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Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Jonathan Ochshorn

links to articles and blog posts on the "Fine Arts Library"


I was able to examine the 100% design development (DD) drawings for Cornell's proposed Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall. The drawings themselves are incomplete, inaccurate, and noncompliant with the New York State Building Code. I also learned, almost by accident, that the basis of the drawings—not stated in the drawings themselves—consists of two Building Code variances requested by Cornell. Code variances are relatively unusual and, unlike zoning variances, can only be granted by the State of New York. Cornell, instead of actually complying with fire safety requirements in the Building Code, has requested "relief" from those requirements through these variance requests. However, even with these two variances—both of which are not only incoherent, but misrepresent facts and conclusions supposedly derived from the NYS Codes—the proposal remains hopelessly noncompliant.

In its current iteration, the firewall proposed in the schematic design (SD) set has been eliminated. Instead, a 2015 Code variance allows Cornell to build 2-hour fire barriers (with much less fire safety attributes than a firewall) instead. Also eliminated is the fiction that the library space contains only two stories, with the other two floors being mezzanines which don't count as stories under the Code. Instead, the space (or "vertical opening" in Code language) was reformulated as an "atrium" with two stories and two mezzanines (in the 2015 Variance), and then reformulated as an atrium with three stories and one mezzanine (in the 2016 variance). In all of these twists and turns, the geometry of the scheme itself remained essentially unchanged. So what's wrong with this geometry?

I've already critiqued the idea of having a vertical opening with two-stories and two mezzanines, as shown in the SD set, way back in April 2015: even though a vertical opening can have two stories, it cannot have three or four floors; since mezzanines are floors, even if not stories, the space as configured was noncompliant.

So the 50% DD set eliminated the two-story vertical opening and apparently replaced it with an atrium (I say "apparently" because, even though the atrium concept is discussed in Cornell's variance requests, there is absolutely nothing in the DD set that mentions the word, "atrium"). An atrium is another "protection method" for vertical openings listed in Section 712.1 of the 2015 Building Code, and it permits any number of stories within a vertical opening, subject to various conditions listed in Section 404 of the Code. The most onerous of these conditions is that all atrium spaces "shall be separated from adjacent spaces by a 1-hour fire barrier." In other words, the open library stack floors would need to be enclosed with fire barriers or glass walls that form smoke partitions. There is, however, one important exception to this requirement that states that fire barriers are not required for "any three floors of the atrium..."

Now, if the Code had said that "any three stories" were exempt from the fire barrier requirement, the 50% or 100% DD set would have met this standard, since there were only two stories and two mezzanines (or three stories and one mezzanine). However, since mezzanines are floors, the Code would find that this atrium space—with four floors and no fire barrier separation—is noncompliant.

But Cornell and its consultants were not, and apparently are not, aware of this problem. Which brings us to the 2016 variance request. Sometime in early 2016, the City of Ithaca Code and Fire AHJs (meaning "authorities having jurisdiction") decided that the design they were shown was not really a 3-story building with two mezzanines, but rather a 4-story building with one mezzanine. Mike Niechwiadowicz, Director of Code Enforcement for the City of Ithaca, provided the following rationale at the 2016 Variance Hearing: "...I'm the one that made the determination that the levels 2 and above resulted in three stories as opposed to two stories. And the reason being is that per Building Code section 505.2.1, a mezzanine is limited to one-third of the area — of the floor area of the room or space containing the mezzanine or mezzanines. There is an exception that allows that to go to half of that floor area of the room or space. And indeed this building meets that exception. However," he continued, "if you combine any two of the levels in that atrium space, and since all the levels are interconnected, I have an atrium space, only one space, rather than individual stories, any two levels combined exceed the half of the limitation. So therefore only one of the levels, the upper level, lantern, can be considered a mezzanine. The other three must be considered story [sic]." The truth is that the mezzanine definition in the Building Code is not clear about what exactly constitutes the "room" or "space" in which the mezzanines must be located, so it is not possible to find definitive language to either support or contradict this ruling. But, as explained above, it makes no difference: the space is noncompliant under any interpretation of what counts as a mezzanine floor.

As I've already discussed, the "separation" requirements for the atrium are influenced by the number of floors, and not by the number of stories, so that a change from 2 stories and 2 mezzanines (within the atrium) to 3 stories and 1 mezzanine is immaterial: there are 4 floors to be dealt with in either case. Actually, there are really 5 floors; the raised part of the 2nd story should also be considered as a separate floor since it hangs over an unidentified and unlabeled floor directly below it.

So, having been told that they now had a 4-story building, Cornell and its consultants discovered that their proposal—even with the variance granted in 2015 that allowed Rand Hall to be considered as a separate building with a IIB construction type—was still noncompliant, since a library (A-3) occupancy in a Type IIB building cannot be higher than the 3rd story. Any library on the 4th story of a building needs to be supported by fire-rated construction, and Type IIB consists of non-fireproofed steel. Rather than fix the design using fire-rated steel construction, Cornell requested a new variance in 2016, asking that they be allowed to keep the Type IIB, non-fire rated steel, construction, even though the building, with its library, was now 4 stories high. At the 2016 Variance Hearing, Cornell's highly-paid consultant attempted to minimize the significance of the required fireproofing of the steel framing elements (i.e., IIB construction) by claiming that the proposed construction was basically fireproofed anyway (i.e., IIA construction). He stated: "We are 2B construction, but in reality we're a lot closer to Type 2A construction. But we can't call it Type 2A because we don't have every single member traditionally done." This is completely disingenuous. In fact, the entire hanging stack area containing all the combustible material (a.k.a. books) in the proposed library as well as the new transfer girders at the roof level of Rand Hall have absolutely no fire-resistance rating. The only fireproofed structural elements being proposed are the exterior columns that support the transfer girders and the existing first-floor columns and second-floor framing within the first-floor shop which get a coating of intumescent paint.

There is one other major Building Code violation in the 100% DD drawings that I have not noted before, but which is extremely important: the open stairs serving the various library stack levels violate Section 1006.3 of the 2015 NY State Building Code. This section, which appears for the first time in the 2015 Code, requires that the "path of egress travel to an exit shall not pass through more than one adjacent story." Since the so-called exit access stairways shown in the plans and featured in the renderings connect (and therefore "pass through") at least three stories before finding an enclosed exit on the second floor, they are in violation of this section. The 2015 IBC "Commentary" confirms this interpretation.

Cornell's Code consultant, in Exhibit A of the 2016 Variance request, states that open exit access stairs shown in the proposed atrium are supported by Sections 1019.3, exception 5, and 404.9.3 in the 2015 NYS Building Code because "Chapter 4 continues to contain provisions which supersedes [sic] other provisions in the Code." Building Code Section 1019.3, exception 5, requires that exit access stairways be enclosed if they are not in an atrium complying with the provisions in Section 404. Section 404.9.3 limits exit access travel distance in an atrium to 200 feet. If these were the only Code provisions dealing with open exit access stairs, and if the atrium actually did comply with the provisions in Section 404 (it doesn't, since there are too many floors without separation from the atrium space), then the proposed open stairs would be compliant. However, Section 1006.3, which Cornell's Code consultant doesn't mention in his analysis and which he seems to be unaware of, prohibits such stairs when they "pass through more than one adjacent story." According to my recent conversation with technical Code experts at the International Code Council (the organization that creates the International Building Code from which NY State Codes derive), this latter Section 1006.3 is specific, clear, and unambiguous, and therefore supersedes the language in Section 1019.3, which is more general in nature. [Updated March 26, 2015] Section 102.1 of the 2015 IBC provides guidance for resolving apparently contradictory Code sections: "Where there is a conflict between a general requirement and a specific requirement, the specific requirement shall be applicable. Where, in any specific case, different sections of this code specify different materials, methods of construction or other requirements, the most restrictive shall govern." [Emphasis added.] The open stairs are noncompliant under the 2015 NY State Building Code.

With a 4-story building, the Code also requires a bigger elevator (sized for ambulance stretchers) and some back-up power for any atrium smoke exhaust system, both really important safety measures. Cornell also requested "relief" from those two requirements, rather than spend any more money, or do any more redesign, to bring the building into compliance with the NY State Building Code.

All three requests for "relief" in the 2016 Variance petition were granted. That's the bad news for all potential users of the building. But the building remains noncompliant, even with these latest variances. I've already discussed the reason for its noncompliance in relation to the 50% DD set (with two stories and two mezzanines in the atrium), and the 100% DD set doesn't change this condition (having three stories and one mezzanine in the atrium). The atrium hasn't changed, but has only been re-labeled: there are still four floors (or even five floors) in the atrium that have no fire barrier (or equivalent separation), and the Code only permits three such unprotected floors in an atrium. In addition, the open exit access stairs that "pass through more than one adjacent story" violate basic means of egress requirements outlined in Section 1006.3 of the 2015 Building Code.

The actual variance requests filed by Cornell are filled with numerous false statements and mis-readings of the Building Code. But it should be emphasized that even with these variances in place, the building remains noncompliant. Following are some comments on the variances and their problems.

Cornell's Variance for the Rand Hall FAL Proposal, #2015-0432, filed August 12, 2015

In this Code variance request, Cornell sought relief from the 2010 NYS Existing Building Code Section 912.5.1, which requires that a change to a higher hazard occupancy must comply with Chapter 5 of the Building Code. Cornell wrote: "The petitioner requests relief to allow an existing fire barrier to be accepted as a fire wall."

The Code section cited in the Existing Building Code (912.5.1) is not the appropriate section for the relief requested, which is to have a firewall between Rand and Milstein without actually building a firewall. The section cited is much too broad, effectively voiding all height and area limits, rather than finding just those Code sections necessary to achieve the relief sought. The most appropriate strategy would be to request relief from the specific requirements in Section 706 Fire Walls that are not met in the proposed scheme. These sections are as follows:

Comments on the "findings of fact" supporting the 2015 variance request:

  1. According to the findings, "Table 705.4 [in the 2010 Building Code] allows occupancy A to be separated from F1 occupancy with a 3-hr fire-rated separation." This applies to firewalls, with note 'a' allowing 2-hr fire-resistance ratings for Type II or V construction. This much is true. However, the findings continue as follows: "Exception allows for fire barrier in lieu of fire walls from exception for F1 occupancy." This statement is completely false; in fact, the opposite is true. The exception in Section 912.5.1 of the 2010 Existing Building Code states: "In other than Groups H, F-1, and S-1, in lieu of fire walls, use of fire barriers... shall be permitted to be meet area limitations required for the new occupancy..." (Emphasis added.) So the "finding of fact" is completely erroneous: because Rand Hall contains an F-1 occupancy (the first-floor shop), it is specifically excluded from using a fire barrier in lieu of a firewall. Furthermore, even if the exception did apply, it would only govern area, and not height limits, so the 3rd-floor library would still be noncompliant.

    An A-3 occupancy cannot be placed higher than the 2nd floor of Type VB construction. As made clear in the 2013 variance, the building being considered is the combined Rand-Milstein-E.Sibley Hall building with a VB construction type. The findings of fact in this first variance request (Petition No. 2013-0456, page 2) state unambiguously: "...the aggregate building is downgraded to a Type VB construction. The three buildings are considered one building under the Code." It should also be emphasized that, contrary to the claims made by Cornell and its consultants, the decision in this 2013 variance did not establish Rand Hall as a separate building. Instead, it offered relief from height and area requirements that otherwise would have prevented the placement of a library on the third floor of Rand Hall. Rand Hall remained Type VB construction and remained part of the combined Rand-Milstein-E.Sibley Hall.

    Finally, Cornell only refers to changes of occupancy in their request for relief from Code requirements, whereas their proposal also includes an addition, which triggers separate requirements in Chapter 10 of the 2010 Existing Building Code; these additional requirements were not considered in the Variance request, and are not met. In particular, Section 1002.1 of the 2010 Existing Building Code states: "No addition shall increase the height [or, in Section 1002.2, the area] of an existing building beyond that permitted under the applicable provisions of Chapter 5 of the Building Code of New York State for new buildings." Both the height and the area of the proposed building greatly exceed the limits for new construction specified in Chapter 5.

  2. "The petitioner proposes the following alternatives to strict compliance with the Code:"

    1. "Maintain two-hour fire barrier between Rand Hall and Milstein Hall." I've already commented on the problems with this proposal.

    2. "Provide non-required one-hour horizontal fire barrier to separate the first floor from the second floor."

      If this one-hour horizontal assembly (not fire barrier—there is no such thing as a horizontal fire barrier) is "non-required," then the basis of the calculations must be mixed occupancies with nonseparated uses, since otherwise, a 1-hour separation is required between A-3 and F-1 occupancies. But this is contradicted in the 100% DD drawing set, where Note 15 ("Building Department Notes") states: "The various occupancies shall be treated as separated occupancies in accordance with section BC508.3.3 (emphasis added)." Of course, Note 15 references the 2010 Code, rather than the 2015 Code, and—in the final analysis—the project is hopelessly flawed whether designed on the basis of separated or nonseparated mixed occupancies.

      But whether the project is designed on the basis of separated or nonseparated mixed occupancies, the one-hour horizontal separation is absolutely required for another reason: a fire rating is necessary in order to separate the atrium space from adjacent construction. Section 404.5 of the 2010 Building Code states quite clearly: "Atrium spaces shall be separated from adjacent spaces by a 1-hour fire barrier... or a horizontal assembly..." So the statement that the one-hour horizontal separation is "an alternative to strict compliance" is simply false: it is already required by the construction of an atrium, and so cannot be simultaneously described as something extra and "non-required."

  3. Provide increased fire sprinkler flow densities and quick response sprinklers.

  4. Provide secondary water supply.

  5. Provide additional fire detection.

In other words, the only actual alternatives to strict compliance proposed by Cornell for this variance are the final three items: better sprinklers, more water for the sprinklers, and better fire detection. There is nothing in the Code, or in fire science theory, that supports the idea that better sprinklers and fire detection systems are adequate and appropriate compensation for replacing a required firewall with a fire barrier. It is true that sprinklers make buildings much safer, but this building is already fully sprinklered. The Building Code requires passive fire protection in addition to sprinkler systems for several reasons, not the least of which is that sprinkler systems don't always function properly (more on this below). It should also be emphasized that the New York State Existing Building Code, to which this project must conform, already permits "options for controlled departure from full compliance with the International Building Codes dealing with new construction." To put it another way, Cornell is requesting relief from Code requirements that have already been reduced to encourage renovation of buildings that are "potentially salvageable" but where "rehabilitation is often cost-prohibitive..." (from ICC, "Effective Use of the International Existing Building Code," 2015).

There is one other problem with this variance request. The relief sought is from Section 912.5.1 of the 2010 NYS Existing Building Code, which pertains to changes of occupancy. However, the Existing Building Code requires that any addition to an existing building conform to the Code for new construction (i.e., the IBC or New York State equivalent), whether or not there is a change of occupancy. Since the proposed new floor at the roof level of Rand Hall constitutes an addition under the Existing Building Code (addition being defined as an "extension or increase in floor area, number of stories, or height of a building or structure"), the relief sought for Section 912.5.1, even if granted, leaves this other Code requirement in place. As such, Chapter 5 for new construction still prohibits library (A-3) occupancy above the 2nd floor of VB construction.

In other words, the determination of the Hearing Board that would allow a fire barrier between Rand and Milstein Hall to "count" as a firewall, and thereby allow Rand Hall to be considered as a separate building with IIB construction, only provides relief for the spaces for which a change in occupancy was proposed: the second floor of Rand Hall (changed from B to A-3). The third floor of Rand is already an A-3 occupancy; the first floor of Rand is already an F-1 occupancy but was considered as a Class B occupancy previously, and the 4th floor is an addition; this top floor is therefore not covered by the relief sought. It is important to remember that the "firewall" that this variance creates is entirely imaginary. Therefore, the ability of this imaginary firewall to to allow Rand Hall to be considered a separate building only applies to those aspects of the building code for which relief was sought. The hearing board did not consider any arguments that would justify waiving the requirements that the Existing Building Code establishes for additions to buildings; and no such arguments were made by Cornell. These "addition" requirements are separate from the requirements established for changes of occupancy, for which the variance was granted, and apply to completely different floors of the proposed Rand Hall library.

Cornell's Variance for the Rand Hall FAL Proposal, #2016-0269, dated July 12, 2016

In this 2016 variance application, there is a matrix (table) asking for code section(s), topics, and relief sought. Cornell did not fill in the table properly, but rather typed in three sentences, as follows, based on the "2016 NY Code (2015 IBC)":

#1. Use of four (4) story Type IIB construction in lieu of Type IIA construction: 602.1, 602.2 & Table 601.

Comments: Cornell is only describing what they are proposing, and not what relief is sought, the latter being required by the variance instructions. Cornell wants to use IIB construction instead of IIA. First, this is based on the prior 2015 variance which allowed Rand Hall to be considered as a separate building with its own construction type, based on the construction of a 2-hr fire barrier in lieu of a firewall. Without that variance, the construction type for Rand Hall would be VB. In this later variance request, Cornell is not even satisfied with the IIB rating for Rand Hall (considered as a separate building per the 2015 variance) but wants to ignore even this fictitious Type IIB construction and pretend that the construction type is IIA, i.e., fireproofed, when in fact, the entire hung stack structure and transfer girders have no fire-resistance rating.

Cornell cites Section 602.1 of the 2015 Building Code, which requires that the building "shall be classified in one of the five construction types defined in Sections 602.2 through 602.5. The building elements shall have a fire resistance rating not less than that specified in Table 601..." Cornell also cites Section 606.2, which describes Types I and II construction (but not Type V), and Table 601.

The reason that Cornell wants to claim IIA fire-rated construction for a non-fireproofed steel structure is that Cornell is now claiming that Rand Hall is a 4-story building with one mezzanine, rather than a 3-story building with two mezzanines. Aside from the fact that either formulation is noncompliant, a library (A-3) occupancy cannot be placed higher than the 3rd floor of IIB construction, but can be placed on a 4th story of IIA construction. Rather than adjust the construction so that it is appropriate for the fire risk (i.e., having a library, A-3, occupancy on the 4th story of a building), Cornell prefers to employ non-fireproofed construction and ask for a Code variance.

#2. New elevator car size not sized for ambulance stretcher floors 3 & 4: 3002.4

Comments: Elevator car sizes need to be big enough for ambulance stretchers in 4-story buildings. Note that this building is actually 5 floors high, but counts as a 4-story building with a mezzanine. This is simply Cornell asking permission to make the building less safe than what the Code would require without a variance.

#3. Use of alternative for standby power for required atrium smoke control equipment: 404.7, 909.11 and 2702.2.15.

Comments: Again, Cornell is requesting permission to make the building less safe.

Part B of the variance form asks for building description and project information, including the construction type. Here, there is an error in the variance form itself, as it states: "Construction type. If more than one is applicable, specify where each occurs in the building. Consult the building code or your building official for assistance." However, each building can only have a single construction type. Specifically, Section 602.1 of the 2015 IBC states: "Buildings and structures erected or to be erected, altered or extended in height or area shall be classified in one of the five construction types defined in Sections 602.2 through 602.5." (Emphasis added.)

Cornell has written: "Type IIB Rand Hall with alternatives for certain areas" as if there can be more than one construction type in a single building.

Cornell checked two "required arguments for a variance," stating that strict compliance with certain code sections (i.e., Sections 602.1, 606.2, Table 601) "would be unnecessary in light of alternatives which, without a loss in the level of safety, achieve the intended objective of the code" and also that strict compliance "would entail a change so slight as to produce a negligible additional benefit consonant with the purpose of the code." These two arguments are contradictory: if the latter argument is true (that disregarding the cited code sections wouldn't make any real difference in the level of safety) then it is hard to understand why the former argument (that "alternatives" are needed to "achieve the intended objective of the code") has been made.

The alternatives and reasons are provided in Exhibit A by Cornell's paid consultant, Timothy A. DeRuyscher, P.E., FSFPE of GHD Consulting Services, Inc.

Exhibit A prepared by Cornell's paid consultant, DeRuyscher

DeRuyscher describes "modifications" to the "existing and delineated second and third floors and the roof of the existing Rand Hall building" as being "the same as that submitted for Petition and Determination #2015-1432."

He notes that the relevant Codes have been changed from 2010 to 2016 (2015 IBC).

He describes a presentation made to "City of Ithaca Building and Fire Authorities having jurisdiction" in "early 2016," who "made the determination that the proposed arrangement was a four (4) story building rather than a three (3) story building with the atrium connecting floors 2, 3 and 4 (previously designated as Mezzanine 3.1) which would be designated as stories. This yields 1st floor = 1st story; 2nd floor & raised 2nd floor = 2nd story; 2nd floor mezzanine = mezzanine as part of 2nd floor; 3rd floor = 3rd story; plus previous mezzanine 3.1 = 4th story." DeRuyscher continues: "However, with a 4-story building, there are a number of code driven features required by a four story building designation—most notably use of 1 hour Type IIA construction rather than Type IIB, elevator car size for ambulance stretcher for all floors, standby power for any required smoke control equipment, and affects (if any) on prior issued NYS Determination #2013-0456 and #2015-0432."

Comments: In other words, Cornell has been advised by the City of Ithaca that their initial design, showing two mezzanines within a two-story vertical opening, was not compliant; but that a single mezzanine within a three-story atrium would be compliant. DeRuyscher adds that this "change" in labeling triggers other Code issues, since the building is now 4-stories high instead of 3-stories high, and the Allowable Number of Stories Table 504.4 in Chapter 5 doesn't permit Construction Type IIB for A3 occupancy classes above the 3rd story in sprinklered buildings.

As can be seen in Table 504.4 from the 2015 NYS Building Code, reproduced below, the limit for sprinklered buildings is 3 stories for construction type IIB, 4 stories for construction type IIA, and only 2 stories for the actual construction type, VB.

Table 504.4 from the 2015 IBC

DeRuyscher refers to the prior variance (#2015-0432) that says that the "space will... continue to be regulated separately from the adjacent Milstein Hall and other features as per NYS Determination #2015-0432 and not in conflict with NYS Determination #2013-0456."

Exhibit A continues with a list of "Requested Equivalencies" for the use of Type IIB instead of IIA construction. DeRuyscher claims that fire-rated construction is unnecessary in light of alternatives, without a loss of safety. These alleged alternatives consist of the following:

Everything stated here is either false or disingenuous: The total building area is not smaller, but is actually far greater than that allowed by the Code—in fact, it's not even close. DeRuyscher apparently is computing the area of the building as if a variance had already been granted (one that would reduce the building area by creating a fictitious firewall) in order to show that the building's fire safety under these variances is equivalent to the building built according to the Code. This, of course, is a cynical assault on logic. Clearly, one needs to examine the value of the condition before the variance is granted, and compare it to the conditions after the variance is granted. Before any variances are granted, the allowable building area per story is about 21,420 square feet (based on VB construction, A-3 occupancy, a frontage factor computed according to the Code, and nonseparated construction), while the actual second-floor area is at least 41,600 square feet. This calculation is based on the 2015 Code, with the "building" being Rand-Milstein-Sibley and the occupancy and construction type validated by the NYS Hearing Board in their determination regarding Cornell's first variance request for Rand Hall in 2013. This board wrote: "Due to the connection with Sibley Hall, the aggregate building is downgraded to a Type VB construction. The three buildings are considered one building under the Code." So DeRuyscher's claim that the area is smaller than what the Code allows is just false.

To be clear: It is highly inappropriate, and a form of circular reasoning, to make claims in support of "equivalencies" based on having applied for a Code variance, since the equivalencies are supposed to support that variance, not to presuppose that it already exists. It would be like claiming that a 50-calorie cookie is really the same as (equivalent to) a 100-calorie cookie by applying for a "cookie variance" that allows you to label the 100-calorie cookie as a 50-calorie cookie, and then citing the lower number based on the variance to "prove" its equivalency. Furthermore, even if the Rand-Milstein-Sibley building were to be classified as Type IIB construction, its allowable per-floor area (34,000 square feet) is still far less than the actual per-floor area of 41,600 square feet.

[This paragraph with photos added April 3, 2017] There's one other important problem with the notion that Rand Hall is really a separate building from a fire-safety standpoint. The current fire barrier at the second floor between Rand and Milstein Hall is not only not rated at two hours, but can be rendered dysfunctional because of obstructions placed in the path of the rolling metal shutter that a key part of the fire-barrier system. In a little over two months (from January 31 until April 3, 2017), I was able to document two such instances, where the fire barrier might not have been able to function properly. While it's easy to discount such possibilities by praising Cornell's advanced detection and monitoring capabilities, the actual evidence is not so convincing.

obstructions of fire barrier operation between Rand and Milstein Halls, 2017

Obstructions can threaten the operation of the rolling shutter between Rand and Milstein Halls, as shown in these two images, taken only 9 weeks apart: (a) January 31, 2017; and (b) April 3, 2017 (the glass wall between Rand and Milstein Halls has no fire-resistance rating; opening protection requires the operation of a steel horizontal rolling shutter directly in front of the glass. Photos by the author)

The comment that the building is smaller than the maximum floor area allowed by the Code, even if it were true (and it's not true as shown above), is not relevant, and cannot be considered as proving some sort of equivalence to fire-resistive rated construction. The Code assigns levels of risk based on a number of factors, including the type of occupancy, the construction type, and the height (or number of stories) above the grade plane. Just because a building could be built with fire-resistive rated, Type IIA, construction, and could also be built bigger, or higher, than a hypothetical free-standing Rand Hall, does not mean that this hypothetical free-standing Rand Hall, rebuilt as a 4-story building, would have equivalent safety with non-fire-resistive Type IIB construction. Such a claim is unfounded and no evidence is presented to support it. If this claim were valid, than any building whose actual area was less than the Code's allowable area could apply for a Code variance to reduce the level of required fire-resistance—this is, on the face of it, absurd.

DeRuyscher claims that using fire-resistive rated construction, as required by the Code, would produce a negligible benefit compared with eliminating this fire-proofing for the steel structure and adding some extra sprinkler protection. With highly flammable material (books) directly underneath the steel transfer girders at the roof level, a fire could conceivably weaken those girders which, as they collapsed into the space, would most likely pull their supporting columns and the exterior brick walls inwards, ultimately causing the collapse of the entire building, and directly threatening Milstein Hall as well. This is the same failure mechanism witnessed at the World Trade Center where reliance on fire sprinklers proved to be inadequate. There are very good reasons for having passive as well as active fire protection in a building of this type. Sprinkler systems do not always work as intended. An article from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers shows a sprinkler failure rate of about 10%: "Research shows that between 2003 and 2007, sprinklers operated in 93% of all fires large enough to cause actuation and were effective in 97% of the fires in which they operated." A more recent report (2013) from the National Fire Protection Association concludes that the failure rate is closer to 13%: "Sprinklers operated in 91% of all reported structure fires large enough to activate sprinklers, excluding buildings under construction and buildings without sprinklers in the fire area. When sprinklers operated, they were effective 96% of the time, resulting in a combined performance of operating effectively in 87% of all reported fires where sprinklers were present in the fire area and fire was large enough to activate them." [Updated Jan. 4, 2018: A 2017 report from the NFPA has slightly different values, but the essential conclusion remains the same. I've also created a copy of the 2010 article from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, in case that link disappears in the future.]

Not satisfied with these falsehoods and half-truths, DeRuyscher also states that, while Cornell has been using the "Work area compliance method" to establish Code compliance for this addition and alteration to an existing building, "the Owner is now considering the use of the Performance compliance method which uses the Chapter 14 'Performance Compliance Method' numerical evaluation and rating system for the mandatory 'fire safety','means of egress' and 'General Safety' categories." And DeRuyscher states that his review, shown in Exhibit D, "indicates the scores of this existing building when treated as a 4 story type IIB construction of Group A-3 yields 36 points compared to 22 minimum points for Fire Safety; yields 34.3 points compared to 33 points for Means of Egress; yields 36.3 points compared to 33 minimum points for General Safety. These," says DeRuyscher, "are all passing scores—and shows the number of stories is not as relevant as the total height of the building. It also shows that the codified equivalent means of safety as prescribed by the code has been met."

So, if this is really true, and the building as proposed is already Code-compliant using the Performance Compliance Method, why bother with a variance request? DeRuyscher answers this way: Even though we don't really need the variance, he says, "for elimination of any doubt, the Owner desires to use this as additional supporting information and documentation with the requested items 1-3 above to seek a code equivalency/variance from NYS to help ensure that this project and the prior issued determinations #2015-0432 and #2013-0456 remain and are not nullified in any manner."

First, both the 2013 and the 2015 variances should no longer apply to the current proposal, since they were based on relief sought from the 2010 Codes, and these Codes are no longer relevant to a building filed under the 2015 Codes. But what about this so-called Performance Compliance Methods that would, according to DeRuyscher, allow this project to be constructed "as-of-right," without any variances at all? The short answer is that this, too, is completely false. The Fine Arts Library building proposal contains an addition and, even under the Chapter 14 Performance Compliance regulations, additions to existing buildings must "comply with the requirements of the International Building Code... The combined height and area of the existing building and the new addition shall not exceed the height and area allowed by Chapter 5 of the International Building Code..."

In other words, all of the so-called scores that DeRuyscher calculated under this chapter are irrelevant: under Chapter 5 of the Code for new construction, invoked under the Performance Compliance rules, an A-3 occupancy in Type VB construction cannot be built above the 2nd story; and the maximum floor area cannot exceed about 21,420 square feet. Both of these values are not met in the proposal, so the Performance Compliance Method fails. [The remainder of this paragraph was added March 27, 2017, and the calculator inserted below was slightly revised.] There's one more requirement in the 2015 Existing Building Code that makes the Performance Compliance Method problematic: Section 1401.2.4 states that an "existing building or portion thereof that does not comply with the requirements of this code for new construction shall not be altered or repaired in such a manner that results in the building being less safe or sanitary than such building is currently. If, in the alteration or repair, the current level of safety or sanitation is to be reduced, the portion altered or repaired shall conform to the requirements of Chapters 2 through 12 and Chapters 14 through 33 of the International Building Code." Because the proposal creates two illegal open exit access stairways instead of the existing enclosed exit stairs, the building will become clearly less safe and, for this reason alone, cannot use the Performance Compliance Method.

But Deruyscher charged Cornell a lot of money to prepare his elaborate matrix of Performance values by which he claims that the proposal passes all criteria. In fact, the proposal fails under these specific criteria as well. The actual performance numbers, based on the actual building (without considering any variances, since this method is supposed to supplant the need for variances) are as follows: For fire safety (FS), 22 points are needed and –41 points (that's negative 41) are achieved; for means of egress (ME), 33 points are needed and –29 points are achieved; and for general safety (GS), 33 points are needed and –27 points are achieved. In other words, the Performance Compliance method shows that this building—as it actually is, without the fictions brought into play using Code variances, and even discounting the fact that its noncompliant "addition" already disqualifies it as a candidate for this method—is a fire safety disaster. Furthermore, all this assumes that the atrium has four interconnected floors; the numbers get even worse if five interconnected floors are assumed.

I've inserted my interactive Performance Compliance Method calculator below; the default values (scroll down towards the bottom to see the final conclusions) are based on my interpretation of Code requirements for the current 100% DD drawings. These values do not consider Code variances, since Cornell's consultant is claiming that the variances aren't needed if this method is used. Feel free to enter new values in the yellow fields to see how the results change. And please consult Chapter 14 of the 2015 Existing Building Code for more precise and complete instructions. Also keep in mind that even meeting these Performance Compliance criteria does not mean that the building is as safe as it would be if it complied with the 2015 IBC for new construction; as stated in Section 1401.1, the idea underlying the Performance Compliance Method is that existing buildings should remain at least as safe as they were before being renovated, but "without requiring full compliance with Chapters 5 through 13" of the Existing Building Code. And all the chapters in the Existing Building Code allow for "controlled departure from full compliance with the International Codes dealing with new construction."

Interactive Performance Compliance Method Calculator

Links to: 2015 variance (pdf) | 2016 variance (pdf) | Cornell Chronicle parody