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Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety

Jonathan Ochshorn


Fire safety contents: 1. introduction | 2. floor area limit | 3. fire barrier | 4. crit room egress | 5. Sibley egress | 6. mezzanine | 7. Rand occupancy | 8. conclusions | 9. summary and appeal | 10. variance application

4. Noncompliant crit room egress [Updated below: 11/13/12 and 03/16/15]

The "crit space" in Milstein Hall's lowest level, directly under its concrete dome, is an assembly space with an area of approximately 3,600 square feet [the area is actually 4,978 square feet according to the Milstein Hall construction documents—see update below]. Assuming that its occupancy is determined by non-fixed chairs assigned seven square feet per occupant (this seems to correspond most closely to the actual intended occupancy), the space should be designed for 3,600 / 7 = 514 people, and should therefore have three exits. However, even assuming two exits are appropriate, these two exits must be "placed a distance apart equal to not less than one half [or one third for this sprinklered space, per exception] of the length of the maximum overall diagonal dimension of the building or area to be served" (2002 Building Code of NYS). The exits from this space do not comply with this separation requirement. Rather, the two exits—the first opens to a corridor and the second consists of a stair leading to an overhead bridge—are immediately adjacent to each other without adequate separation distance (Figure 1a). I was first informed by Gary Wilhelm, Project Director at Cornell, that egress compliance is achieved by considering the corridor leading from the crit room space to be actually part of the crit room space, thereby extending the separation distance between the first exit (now "moved" to the far end of the corridor) and the second exit (the stair), as illustrated in Figure 1b.1

egress scam - crit room Milstein Hall

Figure 1. Egress from Milstein Hall crit space (a) as it actually is; and (b) pretending that the room extends into the corridor.

However, when I challenged this interpretation, the City of Ithaca Deputy Building Commissioner informed me that, in his view, the space did not need two remote exits at all because occupants could move along a common path of travel, no more than 75 feet in length, to a point where two distinct egress paths were available: He wrote that the "2003 Building Code of NYS Section 1004.2.5 (equivalent in 2010 Building Code of NYS Section 1014.3) 'Common path of egress travel' allows a 75 foot common path of travel before access to two exits is required. The definition of 'common path of egress travel' is in Section 1002. Basically, for up to 75 feet only one path to the two exits is required. The Crit space meets this requirement; therefore, it does have two code compliant exits."2

First, this is not what the Building Code requires: the common path of travel limits must be complied with, and the two required exits must be separated from each other by a minimum code-specified distance. Meeting one of these requirements does not allow you to violate the other. Second, it is not even true that the 75-foot limit for common path of travel is met (Figure 2): in fact, both of these code-required provisions are not met in this space, making is doubly noncompliant and dangerous.

egress scam - crit room Milstein Hall

Figure 2. Common path of travel from the crit space exceeds 75-foot Code limit: partitions and furnishings preclude measuring this distance as a single straight line.

That the common path of travel is shown in Figure 2 as a series of perpendicular line segments, rather than as a single "as-the-crow-flies" arc, is not an arbitrary decision. Rather, the Code stipulates that the route measured must represent the natural path of travel without obstruction. Assuming typical arrangements of desks, chairs, or—in the case of the Milstein Hall crit room—partitions, this type of segmented and perpendicular arrangement of line segments is actually required by the Code. In fact, the Commentary to the 2009 IBC3 confirms this interpretation. From Section 1014.3: "The common path of travel is considered part of the overall travel distance limitations in Section 1016.1." From Section 1016.1: "The route must be assumed to be the natural path of travel without obstruction. This commonly results in a rectilinear path similar to what can be experienced in most occupancies, such as a schoolroom or an office with rows of desks [see Figure 1016.1(2)]. The 'arc' method, using an 'as the crow flies' linear measurement, must be used with caution, as it seldom represents typical floor design and layout and, in most cases, would not be deemed to be the natural, unobstructed path." Figure 1016.1(2) from the Commentary is reproduced below as Figure 3.

Figure 1016.1(2) from the 2009 IBC Commentary

Figure 3. Common path of travel must be measured along the natural path of egress, typically resulting in a series of perpendicular line segments rather than a single "as-the-crow-flies" arc. Image from the 2009 IBC Code and Commentary, Figure 1016.1(2).

Moreover, the crit room space has been subdivided into several "flexible" spaces with permanent 8-foot high moveable partitions. These partitions can be configured in ways that also create assembly rooms, each required to have two separated means of egress. Some configurations create conditions where only a single means of egress is provided even when the calculated occupancy exceeds 50 people (Figure 4).

egress scam - crit room Milstein Hall

Figure 4. Permanent moveable partitions in Milstein Hall crit space: (a) partitions under construction; and (b) one of many scenarios in which assembly spaces formed by partitions have more than 50 occupants but only one exit.

These partitions are not lightweight dividers equivalent to pieces of furniture. Rather, they are quite substantial—far more substantial than typical room-dividing partitions—and consist of welded structural-steel frames clad with layers of plywood, Homasote, and felt. They extend a full eight feet above the floor and are permanently fastened to the building's structure. That they can also be moved into positions where they do not create noncompliant spaces is not relevant: the Code does not permit noncompliant spaces just because they are only noncompliant some of the time. A building must be code-compliant in all of its possible configurations.

A remedy for this egress problem is not at all obvious. Whereas noncompliant spaces discovered in existing buildings can continue to be used by limiting the number of occupants to 49 where only a single means of egress is provided (e.g., by posting an occupancy sign with such a limit), such a strategy is not permitted for new construction. Modern building codes do not permit spaces to have a single exit where they would otherwise require two exits simply by posting an occupancy sign that limits the permitted occupancy below the number requiring a second exit. The Code is clear: "In determining means of egress requirements, the number of occupants for whom means of egress facilities shall be provided shall be established by the largest number computed in accordance with Sections 1003.2.2.1 through 1003.2.2.3."4 These three sub-sections establish the following criteria: first, the actual number of occupants for whom the space is designed; second, the number of occupants according to "maximum floor area per occupant" tables in the Code; and, third, the number of occupants in the space plus in any accessory spaces that must move through the space in question. Clearly, one cannot design a space for a smaller number of occupants than that stipulated by the occupancy tables in the Code, since the Code specifically states that, of the three criteria for establishing means of egress criteria, the largest must be used. Posting an occupancy sign that stipulates a smaller number of occupants than the number determined by the Code's occupancy tables is simply not sanctioned by the Code as a permissible way to determine egress requirements.

Update: 13 Nov. 2012

Upon further review of the Dec. 5, 2008 "Issued for Construction" working drawings for Milstein Hall—now available in Cornell's Fine Arts Library—I discovered that the building code analysis for this crit room is even more egregious than I had previously thought.

In the Building Code analysis section of these working drawings, the crit room is specified as a "Business" occupancy with 100 sq. ft. assigned to each occupant. This would be appropriate for a typical office space with actual offices or cubicles. It is absolutely inappropriate for an assembly space where there are no offices or desks.

What is even more peculiar is that the architects make reference to Section 303.1 of the 2002 NYS Building Code to justify this occupancy classification. Per Section 303.1, they write: "The crit rooms are a business occupancy since they are accessory use [sic] by less than 50 persons to Assembly A-3 Occupancy."

But what does Section 303.1 actually say? "…A room or space used for assembly purposes by less than 50 persons and accessory to another occupancy shall be included as a part of that occupancy." (emphasis added)

In other words, this provision only applies if the occupancy of the crit room is for "assembly purposes," not for "business." And as an assembly occupancy (which it clearly is), Table 1003.2.2.2 of the 2002 NYS Building Code provides three choices for floor area assigned to each occupant:

Even assuming the most generous interpretation of the Code, i.e., using 15 sq. ft. per occupant, the 4,978 sq. ft. crit room area would support 332 occupants—far more than the 49 occupant limit specified in Section 303.1 that would permit the Crit Room to count as an accessory use.

More realistically, the crit room space should be designed for "standing space" with 5 sq. ft. per occupant, since this is how it is often used (see photos below). Such a density corresponds to 4,978 / 5 = 996 occupants, which in turn requires neither one exit, nor two exits, but actually three exits.

assembly occupancy of crit room in Milstein Hall

Figure 5. "AAP buzzes as hundreds of alumni, students, and faculty gather during Celebrate Milstein Hall," AAP news item headline and images dated March 12, 2012, accessed 11/12/12 here [11/21/14 update: images can now be found here]: Assembly occupancy of Milstein Hall's crit room clearly exceeds 49 people and clearly does not correspond to any form of "business" occupancy.

To summarize the egress problems with this crit room space:

Update: 16 March 2015

Cornell eventually found a way to insert a second remote exit in the Crit Room, by punching through the wall to the adjacent auditorium as documented in this video:

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Fire safety contents: 1. introduction | 2. floor area limit | 3. fire barrier | 4. crit room egress | 5. Sibley egress | 6. mezzanine | 7. Rand occupancy | 8. conclusions | 9. summary and appeal


1 I wrote about this egress problem in a blog post dated Oct. 11, 2011 (here, accessed July 20, 2012) and again on March 5, 2012, updated March 7, 8, 11, and 19, 2012 (here, accessed July 20, 2012).

2 Michael Niechwiadowicz, City of Ithaca Deputy Building Commissioner, email to Jonathan Ochshorn dated March 7, 2012.

3 International Code Council (ICC), 2009 International Building Code and Commentary.

4 2002 Building Code of New York State.