonal flu vaccine late this month or early October. Currently, flu prevention consists of getting adequate rest and nutrition, and practicing excellent hand hygiene.” (www.gannett.cornell.edu). <http://www.gannett.cornell.edu/>
 
There is no access to water for washing hands in the two fitness centers refer to, and no non-water hand-washing options are made available.
 
There is no systematic process for cleaning the equipment after each use. The current policy of intermittent cleaning is useless. It is essential that the equipment be cleaned after each use. This cannot be voluntary or discretionary.
 
At the point where uniforms and towels are issued, “fresh” towels are placed on the same counter as “soiled” towels. Personnel do not seem to have a systematic protocol in place for the sanitary transfer of soiled uniforms so that they do not contaminate the fresh ones. They also seem to put themselves at risk.
 
If Cornell is serious about reducing the spread of disease, please don’t just issue emails: take productive and effective action.
 
Thanks.
     
Jonathan Ochshorn
Associate Professor

After two years of repeated follow-up emails, Cornell, in early 2012, finally agreed to set up a committee of in-house people to figure something out, which ultimately resulted in the paper towel dispensers and Simple Green Cleaner. I responded to this “solution” later in 2012:

From: Jonathan Ochshorn <jo24@cornell.edu>
Date: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:17 PM
To: Beth McKinney <bm20@cornell.edu>
Cc: Janis I Talbot <jit1@cornell.edu>, Tisha Lea Tipping <tlt29@cornell.edu>
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up
 
Beth,
 
Some follow-up on the issue of sanitation practices at the Cornell fitness centers:
 
Providing cleaning materials for fitness center users is an improvement. However, by leaving it as a voluntary activity, the transmission of infections — which affects the entire Cornell community — is not addressed. This is because very few users seem to be using the available cleaning material. It really needs to be made mandatory, and an educational component needs to be built into Wellness (or other) memberships.
 
The actual materials provided are not satisfactory. The paper towels fall apart when used; the blue cloth towels work much better, but I was told yesterday that they are not available for users, only for staff. And no cleaning materials have been provided for the floor mats.
 
Finally, the poor sanitary practices at the issue rooms (at least in Teagle) persist: clean towels and gym uniforms are placed on the same counter surfaces with soiled uniforms and towels. While the issue rooms may not be within your jurisdiction, it seems to me that sanitation practices should be coordinated centrally — someone needs to take the initiative to provide a consistently safe exercising and fitness environment.
 
Thanks again for your interest in these issues.
 
Jonathan Ochshorn


In the end, Cornell just said no: supplying paper towels and Simple Green Cleaner was all they were prepared to offer:

From: Beth McKinney <bm20@cornell.edu>
Date: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 2:35 PM
To: Jonathan Ochshorn <jo24@cornell.edu>
Cc: Janis I Talbot <jit1@cornell.edu>, Tisha Lea Tipping <tlt29@cornell.edu>, Kerry Howell <kk253@cornell.edu>, “Frank A. Cantone” <fac2@cornell.edu>, Mary J Adams-Kucik <mja12@cornell.edu>, Mark Joseph Bilyk <mjb17@cornell.edu>
Subject: RE: Fitness Follow Up
 
Dear Jon,
 
I am happy to reply to your concerns on behalf of Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services and Environmental Health and Safety.
 
We appreciate your conscientious efforts to help the fitness centers minimize the spread of infections. The team that was created to address these concerns consisted of representatives from the Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services, CU Wellness Program, Recreational Services, and Environmental Health and Safety. After several meetings, these subject matter experts agreed the most effective way to mitigate the problem was to provide what you currently see in the fitness centers.
 
At this time, we remain firm that the current procedure has improved the situation and is working well for our members. There is nothing more that our group plans to change at this time.
 
I will, however, let Mark Bilyk, who oversees the issue rooms, know about your concerns regarding the issue room procedures. 
 
Best,
Beth

Note:

1 Following the link on p.7 to “please visit Cornell’s Environment, Health and Safety website,” we are taken here.  I went to the “Facilities Start-up Checklist” since it seemed to correspond to ASHRAE’s start-up advice, but the site required a Cornell netID. Yet, where ASHRAE’s start-up advice was comprehensive and nuanced, the Cornell start-up advice was generic and incomplete.

Cornell, capitalism, and the coronavirus

Cornell claims to be following “the science” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Upon closer examination, the science turns out to consist of studying and comparing two scenarios: allowing students back on campus (where those that return will be tested, isolated, and contact-traced as needed) vs. holding all classes online. I’m not interested in scrutinizing the models used by operations research specialists at Cornell who concluded that holding in-person classes is the safer scenario. Cornell already admits that there are great uncertainties in these modeled outcomes and that, in any case, they expect a certain amount of infections and disease. What is most troubling about Cornell’s approach is not the “science” embedded in their modeling, but rather the self-serving manner in which they frame the problem in the first place.

Cornell health workers: “We stay here for you; please stay home for us.”

Confronted with a global pandemic which can best be contained and eradicated through international agreements to coordinate lockdowns, testing, contact tracing, isolation, treatment, research, and travel, Cornell instead takes the fragmented, inept, and inadequate U.S. response to the pandemic as its unexamined starting point, and never bothers to consider alternatives, or ask questions, that might point to a more effective, coordinated, and cooperative global solution.

Of course, Cornell cannot single-handedly organize a cooperative and coordinated international effort to eradicate this virus; to do so would entail abolishing or suspending the rules and ideologies governing international capitalism. Rather, Cornell is a part of the infrastructural basis that supports the capitalistic organization of human society, so that even the suggestion that it might contribute to a viable solution to this pandemic—one that challenges capital itself—is purely rhetorical. In fact, Cornell’s attitude and behavior with respect to the pandemic is remarkably similar to its attitude toward that other well-known crisis: global warming. In both cases, Cornell abstracts from the global nature of the problem, and instead looks primarily at what it can do for itself. Of course, there are researchers at Cornell who address the negative impacts of global warming on third world and impoverished populations, but such research inevitably works within the framework of global capitalism, as it must in order to attract funding.

In the case of global warming, Cornell buys into the discredited LEED rating system, damages Cayuga Lake in order to cool its own buildings while using less fossil fuel, and threatens the seismic stability of the region with its plans to essentially “hydrofrack” earth-source energy to directly heat its campus buildings. Cornell has petitioned the Public Service Commission to get more money back for its solar power and, more recently, petitioned the New York Supreme Court to overturn a tax ruling that considered its solar farm an “improvement” to the land rather than as merely personal business property. Cornell’s motivation in all such “sustainable” practices is, naturally, to compete for eco-sensitive students, faculty, and donors, but it only acts when doing so is consistent with its financial goals: each sustainable intervention needs to “pay off” or it won’t be implemented. Yet while Cornell churns out its public relations news articles and tweets, the amount of global warming gases in the atmosphere continues to rise and the planet continues to spiral into an ecological catastrophe for many of its species, including the human one.

In the case of the pandemic, Cornell similarly looks primarily at its own campus, not bothering to examine and critique the systemic and ideological basis for the inept international response. Even countries, like China, that take necessary, effective, and appropriate (or, to use the preferred adjective of liberal media like the NY Times, “draconian”) measures to eradicate the virus are still at the mercy of a competitive and uncoordinated global response that—because of the international movement of goods and people—compromises their own best efforts.

The ideological content of freedom—most often characterized as a “culture war” pitting individual liberty against governmental mandates to wear masks and maintain social distancing—is especially potent in the U.S. and goes a long way to explain why the U.S. response to the coronavirus is less effective than the response of most other capitalist nations. But the problem is not simply ideological: the reality of capitalist freedom also undermines human wellbeing. Of course, freedom has many meanings, but the most relevant here involves its relationship with property: freedom, in this context, is the opportunity—more accurately, the compulsion—to use one’s property as one wishes to advance one’s individual desires, as long as doing so does not infringe on the property rights of others. That this freedom benefits those with lots of property—that it supports and perpetuates a class society and forces those without property to sell their own labor power for some degree of subsistence—can only be disputed by charlatans and corporate sycophants.

Such freedom to use one’s property, whether to accumulate wealth or merely survive, is the sine qua non of capitalism. So what could possibly go wrong in a society where wealth, and thus the very conditions for existence, are not only privately owned but owned to a great extent by a tiny fraction of the planet’s population? For one thing, corporate and national decisions end up being made with an eye on profit: disease and death enter into such calculations as mere entries in the corporate ledger. Yet it is also clear that the ideological framing of property (the American dream, and its many variants) can prevent those people damaged by the enforcement of property rights from criticizing property itself.

Both the development of vaccines and the procurement/production of necessary medical equipment are held hostage to the needs of capital, rather than organized cooperatively (i.e., globally). And the focus on vaccine development, rather than on global eradication of the virus, is probably best understood as an open-ended multi-billion-dollar profit opportunity for both well-entrenched drug cartels and high-tech startups for whom eradication of the virus—and the international cooperation this would entail—appears as a threat to their investments. In the U.S., the federal structure consisting of largely independent states, designed to foster competition, unsurprisingly frustrates coordination and cooperation. The same competitive framework frustrates any attempt at international cooperation and coordination. Yet cooperation, rather than competition, is clearly required in order to eradicate a virus that is so easily transmitted through commerce and travel.

So, where does this leave us? Many people have written about the likelihood that the virus will more thoroughly infiltrate both the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities, especially once students arrive in large numbers from outside Tompkins County. No one knows whether the inevitable outbreaks will be controlled (limited to relatively few cases) or turn into “superspreader” events that will wreak havoc on all Cornell’s optimistic plans. No one knows whether people will suffer debilitating illnesses or death as a result. But it is likely that Cornell’s testing and screening protocols will prove inadequate, for several reasons.

First, tests for Covid-19 are simply not that useful at the early stages of infection. Even four days after infection, the rate of false negatives is as high as 40%. Second, some students may be unwilling to truthfully answer screening questions after being exposed, since doing so would place not only themselves, but all their recent contacts, into quarantine or isolation. Third, some students are simply reckless, and will not comply with guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing, especially after drinking (“What?” you respond in amazement, “students drink?”). Fourth, there will be infected people—whether staff, faculty, students, or visitors—who inevitably break through Cornell’s bubble and trigger big or small outbreaks. All this is quite frustrating, not because Cornell is necessarily acting in bad faith, but because our lives are at the mercy of corporations and nations, all competing for survival or supremacy within an unforgiving capitalist framework, and all incapable of cooperating to deal effectively with the pandemic or, for that matter, any other existential global crisis.

 

Two new papers: “Utility’s Evil Twin” and “Sullivan’s Eagle”

Images from “Utility’s Evil Twin” (left) and “Sullivan’s Eagle” (right)

I’ve posted two new papers for your reading pleasure. “Utility’s Evil Twin: The Function of Venustas and the Fear of Reality” was first published in the Cornell Journal of Architecture: 11 (March 2020). “Sullivan’s Eagle: Form and Function Artistically Considered” was accepted for the Proceedings of the 108th Annual Meeting of the ACSA but that San Diego conference, originally scheduled for March 2020, was postponed/canceled because of the coronavirus.

Reforming Cornell’s architecture curriculum: a manifesto

Architecture students, as future professionals, need real guidance on how to make zero-carbon (aka sustainable) buildings. This needs to be implemented primarily through Environmental Systems courses, but also—importantly—through Design Studio courses. My feeling is that the current design sequence at Cornell adequately addresses virtually none of the important architectural issues discussed within the Environmental Systems/Construction/Structures sequences in a coherent and systematic manner, focusing instead on design as a means of formal expression.* This is increasingly anachronistic, as the planet spirals into some sort of climate-change catastrophe. Michael Pollen famously summarized his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One could summarize viable strategies for sustainable building design, per Joseph Lstiburek, in a similarly concise manner: “Use lots of insulation, airtight construction, controlled ventilation, and not a lot of glass.” Similarly concise words of wisdom could certainly be found for life safety, structural design, and construction. But such sage advice needs to be reinforced within all the design studios (and not just one “sustainable” or “integrative” studio). Of course, this poses a threat to the way we foster design consciousness in our students.

So be it. It’s the only way I know of to make a curriculum that takes issues of human and environmental well-being—including global warming—seriously.

* To the objection that our design studios actually deal with issues affecting human and environmental well-being, I offer this passage from Veblen: “The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men—and women perhaps even in a higher degree—abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure,—much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense.”
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1912—originally published 1899), 176–77. (Emphasis added.)

Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin

I wrote a chapter for a book edited by some of my Fulbright colleagues who were in China with me in 2016. The book is called Narrative Inquiries from Fulbright Lecturers in China: Cross-Cultural Connections in Higher Education, and my chapter, which you can read online here, is called “Experiencing Urban Infrastructure in Tianjin.”

I make a map showing directions to the Tianjin Museum, the German Bakery, the Mighty Deli, and the Zhou Enlai Memorial — we ended up getting to only the Bakery and the Memorial on Sept. 25, 2016

Flexibility and its discontents

I presented a paper called “Flexibility and its discontents: Colquhoun’s critique of the Pompidou Center,” at the 107th annual meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) — the conference was called BLACK BOX: Articulating Architecture’s Core in the Post-Digital Era — at Carnegie Mellon University, March 28–30, 2019. The proceedings have not yet been published, but you can read the paper here.

Stewart Brand’s revised diagram of time-based building systems, based on Frank Duffy’s categories, but with two more S’s and some changed names (“site, structure, skin, services, space plan, and stuff”), each with its own characteristic time-frame for repair, maintenance, or replacement (image by J. Ochshorn adapted from an image by Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, p.13, which was, in turn, adapted from an image by Frank Duffy)

Egress, toilets, and carcinogens: Cornell’s transition plans during Fine Arts Library construction

[Updated below: May 2, 2017, May 10, 2017, May 22, 2017, and Jan. 19, 2018] Cornell has made transition plans [or try here (pdf) if Cornell’s link is no longer working] for the construction of a Fine Arts Library (FAL) in Rand Hall in order to accommodate the various library, wood shop, metal shop, and digital fabrication functions, currently in Rand Hall, that will be out of service during the two-year construction period. Not mentioned in these transition plans are two items that actually affect Milstein Hall: the 2nd-floor Rand Hall toilet rooms that are used by faculty and students in Milstein Hall (since no toilets were provided on the 2nd-floor Milstein Hall studio level) and a third required exit stair for Milstein Hall’s 2nd-floor level, currently in Rand Hall. I’ve asked the AAP Dean and the FAL project manager what plans are in place for temporary toilets and egress, but have not yet gotten a reply. In the meantime, I’ve published a Cornell Chronicle parody on that subject.

Parody image showing temporary toilets in Milstein Hall during the construction of the rand Hall Fine Arts Library

There are other transition issues as well. A temporary digital fabrication lab is being constructed across from my office in E. Sibley Hall. It will house, among other things, 3-D printers, at least one of which uses toxic and carcinogenic materials. The room itself appears to have no ventilation system that supplies fresh air, in apparent violation of the 2015 NY State Mechanical Code. I’ve written a series of emails to Cornell’s mechanical systems designer as well as the director of facilities for the College to try to get some answers to my questions and concerns. After three weeks of waiting and promises of a reply (“The project team, including Facilities Engineering and Environmental Health & Safety, is reviewing the information you have provided and will respond to your concerns once the review has been completed.”), I still haven’t heard anything. Here is the last email I wrote to Cornell’s mechanical designer, dated April 19, 2017:

I haven’t received a reply to my last email, dated April 10, 2017, so I’ll repeat my main questions and concerns. Since the questions are technical in nature, and since you are the responsible mechanical engineer for this project, I would appreciate a response directly from you.

The safety data sheet for the “Stratasys” printer says that it should be used “only outdoors or in a well-ventilated area,” and the 2015 NYS Mechanical Code seems to require that “Ventilation systems shall be designed to have the capacity to supply the minimum outdoor airflow rate.” Your plans for 240 E. Sibley don’t seem to have any mechanical ventilation system for outdoor air—only transfer grilles that pull in return air from the adjacent spaces.

(1) Where is the required outdoor air coming from for this room?

(2) How is your design consistent with the manufacturer’s recommendation that the printer be used “only outdoors or in a well-ventilated area”?

(3) How can you be sure that particulate matter containing toxic or carcinogenic byproducts from the printer will not be exhausted directly in front of the rear entrance to Sibley Hall and a short distance from the food truck?

The context for my concern is that the material used by the printer is both toxic and carcinogenic, and nanoparticles are created as a byproduct of the printing process, some of which are so small that they pass through HEPA filters.

The manufacturer’s safety sheet says:

This chemical is considered hazardous by the 2012 OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200)

Suspected of causing cancer
Suspected of damaging fertility of the unborn child
May cause respiratory inflammation
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure

Carcinogenicity: Classification based on data available for ingredients. Contains a known or suspected carcinogen.

Reproductive toxicity: Classification based on data available for ingredients. Contains a known or suspected reproductive toxin

SARA 311/312 Hazard Categories
Acute health hazard: YES
Chronic Health Hazard: YES

From https://www.uvm.edu/safety/shop/3d-printer-safety: Nanoparticles (ultrafine particles less than 1/10,000 of a millimeter) are one of the by-products emitted during the 3D printing process. Recent studies have shown that 3D printing using a low-temperature polylactic acid (PLA) feedstock can release 20 billion particles per minute, while a higher temperature acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) feedstock can release 200 billion.
Nanoparticles are of concern for the following reasons:
• They are very small,
• They have large surface areas, and
• Can interact with the body’s systems, including the skin, lungs, nerves and the brain.

Exposures to nanoparticles at high concentrations have been associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, strokes and asthma symptoms. While PLA feedstock is designed to be biocompatible, the thermal decomposition products of ABS feedstock have been shown to have toxic effects on lab rodents.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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

[UPDATE: May 2, 2017] I still haven’t heard back from “the Project Team”; meanwhile construction is underway, and one can easily see how any fresh air originating in the existing duct outside the room that manages to find its way through the grilles (at the top of the storefront partition) will be sucked directly into the existing return grille, also at the top of its wall, without providing much benefit to the occupants within the so-called “breathing zone” (Figure 1 below). In fact, it’s possible that particulate matter from the 3-D printers will find itself in a zone with no air movement at all, given the geometry of the room and the placement of grilles only at the top of the walls.

Figure 1. It’s easy to see that the placement of supply air (outside the room) along with louvers (grilles) at the top of the storefront partition and a return grille also at the top of its wall will discourage proper air circulation within the digital fabrication lab, currently under construction (photo by J. Ochshorn, May 2, 2017)

[UPDATE: May 10, 2017] I just received an email response from the AAP Dean indicating how Cornell intends to deal with Milstein Hall toilets (still trying to figure it out) and egress (temporary stair through the glass curtain wall) during the construction of a Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall:

Thank you for your question regarding the transition. Regarding egress, my understanding is that an egress stair will be provided directly from the Kwee studios by removing a glass panel and providing a temporary egress stair. I am told this will be part of the CD drawings.

Regarding the bathrooms, the project team is working with the city to determine the number of accessible and non-accessible fixtures not including Rand Hall. A solution is not yet final, but the team is aware of the issue.

[UPDATE: May 22, 2017] On May 19, 2017, I received a copy of a “health review,” concerning the Sibley Hall Digital Fabrication Lab, jointly written by Cornell’s Director of Occupational Health, Safety, Fire and Emergency Services and Cornell’s Director of Facilities Engineering. I emailed the following reply today to the AAP Director of Facilities (copied to other relevant parties):

Thanks for stopping by today and confirming that each 3D printer will now be placed in a separate “box” that filters air for nanoparticles and VOCs before returning the air to the room. This seems better than the original design in which the 3D printers were placed in the temporary digital fabrication lab (240 E. Sibley) without any specialized exhaust system. Still, even if 99.97% of nanoparticles are captured in this way, the 0.03% that escape constitute a potential release of 20,000,000,000 x 0.0003 = 6,000,000 toxic and carcinogenic particles into the breathing zone per minute. (“Recent studies have shown that 3D printing using a low-temperature polylactic acid (PLA) feedstock can release 20 billion particles per minute” – https://www.uvm.edu/safety/shop/3d-printer-safety).

Question 2 and its answer… confirm that the digital fabrication lab is not directly provided with outside air, but instead: “The Makeup Air Unit in Room 200UA delivers fresh air to the second floor. This air is then transferred into Room 240 through grilles located at the top of the glass partition wall.” Based on a conversation I had with Senior Technical Staff of the International Code Commission (ICC), transferring outside air from a corridor into the digital fabrication lab would not be compliant with the 2015 Mechanical Code. However, since the corridor seems to be now labeled as a room (“collaborative area”), it’s probably legal, but barely. The opportunistic and ad hoc manner in which such design decisions are, and have been made, does not inspire confidence.

Relatively little is known about the risks of exposure to 3D printers. A recent study says: “It is well-known that both gases and particles are emitted during thermal processing of many thermoplastic materials. However, little is known about the  types and magnitudes of emissions from desktop FFF 3D printers and how they vary according to filament material or printer characteristics. In 2013, we published the first known measurements of emissions of ultrafine particles (UFPs: particles less than 100 nm in diameter) resulting from the operation of a single make and model of commercially available desktop FFF 3D printer using both ABS and PLA filaments. These findings were crucial, as exposure to emissions from thermal decomposition of thermoplastics has been shown to have toxic effects in animals, and exposure to UFPs from other sources has been linked to a variety of adverse human health effects.” (Parham Azimi, et al., “Emissions of Ultrafine particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,” Environmental Science & Technology, at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.5b04983, emphasis added).

It saddens me that students, faculty, and administrators in AAP feel the need to introduce toxic and carcinogenic materials into the educational environment. The competition to keep pace with our peers, and to prepare our students for professional practice in architecture, has apparently reached the point where even Monty Python’s prescient “Architect’s Sketch,” featuring “rotating knives” in a corridor where “blood pours down these chutes,” seems like a quaint anachronism.

On another note, I was told by the AAP Director of Facilities that no new toilet rooms will be provided for architecture students during the time when code-mandated toilet rooms in Rand Hall become inaccessible due to construction of the Fine Arts Library. Instead, a code variance will be sought.

[UPDATE: Jan. 19, 2018] Cornell has successfully petitioned for a New York State code variance (Petition No. 2017-0515) so that they will not need to provide an adequate number of toilets during the construction of the library in Rand Hall. There is only a single (shared) toilet for men on the entire second floor of the combined E. SIbley-Milstein Hall, a floor which encompasses an area of over 30,000 square feet and contains well over 300 occupants (with a legal occupancy over 500). In addition, Mike Niechwiadowicz, Ithaca’s Director of Code Enforcement, made a determination that a third exit was not required from Milstein Hall based on the “occupancy of the L.P. Kwee Studios” on the second floor of Milstein Hall. It’s not clear whether he also considered the classroom/critique spaces on the second floor of E. Sibley Hall that exit through Milstein Hall and therefore increase the occupant load beyond what would be computed if considering only the L.P. Kwee Studios in Milstein Hall. Based on past experience, it’s unlikely that there are any calculations to support his judgment. Niechwiadowicz, you may remember, is the very same “code expert” who insisted that Milstein Hall’s crit room needed only one exit. Needless to say, his code opinion was overturned at the July 18, 2013, meeting of the NY State Capital Region Board of Review and Cornell was forced to create, at great expense, a second exit from the crit room space—by breaking through the wall separating the crit room and the auditorium.

Revisiting Form and Forces

I just presented a paper at the 2017 National Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) Conference in Oklahoma City. The paper critiques graphical statics as a contemporary pedagogical tool. You can read it here.

While in Oklahoma City, I also went to see the final game played by the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, where Russell Westbrook was honored in a pregame ceremony by Oscar Robertson. Not everyone is up to speed on NBA trivia; to learn more, read this NY Times article.

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Cornell’s 100% design development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Art’s Library have been completed. The scheme continues to have serious fire-safety deficiencies, continues to be non-compliant with the New York State Building Code, and continues to be problematic for non-Code reasons as well: it destroys a flexible “low-value” industrial-type building that was extremely useful for the department of architecture and replaces it with a spectacularly useless mausoleum for the display of books. You can read more of my articles and blog posts about this project here.

Today, one day before the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I offer two more reading options: first, a detailed analysis of the latest 100% DD drawings (and Cornell’s Code variances) and second, a Cornell Chronicle parody covering the same material.

This photo accompanies my Cornell Chronicle parody.