© 2012 Jonathan Ochshorn
From the Critique of Milstein Hall introduction: Milstein Hall at Cornell University, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is an interesting building, in some ways an amazing building, and, by virtually any conceivable objective criterion, a disaster. That something amazing can simultaneously be a disaster is hardly a paradox. In fact, disasters are often amazing, and our amazement often increases proportionally with the range and scope of the disaster.
I will not be criticizing the visual appearance of this building, or making judgments about its subjective, aesthetic merit. I personally find the building interesting, and its underlying formal rationale provocative and compelling. But I am not particularly qualified to render such judgments, and other authorities or connoisseurs of architectural taste may well disagree. What follows, instead, is an objective critique of Milstein Hall, looking at the building in some detail from a series of different points of view, none of which are driven by aesthetic considerations.
From the Fire Safety introduction: "The initial schematic design for Milstein Hall… was fundamentally flawed from a fire-safety standpoint, and should not have been approved for design development. These problems… go to the very heart of fire safety regulations: the requirement that combustible material that might fuel a fire must be limited in quantity so as to preserve life safety and limit property damage in the event of a fire; the compartmentation of buildings into smaller units separated by continuous or protected assemblies; and the provision of adequate means of egress. Six instances of fire-safety Code noncompliance are discussed in the following sections."
The Fine Arts Library, an A-3 (assembly) occupancy, was inappropriately moved to the third floor of Rand Hall, not as part of the original Milstein Hall permit, but under a separate permit based on the 2010 Existing Building Code of New York State. Since the mid-1970s, when architecture studio classrooms were moved into the building, Rand Hall has been classified as a Group B occupancy (typically meaning "business," but also "educational occupancies above the 12th grade";1 see Figure 1), and an existing group B occupancy cannot be replaced with a new A-3 occupancy in this location unless an adequate fire wall (or fire barrier per exception to Section 912.5.1) is installed.
Section 912.5.1 of the 2010 Existing Building Code states: "When a change of occupancy classification is made to a higher hazard category as shown in Table 912.5, heights and areas of buildings and structures shall comply with the requirements of Chapter 5 of the Building Code of New York State for the new occupancy classification." Chapter 5 of the 2010 Building Code doesn't "upgrade" the nonconforming fire barriers of Milstein-Rand-Sibley that were put in place based on Appendix K of the 2002 Building Code, and Chapter 5 only permits portions of a building to be considered separate buildings when "included within the exterior walls or the exterior walls and fire walls" (Section 503.1). Therefore the combined Rand-Milstein-Sibley building has a Construction Type of V-B under the new 2010 Building Code, and the placement of a library (A-3) on the 3rd floor of Rand violates the 2-story limit for A-3 occupancies in V-B sprinklered construction.
There is an exception to Section 912.5.1 which permits fire barriers to substitute for fire walls, but only if the fire barriers have fire-resistive ratings per 705.4 of the 2010 Building Code of NYS, which permits 2 hr ratings when separating Type II or V construction; and only if such fire barriers comply with Section 706 which, by reference to Table 715.4, requires minimum 1-1/2 hr ratings for fire shutters, and doesn't seem to permit fire-rated glazing assemblies at all, except when tested per ASTM E 119. The existing fire barriers between Milstein, Sibley, and Rand Halls do not meet the requirements of this exception. [update 5/24/13: In any case, this exception only applies to area increases, and so is not applicable to this case, which involves a height increase.]
It is not directly relevant to this argument, but any fire barrier provided per Appendix K in the 2002 Code only permits a floor area increase (Section K902.2), and does not permit a height increase. Therefore, even if this proposal to move the library had been made under the 2002 Code, a new third-floor A-3 occupancy would not have been permitted, since mixed occupancies (Chapter 3 of the 2002 Code) are subject to the height limitations of Chapter 5 and there is a 2-story limit for sprinklered A-3 occupancies in Type V-B construction.
The occupancy type for Rand Hall has been consistently listed as "B—Business" in various inspection reports (Figure 1) or as "C.5.5" in old building permits. Both of these classifications are for educational occupancies, and not for assembly occupancies. Therefore, any proposed change to an A-3 (assembly) occupancy should have triggered the increased level of scrutiny required by the 2010 Existing Building Code, and prevented issuance of a building permit for the Fine Arts Library move.
Nevertheless, a building permit was issued based largely on a flawed "code analysis" prepared by HOLT Architects. Ithaca Deputy Building Commissioner Michael Niechwiadowicz provided a copy of this document to me and confirmed that a building permit was issued on the basis of that report. In my email response, dated Sept. 30, 2011, I explained why the analysis prepared by HOLT was seriously flawed and suggested that any permit issued based on such a faulty analysis be rescinded. Following are relevant excerpts from the HOLT report reproduced in bold font with my comments in regular font following each of these excerpts:2
My comment: Sibley/Milstein/Rand may or may not be considered a single mixed-use building under Appendix K of the 2002 Building Code of NYS; this depends on how Appendix K is interpreted. Milstein Hall, as an addition, cannot "increase the area of an existing building beyond that permitted under the applicable provisions of Chapter 5 of the Building Code for new buildings, unless a fire barrier in accordance with Section 706 of the Building Code is provided." [Section K902.2 Area limitations, 2002 Building Code of NYS]. Appendix K (Section K902.2) does not provide any guidance as to whether fire barriers used to increase floor area beyond what would be permitted under Chapter 5 are meant to take the place of fire walls, in which case one might reasonably conclude that separate buildings are created as would be the case with fire walls; or whether the fire barriers used to increase the area are to be considered as fire barriers, which do not create separate buildings. If one assumes that the addition and existing building remain as a single building exceeding the area limits of Chapter 5, then one confronts this problem: Section K902.2 sets no limits on the combined area of the addition and existing building, so that under this reading of the Code proposed by the HOLT, the new addition, even taken by itself, would have absolutely no floor area constraints. As soon as one applies the area limits of Chapter 5 to the individual components of the combined building separated by fire barriers, one is, in effect, claiming that the fire barriers are functioning as fire walls, since only fire walls can create separate buildings, each subject to the area limits of Chapter 5. In other words, Sibley/Milstein/Rand cannot be considered a single mixed-use building.
HOLT states that the addition and existing buildings are separated by 2 hour fire barriers. This is not true. The fire barrier between Milstein and Sibley Halls is designed as a 1-hr fire-resistance rated fire barrier with 3/4 hour opening protectives. The fire barrier between Milstein and Rand Halls has a 1-hr fire-resistance rated door, which is not consistent with a 2-hour fire barrier. This fire barrier also seems to be violated on the ground level, since existing exhaust ducts from the wood/metal shop that penetrate the wall do not seem to be fire-rated at all.
My comment: There is no such thing as an "occupancy classification for the building": a separated mixed-use building has multiple occupancy classifications corresponding to the occupancy of each separated portion. Moving a Group A-3 occupancy into a space formerly occupied by a Group B occupancy is, by definition, a change in occupancy classification. The relevant text from the 2010 NYS Existing Building Code (shown in bold font) is: "912.1 General. The provisions of this section shall apply to buildings or portions thereof undergoing a change of occupancy classification." In other words, each portion of a building is individually classified by occupancy; not just the building as a whole. The reasons are clear: if an assembly space is proposed for space not designed according to the requirements for assembly (even though there may be other assembly spaces elsewhere in the building), then it clearly needs to be reviewed for compliance with the more stringent Code provisions governing the assembly space. In this case, the change of occupancy classification for this portion of the building is a change to a higher hazard category, which triggers the various provisions I discussed in my email, rendering the proposal noncompliant.
My comment: The construction types shown for Milstein Hall and Rand Hall are incorrect: it is not possible to have different construction types in a single building, even when separated into fire areas by fire barriers. Only fire walls create separate buildings, and only separate buildings can have their own construction type. Therefore, Milstein, Rand, and East Sibley Halls—separated into fire areas by fire barriers—all are governed by the most restrictive construction type of V-B. That this was permitted under Appendix K of the 2002 NYS Code is another story. The exception in Section 912.5.1 of the 2010 NYS Existing Building Code, which permits fire barriers to be used in lieu of fire walls, does not apply here, since the fire barrier installed does not meet the requirements of that exception.
That being said, my objection to placing the Fine Arts Library on the third floor of Rand Hall has nothing to do with allowable floor area. Rather, its use is prohibited under Table 503 height restrictions: An A-3 occupancy with a V-B construction type in a sprinklered building cannot be on a floor higher than the second floor. The proposed change in occupancy to a higher hazard (from B to A-3) makes the requirements of Chapter 5 applicable. It is not possible to invoke the area increases that may have been permitted under Appendix K of the old 2002 NYS Code for two reasons: first, the problem with the library on the 3rd floor has nothing to do with floor area; second, the allowances based on Appendix K have no bearing on any Code questions determined by the current Code, as these Appendix K allowances are nonconforming. A change to a higher hazard occupancy requires that the current Code provisions—not the grandfathered provisions under Appendix K—govern. The fire barriers that were permitted under the 2002 Code, and now grandfathered, do not count as fire walls when a higher hazard occupancy change triggers the provisions of Chapter 5 of the new Code. They become ordinary fire barriers (with no special powers to create separate construction types) under the current Code and, as such, they cannot be used to give Rand Hall a construction type of II-B or anything else other than the construction type governed by Sibley (V-B).
For the record, the Fine Arts Library cannot be moved to the second floor of Rand Hall either. In this case (which has not yet been formally proposed), the problem would involve a floor area increase greater than that allowed per Chapter 5 (again, triggered by the change to a higher hazard occupancy).
Related to the issue of libraries and architecture programs, I have also written about the futility of initiating a major fund-raising effort to upgrade the current bare-bones renovation of the library—an endeavor which would allow the library to expand into the second floor of Rand Hall—even assuming that the fire-safety problems outlined above can be resolved.3
Links to all my writings about fire and life safety problems in the new Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall can be found here.<< previous | next >>
1 2010 Building Code of New York State.
2 The bold-face text sections are direct quotations from the code analysis prepared by Thomas D. Hoard, Code Analyst for HOLT Architects, P.C. in a letter dated 6 September 2011 addressed to Peter Turner, Assistant Dean for Administration, College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Cornell University, and copied to Mike Niechwiadowicz of the City of Ithaca Building Department. In his email to me dated 28 September 2011, Niechwiadowicz says: "It is my understanding that you requested documents related to the move of the Fine Arts Library from Sibley Hall to Rand Hall. Attached please find the documents you requested. These include the code analysis by HOLT Architects, fire protection plans by HOLT Architects and structural analysis by Robert Silman Associates. The building permit was issued based on these documents. Please direct any questions you have about this project to Assistant Dean Peter Turner."
3 Jonathan Ochshorn, "Cornell's Fine Arts Library," July 5, 2010, updated July 26, 2011 and March 15, 2012, online here (accessed July 23, 2012).
First posted 25 July 2012. Last updated: 3 April 2019