OMA's Milstein Hall: A Case Study of Architectural Failure
Jonathan Ochshorn

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Part IV. Unsustainable Design


book cover

By any rational calculation, Milstein Hall is not a sustainable building. It is basically a sealed glass box with undifferentiated facade treatment on all four elevations. It is a flat pancake of a building that maximizes weather-exposed surface area not only by spreading out the bulk of its program area on one enormous floor plate, but also by lifting this floor plate off the ground, thereby exposing not only its roof but also its underside to the weather—while simultaneously creating outdoor decks directly above underground rooms that then become exposed to the weather as well. It turns thermal bridging into an art form, with uninsulated structural steel columns and steel shelf angles bypassing insulation to funnel heat into cool spaces and cold into heated spaces. It proudly exposes its floor-to-ceiling continuous glass facades to the eastern, southern, and western sun without mediation (well, you can draw the curtains). It promotes daylighting (which is not even available most of the time the building is used, and is increasingly dubious in an age of computer monitors and digital projection) at the expense of energy conservation. Milstein Hall, with its structural exhibitionism, uses far more building materials than would otherwise be needed: the quantity of steel used in this two-story building—some of its structural components have four-inch (102 mm) thick flanges—is mind-boggling. In virtually every aspect of the building's design, decisions have been made that increase complexity, cost, and quantity of material resources expended. For example, glass is placed around an auditorium that requires darkness and acoustical isolation: so the glass is made inordinately thick (to keep sound out), and then covered with elaborate curtains (to make the room dark).

Complexity, if not matched by a rigorous program of design research and testing, leads to unsustainable buildings. This is because needlessly complex design elements will experience a greater rate of failure than more conventional elements, which results in the expenditure of more resources over time for maintenance, repair, and replacement.

In fact, there is only one possible way to pretend that this building is "green": by buying into (literally) the USGBC's LEED rating system. "The benchmark for measuring 'Green' Buildings is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Rating System developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. As part of developing a sustainable campus, Cornell has embraced the LEED Rating System and requires that new construction and major renovation projects achieve a minimum LEED Silver Rating."1

As will be shown, achieving a LEED silver, or even a gold, rating has nothing to do with any rational measure of sustainability. In fact, Cornell's own internal goals are simpler and more ambitious: "In addition to LEED Silver requirements, to support our Climate Action Plan goals of climate neutrality by 2050, projects initiated since 2008 need to use 30% less energy than current energy standards and strive towards 50% less energy."2 How Milstein Hall fails to stack up to other recent Cornell projects in reaching these internal goals is illustrated in Table 5:3

Table 5: Milstein Hall compared with other Cornell buildings.

Project name/completion yearGross Square Footage% Energy ReductionLEED Rating Target
Physical Sciences Building/2010197,00029%NC-Gold
Paul Milstein Hall/201169,0002%NC-Silver
Combined heat & Power Office/20103,00061%NC-Gold
Animal Health Diagnostic Center/2011109,00022%NC-Gold
Plantations Welcome Center/20106,00053%NC-Gold
Riley-Robb Biofuels research Lab/200921,00038%NC-Gold
Human Ecology Center for Science/2011227,00033%NC-Gold
MVR '33 Phase 1 Renovation/201058,00031%CI-Gold

Table 5 shows that Milstein Hall (labeled "Paul Milstein Hall" before the name was changed to "Milstein Hall") uses energy at a rate virtually identical to current, presumably non-sustainable, standards. In contrast, every other project initiated by Cornell during this time period is reducing energy consumption by 22 percent to 66 percent. That Cornell's flagship architecture building—a building with nothing but a large floor plate for desks, an auditorium, a small gallery, and a critique space—cannot figure out how to reduce its energy consumption beyond currently mandated standards is consistent with the architecture program's historic values, but hardly in tune with either the University's or the profession's stated goals. Cornell architecture has always been fixated on form and the intellectual/artistic basis underlying formal design:

If one could identify a singular philosophy for the architecture program at Cornell, it would be that architecture is a conceptual problem-solving discipline… The intention has always been to instruct architecture students in issues of basic and more sophisticated formal principles… The development of form and space is critical to architectural design… The excellence of architectural art, however, derives from the exploration and refinement of ideas, upon which form, purpose, and structure are dependent.4

In contrast, the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE)

reflects the profession's commitment to provide healthy and safe environments for people and is dedicated to preserving the earth's capability of sustaining a shared high quality of life. The committee's mission is to lead and coordinate the profession's involvement in environmental and energy-related issues and to promote the role of the architect as a leader in preserving and protecting the planet and its living systems.5

If we temporarily suspend our disbelief, it is possible to evaluate Milstein Hall's sustainable attributes based on the LEED rating system. The version under which Milstein Hall was rated—LEED-NC 2.2—divides sustainability into five categories, each of which will be examined in turn: site, water, energy/atmosphere, materials, and indoor environmental quality.6 A sixth category for "Innovation & Design Process" provides extra points for projects that either exceed expectations, or provide innovations that were not anticipated under these five categories. Items listed as "prerequisites" are mandatory for LEED certification; all other so-called credits are discretionary. One can completely disregard whole categories of green building design so long as enough points are collected in the remaining categories to satisfy the criteria for the various ratings. In LEED v.2, unlike later versions, a maximum of 69 points is available: 26–32 points to be merely certified; 33–38 points for a silver rating; 39–51 points for gold; and 52–69 points for platinum. As might be expected, most projects are certified7 at the bottom range of their rating classification rather than at the top. In other words, a project with a projected point total of 32—the top of the lowly "certified" range—would most likely find a way to "buy" one more point in order to get the LEED-silver designation. Milstein Hall, aiming for gold, was one point short of that goal in September 2011 but managed to find enough points to achieve the "Gold" designation in June 2012.8

In the sections that follow, all 69 LEED points and 7 prerequisites, listed in the order established by the U.S. Green Building Council in their Version 2.2 guide, are examined in terms of their relationship to sustainable building and, where applicable, in terms of Milstein Hall's design. LEED continues to evolve, and so the specific requirements discussed below are different from current LEED requirements. Indeed, some of my criticisms have been addressed in later versions. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with the older Version 2.2 credits and prerequisites for two reasons: first, and most important, this is the version of LEED under which Milstein Hall was certified as a LEED-gold building; and second, while there have been adjustments and improvements, the fundamental strategies, principles, and contradictions underlying the LEED guide have not substantially changed. The older guide, in some ways, is more revealing than newer versions which have buried some of its more incriminating ideological imperatives deeper in the manual's fine print.


1 A Cornell handout specifies a minimum silver rating for new construction and major renovations: see "Cornell LEEDing."

2 "Cornell LEEDing."

3 Based on table in "Cornell LEEDing."

4 4 "Department of Architecture Program Mission," Archived Catalog (2011–2012), accessed June 25, 2023, here.

5 "COTE Mission," AIA Committee on the environment, (website no longer available). A later and more generic COTE mission statement was accessed June 25, 2023, here.

6 For Milstein Hall's anticipated LEED points, see "Milstein LEED Checklist," (based on LEED-NC Version 2.2 Registered Project Checklist), Sept. 2, 2011, BVM Engineering. For a detailed description of LEED credits and prerequisites, see USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction. For Milstein Hall's final "scorecard," accessed June 25, 2023, see here.

7 Yes, it's confusing: buildings can be certified by LEED at "silver," "gold," and "platinum" levels, but can also be certified at the lowest level, called "certified."

8 "LEED for New Construction Application Review."

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