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

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Storage & Collection of Recyclables

Prerequisite 1. All LEED-certified buildings must have a recycling room, with room size related to building area. Milstein Hall falls somewhere in the 50,001–100,000 square foot (4,645–9,290 square meter) range, corresponding to a required recycling room size of 225 square feet (21 square meters). I haven't actually seen a recycling room, either in the building or in the working drawings, but I presume that all those recycling containers scattered around the building are brought somewhere on campus.

Building Reuse

Credits 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3. This credit doesn't apply to Milstein Hall, as it is being considered "new construction," rather than an "addition" to an existing building. Where existing exterior elements (enclosure), structure (walls and floors), and interior nonstructural elements are preserved, up to 3 points can be gained.

Construction Waste Management

Credits 2.1 and 2.2. The idea is to get the contractor to divert 50 percent (or 75 percent for a second point) of waste from disposal—landfill—by finding alternate uses, i.e., to recycle or reuse the waste. Such waste can be measured by volume or weight, but land-clearing debris is not included at all. One can count the reuse of building materials where there isn't enough surface area for those materials to count under Credit 1.

Comments within the LEED manual suggest that it would be better to focus on "source control" rather than recycling or reuse, i.e., to generate less waste to begin with by more careful planning or more logical design. Yet this credit rewards exactly the opposite practice. At the extreme, a project that generates only 1 pound (0.45 kg) of non-recyclable waste (but no recyclable waste) cannot get this credit, whereas a project recycling half of 100 tons (90.7 metric tons) of waste does. Milstein sent more than 68 tons (61.7 metric tons) of waste to the landfill, yet still gained 2 LEED points for recycling construction waste, as this 68 tons (61.7 metric tons) represented only 15 percent of the total waste generated by the project.

The LEED commentary also points out that low landfill costs in the past made recycling or reuse of construction waste "not economically feasible." In other words, LEED first suggests that sustainable design features should be implemented on the basis of profitability, it then notices the negative historic results of such an attitude (i.e., the current state of the planet), and yet it continues to make the profitable exploitation of the environment the "bottom line" criterion for its recommendations.

In the case of Milstein Hall, the irony of this peculiar credit can be illustrated by a particular and peculiar act of recycling: a large cast-in-place reinforced concrete wall was apparently torn down and sent off for recycling because a horizontal line on the surface of the wall—formed by the joint between two formwork panels—was not at the precise location called for in the architectural drawings. Therefore, the wall had to be built twice, using twice the labor, and twice the materials. The production of cement used in the new concrete generated additional global warming gases, as did the fuel burned in the vehicles that brought the old concrete to a recycling facility and brought the new concrete from the batching plant. And so on. Yet this costly mistake was not punished by LEED; on the contrary, by bringing this destroyed concrete wall to a recycling facility, a greater percentage of Milstein's waste was "diverted from landfill" and—according to the LEED criteria—the project became more "green." Milstein Hall received both of these waste management points.

Materials Reuse

Credits 3.1 and 3.2. Similar to the first credit, one gets a point for reusing 5 percent (or 10 percent for an extra point) salvaged, refurbished, or reused materials in the building. Since some expensive items are difficult to find used—and would generally be energy-inefficient even if available— one is allowed to exclude things like elevators, mechanical systems, plumbing, etc. from the calculation of total building materials, making it easier to qualify for the credit.

As is usual under the LEED guidelines, this calculation is based on cost so that, at the extreme, one could meet the criterion for this point by finding a small quantity of an incredibly expensive object for the building—perhaps a stained-glass window salvaged from Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House. Because that single reused item, worth in this case about $100,000, might be valued at 5 percent of the material cost of the building, that single item could generate one LEED point.1 In the case of Milstein Hall, no points are awarded since all material in the building is new, even if some contain recycled content.

Recycled Content

Credits 4.1 and 4.2. One gets a single point for having 10 percent of the materials in the project consisting of recycled content—with the same exclusions for plumbing, mechanical, etc. that were described under Credit 3 for materials reuse. To get the second point, this percentage must be doubled. Milstein Hall's recycled content is most likely derived primarily from its steel and concrete, which together constitute a fairly high proportion of material costs. There are two main categories of recycled content:

The total amount of recycled materials used for this credit is computed based on cost and must comply with the following proportions: at least 66.7 percent of the 10 percent is post-consumer with the remainder of the 10 percent permitted to be pre-consumer.

In other words, of all the materials used to make the building (excluding mechanical systems, etc.), at least 6.67 percent must be post-consumer recycled materials with the balance making up the required 10 percent being pre-consumer recycled materials for one point (requirements doubled for two points). Where some recycled content is embedded within a product, one prorates its cost according to the weight of the recycled content as a proportion of the total product weight.

The primary construction materials with recycled content that are used in Milstein Hall have high scores here: structural steel is often over 90 percent post-consumer recycled material since it is made from junked American cars; while concrete "fly ash"—considered a pre-consumer product—is generated during the production of coal to produce electricity (a notorious source of global warming gases). In both of these cases, the awarding of "green building" points raises interesting issues.

In the case of Milstein's steel structure, the extravagance of the design—including large, cantilevered hybrid trusses weighing over 1,400 pounds per linear foot (2,080 kilograms per meter of length)—creates an enormous amount of post-consumer recycled content since far more steel weight (and cost) is used compared with steel weight in a normally-configured building. For example, Rand Hall, one of two buildings connecting to Milstein Hall, is a three-story steel-framed building with about 10 pounds of structural steel per square foot of floor area (50 kilograms of structural steel for each square meter of floor area). In contrast, the 1,125 tons (1,020,583 kilograms) of structural steel in two-story Milstein Hall support a floor area—excluding the basement, framed entirely with reinforced concrete walls and slabs—of about 31,000 square feet (2,880 square meters), which works out to more than 70 pounds of steel per square foot (342 kg per square meter) of floor area. Taller buildings generally use proportionally more steel, since their columns support greater loads, yet even typical mid-rise buildings use only about 50 pounds per square foot (244 kg per square meter), while an efficient 100-story highrise building can be built using less than 30 pounds of steel per square foot (147 kg of steel per square meter) of floor area.21 The LEED rating system not only tolerates the inefficiency and extravagance of Milstein Hall's steel structure, but actually rewards it under this credit.

Giving points for the use of recycled steel also raises another issue: the larger context in which structural steel is produced from recycled cars encourages a culture in which cars are junked rather than repaired and kept on the road. To the extent that the market for junked cars dries up, the availability of those car bodies in the steel manufacturing process is reduced. There are contradictory imperatives at work here: on the one hand, it's good to recycle; on the other hand, it's bad to throw away potentially serviceable vehicles. Milstein's extravagant use of steel makes use of recycled cars (good) but simultaneously encourages a "disposable culture" of planned obsolescence (bad).

Fly ash used in concrete raises some of the same issues: it's good to find a use for what otherwise would remain on the ground as toxic mountains of waste, but it's questionable whether encouraging the production of such material (along with the generation of global warming gases) by burning coal is an environmentally sound policy.

There's one other interesting aspect to LEED's love affair with fly ash: by allowing its recycled content within concrete to be based on the weight of cementitious materials only, rather than on the much heavier total weight of the concrete, the use of fly ash is uniquely encouraged. Fly ash itself constitutes a cementitious material within the concrete mix. Cements are the pricey component of concrete (the heavy aggregate is basically free); since one gets points based on cost, having the fly ash computed as a fraction of the cement weight (and cost) produces a much higher valuation for the fly ash as a recycled component of concrete.

To see why this is so, we can examine the calculations of fly ash value computed both ways, i.e., measuring the fly ash as a percentage of total concrete weight versus total cement weight. In Table 6, the numbers have been made up so that the calculations are easy to follow, but the basic ramifications of considering only the cementitious ingredients— and excluding the aggregate—show up clearly:

Table 6: Hypothetical costs and weights of major concrete ingredients.

Concrete ingredientsWeightCost
Fly ash1 lb.$6
Other cement1 lb.$12
Aggregate8 lb.$2

Table notes:

  1. The weight of fly ash, measured as a fraction of the weight of cementitious materials (i.e., the combined weight of fly ash and other cements) is 1 lb. / 2 lb. = 0.5.
  2. The weight of fly ash, measured as a fraction of the total concrete weight is 1 lb. / 10 lb. = 0.1.
  3. The value (cost) of fly ash, prorated according to the weight and cost of cementitious materials is 0.5 x $18 = $9.
  4. The value (cost) of fly ash, prorated according to total concrete weight and cost is 0.1 x $20 = $2.

The value of the fly ash is taken as $9 (see note 3, Table 6), computed per LEED according to its weight as a fraction of the total weight of cementitious materials; it would be valued at only $2 if computed as a recycled component of the entire concrete (see note 4, Table 6). The actual (hypothetical) cost of the fly ash—not directly relevant in these LEED calculations—is $6.

This relatively detailed examination of fly ash in the LEED system is not intended as a criticism of fly ash, which has many beneficial qualities when added to concrete. Rather, it illustrates the entirely arbitrary criteria that LEED uses to make judgments about the "green-ness" of recycled products. The idea that the "use-value"—the actual contribution to environmental sustainability—of recycled products should be measured by "exchange value"—cost—makes of environmental sustainability just another line item in the corporate calculation of profitability. And in cases, such as the use of fly ash, where LEED's formula for computing recycled content based on cost appears irrational even to LEED, their formula is arbitrarily tweaked until the desired outcome is achieved.

While recycling is a positive and sustainable idea in principle, the LEED rating system encourages inefficiencies and bad habits. Inefficiencies in the manufacturing process are rewarded, since they would tend to generate more pre-consumer recycling material, leading to more LEED points; and bad habits in the production of other goods, for example, over-packaging, are also rewarded, for the same reason. Milstein Hall received 2 points for such recycling.

Regional Materials

Credits 5.1 and 5.2. One point is awarded for having 10 percent of materials (also excluding mechanical systems, etc., as explained in prior credits) extracted, processed, and manufactured within 500 miles (805 km) of the project site. A second point is awarded for doubling this percentage.

As usual, the 10 percent (or 20 percent) is based on cost so that a single diamond of sufficient value used as decorative embellishment for a building in Lichtenburg, South Africa, for example, would presumably qualify for 2 LEED points, in spite of its dubious relationship to sustainability.

The LEED rationale for using regional materials is not only to reduce the environmental costs of transportation over long distances, but also to support "the use of indigenous resources" for its own sake. The claim that "the local economy is supported…"3 seems specious, since local manufacturers who sell beyond the 500 mile (805 km) radius would lose out to the same extent that manufacturers who sell only locally would gain. To the extent that Boeing sells its products only within 500 miles (805 km) of Seattle, the economy of Seattle suffers. Is it rational, or sustainable, to manufacture such products "locally," or even "regionally"?

LEED claims in their guidelines that "money paid for these [regionally produced] materials is retained in the region, supporting the regional economy…"4 This is questionable for the same reason. It also is an idealization of a profit-driven, global economic system that knows no national boundaries, let alone artificial boundaries defined by a 500-mile (805 km) radius. Unlike other credits, the value of this credit is not measured by comparing costs of using local/regional materials to costs of other options, thereby contradicting the entire LEED premise that market-driven decisions underlie sustainable building practices. Here, the "market" that LEED seeks to encourage has nothing to do with the international marketplace that increasingly characterizes global capitalism. That LEED places a positive value on market inefficiencies associated with local production can only be explained by the internal ideologies and politics within the LEED consensus process, and not by any objective measure of sustainability.

Like the LEED credit for reduced landscape irrigation in rainy climates with no need for irrigation, the credit for "regional materials" rewards buildings that happen to be near manufacturing facilities for products that would have been used in any case. Conversely, buildings in locations without a regional manufacturing base are still encouraged to build with "local" materials—manufactured within 500 miles (805 km) of the building site—even if a product manufactured 621 miles (1000 km) away would have superior "green" attributes and lower life-cycle costs.

In the case of Milstein Hall, not as much of the materials used in the building were manufactured within the required 500-mile (805 km) radius as one would expect (so while one point will be earned, a second point will not). For example, the unusually large steel W-sections used for hybrid truss chords and columns were fabricated within the 500-mile (805 km) radius in a specialized facility located in Quebec, Canada, but it is not clear where they were produced. The large steel hybrid trusses and columns therefore may or may not qualify for points since, under LEED guidelines, the entire extraction, production, and fabrication process must occur within that magic circle. Of course, even if the steel sections were produced, say, in Columbia City, Indiana, by Steel Dynamics (fig. 23.1, location "D") and fabricated in Quebec by Canatal Industries (fig. 23.1, location "B")—both sites within the 500-mile (805 km) boundary—it would still be necessary to truck the steel sections 938 miles (1,509 km) from Indiana to Quebec, and then truck the finished truss segments another 475 miles (764 km) from Quebec to Ithaca, for a total transport distance of 1,412 miles (2,273 km). In contrast, a single production-fabrication plant located outside the circle, say at site "C" in figure 23.1, would have far less transport impacts yet would be disqualified under the LEED guidelines.

Map of northeast USA with circle having 500-mile radius centered on Ithaca, NY, showing locations of manufacturing plants.

Figure 23.1. Acceptable locations for "regional materials": the circle represents a 500-mile (805 km) radius around Ithaca, NY. The site labeled "A" is Milstein Hall in Ithaca; site "B" is Milstein Hall's truss-fabrication plant in Quebec; site "C" is one of the few steel mills that actually make W-sections on the east coast; Site "D" is a steel mill operated by Steel Dynamics, Inc. in Columbia City, Indiana.

Rapidly Renewable Materials

Credit 6. This credit encourages the use of materials that are harvested from plants having a 10-year (or shorter) cycle of growth, and requires that 2.5 percent of the total material value (i.e. cost), excluding the usual mechanical systems and so on, comes from such plants. Examples of rapidly renewable materials include the following: bamboo, wool (not exactly from a plant, but we get the idea), cotton for insulation, agrifiber, linoleum, wheatboard, strawboard, and cork.

What this credit points to, without actually requiring it, is scientific ("responsible") management of renewable plant-based materials, whatever their growth cycle might be. Suggesting instead that the use of plants with a short growth cycle should be rewarded makes no sense. Should we also require that the grains we eat every day have a corresponding growth cycle of one day? Or that Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch Whiskey cannot be sustainably produced because its constituent whiskies are each aged for at least 12 years? A rational society would organize the production of grain or of any other product so that its use is consistent with its production cycle. One would expect a similar stipulation for products used in construction rather than an arbitrary value assigned to things that grow quickly.

The LEED commentary suggests that because "rapidly renewable resources may be harvested more quickly, they tend to give a faster payback on investment for manufacturers."5 First, this may make sense from the standpoint of capital, which prefers a fast rate of turnover from the start, but only to the extent that the rapidly renewable product is comparable to the not-so-rapidly renewable product—e.g., that bamboo is interchangeable with Douglas-fir for use in a building's structural framing (it isn't).

Second, if two different forest species are harvested for lumber, one with a growth period of 10 years and one with growth period of twenty years, the extraction of wood need not happen only on a 10- or 20-year cycle. Production can be organized so that sections of the forest are harvested on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, depending on the judgment and calculations of the business owners. Neither their "investment" nor their "payback" has any necessary relationship to the growth cycle of an individual tree, unless—as argued above—the two species are otherwise indistinguishable, in which case a quicker turnover is advantageous for a capital investment.

Third, the LEED commentary goes on to suggest that rapidly renewable resources take up less space since they can be harvested at a more rapid pace, and that this is somehow advantageous: "The land saved [?] from the production requirements of rapidly renewable resources may be used for a variety of other uses…"6 as if slow-growth forests are not a legitimate use of real estate.

Finally, what does this have to do with sustainability? Throughout history, humans have proven themselves capable of destroying both fast- and slow-growing species of plants and animals—including large segments of their own human species (a notoriously slow-growing product). Humans have also proven capable of managing the consumption of both fast- and slow-growing species of plants and animals in such a way that these species remain viable over time. The first case is, by definition, not sustainable. The second case is, by definition, sustainable. Neither case has anything to do with the rapidity with which the "resource" renews itself.

While Milstein Hall utilizes some rapidly renewable materials (e.g., cork trim surrounding the wood floor of the studio lounge), not nearly enough material value is embedded in such things to qualify for this point. To get a rough idea about how much rapidly renewable material would be required, we can attempt to calculate 2.5 percent of Milstein Hall's material cost (excluding mechanical systems, elevators, and so on). LEED allows us to assume, as a rough approximation, that 45 percent of the total building cost goes to materials (minus the excluded equipment and systems), so if the cost of Milstein is about $55 million (this is just a guess; the actual real cost is probably higher), then the cost of materials can be assumed to be 0.45 × $55 million = $24.75 million, and the required value of rapidly renewable materials would be 0.025 × $24.75 million = $618,750. One would need to buy a lot of cork to get this point.

Certified Wood

Credit 7. This point is awarded when half the wood products used in the building come from responsibly managed forests, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) "Principles and Criteria."7 It is possible, but not required, to include temporary products—e.g., formwork, shoring, etc.—in these calculations, but only if all such wood products are included.

The concept of "chain-of-custody" (COC) is important here, since wood that has been obtained from forests and then used in all sorts of products cannot easily be identified as "responsible" merely by observation: it must have a "birth certificate" of sorts that proves it comes from the right family. The fraction of good wood is based on cost, which helps, since such wood is invariably more expensive. Where the wood is embedded in some other product, one is instructed by LEED to prorate its value using any consistent measure—weight, volume, or cost.

In the case of Milstein Hall, enormous quantities of non-certified wood were used during the construction process, especially plywood and MDO boards for concrete formwork and ordinary sawn lumber for shoring. Large amounts of engineered wood trusses made from ordinary dimension lumber were designed and fabricated to support three layers of plywood constituting the forms under the reinforced concrete dome. All of this wood was taken down and removed, possibly recycled, but not reused, and all at great expense. A far smaller quantity of wood made its way into the final building design, mostly within the upper-level studio space, but also in the elevator, and as underlayment behind felt pin-up boards. The underlayment, while not made with wood from certified forests, still may be "certified" under new rules promulgated by the FSC.8 The plywood elevator finishes appear not to qualify.

The small studio lounge on the second floor has what was initially intended to be a certified ash floor, but the wider ash planks finally specified and installed do not meet FSC standards (fig. 11.21), most likely because they come from old-growth trees. Some sloped wooden seating on this level is also framed and finished with wood. But because these finished materials—even if certified—are fastened to non-certified substrates of ordinary lumber or plywood, the certified portion constitutes less than half of the total weight or volume. This is where LEED's emphasis on cost becomes so important: since certified products are more expensive than the ordinary lumber used elsewhere, a LEED point remains possible even when the quantity of such certified wood is quite small. And one can always "buy" the point by searching for even more expensive certified products to compensate for the larger quantities of non-certified (non-sustainable) lumber actually used.

What is also striking about this LEED point is that it is awarded even when a relatively tiny portion of the building uses wood products: virtually everything in Milstein Hall is constructed and finished with reinforced concrete, structural steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and glass. LEED makes no distinction between two buildings of the same size, one of which is built entirely with certified wood structure and finishes, and one of which is constructed almost entirely with concrete, metal, and glass, but with a tiny amount of wood flooring or underlayment— most of which (measured by weight or volume) isn't even certified. Each building can get one point for its use of certified wood. But Milstein Hall did not get the certified wood point, in part because the ash floor no longer complies.9 In retrospect, the final word on the sustainability of ash flooring has come, not from LEED, but from larvae of the Emerald Ash Borer which, since their discovery in 2002, have "killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America" by "feed[ing] on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients."10


1 "An original window from the Darwin Martin carriage house is returning home thanks to a generous donation by a Buffalo couple. Will and Nan Clarkson have given the Frank Lloyd Wright designed window to the Darwin Martin Restoration Corporation to display in the rebuilt carriage house. The couple had owned the window since the mid-1980's and its value on the resale market was estimated at over $100,000." From "Carriage House Window Donated Back to Martin House," Buffalo Rising, here.

2 "With the foundations in place, 1,125 tons of steel have been rising on the site of Milstein Hall, including five trusses that support the building's massive cantilever." Sherrie Negrea, "Steel framework nearly complete for Milstein Hall," AAP/ Architecture Art Planning website (June 11, 2010). Milstein Hall, a two-story building, uses more than twice as much steel per square foot of floor area as the Hancock Center in Chicago, a 100-story, 1127-foot-high skyscraper: "…the structural steel in a typical medium-rise Chicago building weighs about 50 pounds for each square foot or area. Yet in this extreme high-rise [the Hancock Center in Chicago], the ratio is only 29.7 pounds of steel per square foot of area…" LeBlanc, , 134.

3 "Environmental Issues," in "Materials & Resources, Credit 5," USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction, 275.

4 "Environmental Issues," in "Materials & Resources, Credit 5," USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction, 275.

5 "Economic Issues," in "Materials & Resources, Credit 6," USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction, 279.

6 "Economic Issues," in "Materials & Resources, Credit 6," USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction, 279.

7 LEED now permits additional organizations (not just the FSC) to certify wood: "Builders and architects can use wood and paper products certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) standards to achieve a point in the Certified Wood Pilot ACP under LEED 2009 and achieve a point in the Sourcing of Raw Materials Pilot ACP under LEED v4." See "Earning LEED points with certified wood," USGBC, here.

8 Homasote is an underlayment product used behind felt pin-up walls in Milstein Hall. "The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world's forests, has certified Homasote under recently extended certification criteria that now includes firms whose products are made from post-consumer materials." "Homasote Products Earns FSC Certification," Homasote, Jan. 21, 2009, here.

9 Discussion of wide-plank ash not meeting FSC standards is based on author's conversation with John McKeown, Milstein Hall Project Manager for the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell, Jan. 4, 2012.

10 "About the Emerald Ash Borer," Emerald Ash Borer Network, here.

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