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

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26 ⇨


book cover

Milstein Hall gets four points in this "innovation" category (the maximum possible) for developing and implementing strategies that address sustainability issues in ways that are either not covered in the LEED guidelines or that substantially exceed base LEED requirements. In order to get these points, the same sort of documentation normally required for LEED credits is expected: i.e., identifying the intent, the proposed requirements, the required submittals, and strategies (design approach).

There are some general guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable credit under this category: where existing LEED guidelines are exceeded, one should double the required outcome, or get to the next percentage increment; and where something new is proposed, it must "demonstrate a comprehensive approach and have significant, measurable environmental benefits…"1

Transportation Demand Management

Credit 1.1. This credit is boiler-plate "innovation" that Cornell applies to all its LEED-seeking buildings, based on a program initiated in 1990 "to reduce commuter demand for parking spaces by providing efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to commuting via single-occupancy, personal vehicles (SOVs)." The program has little to do with Milstein Hall, since Milstein Hall is occupied overwhelmingly by students. Cornell's Transportation Demand Management Program "concentrates on faculty and staff at the university, because it was their commuting habits that could be most impacted, and as a group, students own or operate far fewer vehicles than do employees."2 As was pointed out under Sustainable Sites Credit 4.4, Cornell was, and still is, intending to actually increase parking adjacent to Milstein Hall. While it is often difficult to assign particular parking spaces to specific buildings on a campus like Cornell, the connection between Milstein Hall and the proposed adjacent parking structure was made explicit by linking them together in a single Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), exposing the hypocrisy of applying for LEED's transportation innovation credit in this context.3

Exemplary Performance, Open Space

Credit 1.2. For this innovation credit, the base requirement found in Sustainable Sites Credit 5.2 must be doubled: in other words, instead of a 25 percent open space increase, one needs to provide a 50 percent increase over the standard zoning requirement of 65 percent; i.e., one needs 1.5 × 65 = 97.5 percent open space on the site rather than 1.25 × 65 = 81.25 percent. So, yes, 50 percent (for "innovation") is twice the increase required under the normal Sustainable Sites credit, but notice that the "innovative" outcome is only marginally different than before: the actual open space area required for this extra innovation point represents only a 20 percent increase in open space over the normal Sustainable Sites requirement.

In the first case, this credit might be awarded because, as an "urban" project qualifying for SS Credit 2, Milstein Hall can count its vegetated roof as well as 75 percent of the concrete "hardscape" as vegetated open space, and this hardscape extends under the floor plate carrying the vegetated roof.

But if this proves insufficient, the same loophole available for Sustainable Sites credit 5.2 might be invoked here: a remote vegetated open space somewhere on campus can be assigned to Milstein Hall for the purpose of satisfying this credit.

That Milstein Halls non-vegetated ground-level pedestrian zones are credited not only with being a "green" design feature, but actually as representing an innovation in the design of vegetated open space illustrates clearly how the LEED system can be gamed. The one potentially innovative feature of the paved areas—using the curved and sloped ground surfaces as a kind of skateboard park—seems to have been an unintended consequence of other formal interests and, in any case, has been strictly forbidden if not completely extirpated (fig. 6.10).

Green Cleaning

Credit 1.3. This credit is a boiler-plate "innovation" that Cornell applies to all its LEED-seeking buildings, based on a university-wide program that reviews "cleaning chemicals, paper products, equipment and custodial protocol" to "protect the health of the Cornell community without harming the environment," "improve air quality by reducing the amount of contaminants in the air through our custodial maintenance processes," and "preserve the infrastructure by extending the life of carpeting, hard floor surfaces and other materials through a variety of cleaning methods."4

Exemplary Performance, Heat island Effect, Roof

Credit 1.4. Milstein Hall's green roof covers about 60 percent of the building's true roof area (including both above-ground and underground spaces), sufficient for one "sustainable site" heat island effect point. This second "exemplary performance" point is awarded, not for the large area of white concrete pavement that covers much of the building's underground spaces, but for covering the entire above-ground roof (100 percent) with vegetation. In other words, underground spaces roofed with reinforced concrete slabs and covered with layers of waterproofing and insulation below grade are not counted as roofs under the LEED guidelines, and are excluded from such calculations. That virtually all of Milstein Hall's roof area reduces "heat island effects" doesn't make claims of sustainability or innovation any more plausible: heat island impacts are simply not an issue on Cornell's spacious campus; and, in fact, reflecting rather than absorbing solar radiation may actually increase energy consumption in a cold climate.

LEED Accredited Professional

Credit 2. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has created a category of people deemed especially qualified to organize and coordinate the LEED certification process: so-called LEED accredited professionals, or LEED APs. When Milstein Hall applied for its LEED certification, it was possible to become a LEEP AP by studying the LEED guidelines, paying a fee, and passing an examination. As long as a "principal participant" of the project team is a LEED AP—and there are many such people involved with the design of Milstein Hall—the project is in compliance with this credit, and gets an innovation point.


1 "Approach and Implementation," in "Innovation in Design, Credits 1.1–1.4," USGBC, LEED 2.2 New Construction, 392.

2 UrbanTrans Consultants, "Transportation Demand Management Study report," Regional Municipality of Peel (June 2004), C-19, here.

3 "Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Paul Milstein Hall and Central Avenue Parking Garage Projects," Cornell University, Trowbridge & Wolf (July 25, 2008), here (author's copy).

4 Cornell's Green Cleaning Program website has been updated and moved since these quotations were found on Oct. 27, 2011; Cornell's new website, containing substantially the same information, was accessed June 28, 2023, here.

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26 ⇨