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Cornell's Fine Arts Library reaches another milestone

Jonathan Ochshorn

This parody is inspired by Cornell University's continued assault on building codes (a classic form of state regulation) and truth. For links to all my articles and blog posts on the Fine Arts Library project, see this webpage.

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March 16, 2017

Cornell, inspired by Trump, ridicules regulations; creates "alternative facts"

By Jonathan Ochshorn


parody image of Milstein Hall window sign

Graffiti on the windows of Milstein Hall © 2017 JONATHAN OCHSHORN

The Dean of Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP), inspired by the anti-regulatory fever increasingly pervasive in state, local, and national politics, has mounted a relentless campaign against fire safety regulations. These regulations, if properly implemented and enforced, would have seriously threatened the two major building projects undertaken by the College in recent years.

AAP Dean Kent Kleinman and his colleagues at Cornell filed an unprecedented third request for a Building Code variance with the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA). "It's really quite brilliant," Kleinman remarked at a recent gathering of influential AAP alumni. "Instead of spending our valuable and limited resources satisfying government-mandated fire-safety regulations, which—like all state-sponsored regulations—take away our freedom to design, we discovered that we could essentially hire a paid consultant to write these Code variance requests, and the folks in the DCEA would invariably just let us do whatever we want."

Kleinman was recently seen walking away from Milstein Hall, carrying a ladder and a can of red spray paint; he told the Chronicle that he was not happy with the slogan created by architecture students on the glass facade and decided to change its meaning. "Saying that 'we will not build your wall' is not an accurate reflection of what architects actually do in this world," said Kleinman. "Of course, we will build any wall that anyone pays us to build. That's what the design professions do. Who do these students think their clients will be when they graduate," Kleinman asked rhetorically. "Architects, artists, and planners get hired to support our capitalist democracy, not to challenge it. So I decided to have a little fun, by letting the world know that Cornell won't be bullied by the left-wing socialist media, or their dupes within the student body: what we won't build," he added with a smirk, "is a firewall. We've gotten Code variances before, and we'll just keep getting them as long as necessary so that we will be able to build whatever we want, without dealing with all that fire safety nonsense that you hear about in the mainstream media."

Cornell first requested a Building Code variance after it moved the Fine Arts Library into Rand Hall, a building that had recently been connected to Milstein Hall and E. Sibley Hall, thereby forming a single building with the worst possible construction type from the standpoint of fire safety. "Under the old 2002 New York State Building Code," Kleinman told the Chronicle, "Milstein Hall, our new architecture building designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, was allowed to violate—we prefer to use the word, 'transcend'—all the major fire safety regulations governing building height and area that would otherwise have made this project impossible to build." Kleinman explained that George Pataki, the Republican New York politician who was Governor at the time the 2002 Code was being adapted from the first-ever International Building Code (IBC), insisted that regulations for existing buildings in the new IBC be eviscerated so as to encourage economic development of run-down industrial buildings in abandoned mill towns and other depressed areas in New York State.

"So, Pataki's anti-regulation administration essentially gutted what would eventually become the Existing Building Code and substituted an appendix that was applicable only in New York State, and that allowed us to build a single floor area of over 41,000 square feet instead of the paltry 21,000 square feet that would have been the limit using the unedited IBC. Unfortunately," Kleinman continued, "Milstein Hall was nonconforming as soon as it was built because the subsequent 2007, 2010, and 2015 New York State Building Codes reverted to the pro-regulation, anti-freedom, pro-fire-safety, left-wing, anti-growth, un-American IBC text. Because of that, the Fine Arts Library turned out to be noncompliant after we moved it into Rand Hall."

Jonathan Ochshorn, Professor of Architecture at Cornell, and a critic of both Milstein Hall and the Fine Arts Library proposal, explained that he had informed Kleinman that the Fine Arts Library could not legally move into Rand Hall, but that Cornell moved it anyway. "I was forced to file an appeal with the New York State DCEA to challenge this and other dangerous and illegal design moves that Cornell had implemented with the construction of Milstein Hall and the move of the Fine Arts Library into Rand Hall. The DCEA ruled in my favor, and the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library was declared noncompliant." Rather than fix the problem, Cornell filed the first of its Code variance requests with the New York State DCEA, which was granted. "And as evidence that the variance request was warranted," added Ochshorn, "Cornell's highly-paid Code consultant cited the disastrous 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas where a fire barrier stopped the progression of a fire, neglecting to mention to the Hearing Board that 85 people were killed in that fire, mainly due to smoke inhalation."

But this was not even the first of Cornell's assaults on regulations that protect health and safety, according to Ochshorn. Earlier, after the legality of Cornell's large one-exit lecture rooms, such as 157 E. Sibley Hall, was challenged, Cornell sued the State in 2009 rather than simply fix the problem by adding required exits. Fortunately, Cornell lost, and was then forced to add necessary fire exits in Sibley Hall, as well as in the Law School.

The current problems with the Fine Arts Library proposal for Rand Hall started when AAP alumnus Wolfgang Tschapeller, M.Arch. 1987, submitted his schematic design (SD) proposal in 2015. The dramatic proposal had serious problems even then, said Ochshorn. "While the architects tried to make the project Code-compliant, they really didn't know what they were doing: they specified a 2-hour firewall, when the Code required a 3-hour firewall; they claimed that the 2-story "vertical opening" defining the library space was legal even with four interconnected floors where the extra floors were defined as so-called mezzanines; and they created a serious ADA violation with the design of a "protruding object" that could seriously injure people with vision disabilities, or even ordinary students looking at their cell phones and not paying attention."

At some point in 2015, Cornell submitted its second variance request for the Fine Arts Library, this one to allow them to build the scheme without its required firewall. "I guess the challenge of designing and building a 3-hour firewall proved too daunting," said Ochshorn, "although there are certainly ways to do it." But when the 50% design development (DD) drawings were submitted by Tschapeller, the fire-safety problems hadn't been resolved. A meeting with the City of Ithaca building and fire authorities (AHJs, or "Authorities Having Jurisdiction") in early 2016 resulted in a determination that Cornell's proposal to call the Fine Arts Library volume an "atrium" with two stories and two mezzanines wasn't appropriate, and that they needed to re-label the drawings so that the atrium would have three stories and one mezzanine. Unfortunately for Cornell, said Ochshorn, this created a 4-story building (with three stories in the library space, and one story for the shop below), which made the top floor of the library noncompliant. "This is because," said Ochshorn, "a library occupancy in a non-fireproofed steel-framed building cannot be higher than the 3rd floor."

When asked about this latest Code setback, AAP Dean Kleinman just shrugged. "It's just one more example of the mainstream media making up fake news about the so-called dangers of fire in buildings. I've been here for almost 10 years and the College buildings have not burned down even once during that time." When asked about the Code problems, Kleinman grew visibly upset. "Look," he said, "we've just gone back to the New York State DCEA for our third Code variance. This latest one allows us to use non-fireproofed steel-frame construction even where the Code says it's illegal. We won't be intimidated," he continued, "by all these anti-growth and anti-development leftwing Code-pushers."

Ochshorn says that in spite of the three Code variances, the latest 100% DD drawings are still noncompliant. "The problem," he says, "is that with all the fire safety issues that have emerged, the architects have not really changed their design in any significant way. Instead, they just re-label things, or ask the State for Code variances so they can do what they want. But they really don't seem to understand the fire-safety requirements in the Code, so they keep making mistakes. For example, their new 'atrium' is required to have some sort of fire barrier or other approved separation between the atrium volume itself and the library stack floors. Only three such floors are exempt from this requirement, and the atrium, as currently designed, has at least four, and possibly five, floors. Therefore," Ochshorn continued, "at least one, and possibly two floors need to be physically separated from the atrium volume. And the open stairs connecting the library stack levels are also illegal because an open exit path cannot pass through more than one adjacent story. Fixing these major problems," Ochshorn said, "will kill the design, but will make the building a bit safer."

But will the building be safe enough, even with those necessary changes? Ochshorn is skeptical: "First, it's pretty clear that the second Rand Hall variance—the one that eliminated any requirement for a firewall—makes a mockery of any notion that this building will be as safe as it should be. But I don't expect Cornell to give up on this project, or to make it Code-compliant. They'll probably just ask for a fourth variance."

Jonathan Ochshorn is a Professor of Architecture in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University.

A detailed analysis of the 100% design development drawings for the Fine Arts Library and Cornell's 2015 and 2016 variance requests can be found here.

First posted March 24, 2017; Last updated March 24, 2017. © 2017 Jonathan Ochshorn | Links to my Rand Hall articles and blog posts