Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety

Jonathan Ochshorn

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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 | 10. variance application

This analysis of Cornell's variance application — to place the Fine Arts Library in noncompliant space in Rand Hall — is an excerpt from comments that I sent to the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA) on October 10, 2013. The complete document, along with Cornell's Variance Application, can be viewed/downloaded as follows:
Cornell's application for a variance: screen resolution pdf 7.5 MB or print resolution pdf 43.1 MB
Ochshorn comments on Cornell's application for a variance: screen resolution pdf 493 KB or print resolution pdf 750 KB
Ochshorn comments on Review Board ruling granting variance: Nov. 23, 2013 blog post

10. Comments on Cornell's Application for a Variance

Milstein Hall is an addition to both Rand and Sibley Halls on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, NY that created a single building, Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall. A certificate of occupancy was issued on Feb. 24, 2012. The variance application submitted by Thomas Hoard on behalf of Cornell University to place a noncompliant library assembly occupancy on the second and third floors of Rand Hall (part of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall) should be seen in the following context:

First, Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall is a nonconforming building that greatly exceeds the allowable area permitted under Chapter 5 of all recent Building Codes of New York State [BCNYS], including the 2002, 2007, and 2010 editions. This is true because of its VB construction type, but it would be equally true even if the entire combined building were upgraded to Type IIB construction. Furthermore, Section K902.2 of the 2002 BCNYS — under which the addition of Milstein Hall was allowed to increase the areas of the existing buildings beyond that permitted by Chapter 5 of the Code — was no longer available under the 2007 or 2010 Codes, which explains why a building permit for Milstein Hall was rushed for approval just before the 2002 Code was set to expire. In other words, Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall, even before any variances are requested, is already built to a far less rigorous standard of fire safety than would be applied to a new building in New York State under either the 2007 or 2010 BCNYS.

Second, placing an A-3 occupancy on the second floor of Rand Hall (part of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall) would not be permitted under any recent BCNYS for new construction, including the 2002, 2007, or 2010 editions. However, the Existing Building Code of New York State [EBCNYS] includes an exception for changes from a lower to a higher hazard occupancy within an existing building, an exception which further reduces the level of fire safety compared to what would be required in new construction (assuming that this exception is even applicable).

Third, even with these two sequential reductions in fire safety — the first allowed per Section K902.2 of the 2002 BCNYS for additions and the second allowed per the exception in Section 912.5.1 of the 2010 EBCNYS for changes to a higher hazard occupancy in an existing building — the placement of an A-3 library occupancy on the third floor of Rand Hall would still be noncompliant. This noncompliant status was confirmed by the Capital Region-Syracuse Board of Review in their decision regarding Petition No. 2013-0250, Exhibit 8, which is reproduced by the current petitioner in his Exhibit 3.

A variance to place an A-3 occupancy on the third floor of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall is therefore taking a nonconforming Type VB building that already has two and a half times the floor area allowed per Chapter 5 of the Code (any edition) — and that would exceed this allowable floor area even if its construction were upgraded to Type VA, Type IIIA, Type IIIB, or Type IIB — and sanctioning, forever, a noncompliant assembly occupancy where none had previously existed.

A variance to place an A-3 occupancy on the second floor of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall by reducing the fire-resistance ratings required of fire barriers under the 2010 EBCNYS would further reduce the level of fire safety in the building beyond the already reduced levels of fire safety permitted by the addition of Milstein Hall under the 2002 BCNYS.

Thus, the petitioner's contention that this variance would not reduce, or would even improve, the fire safety of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall is patently absurd. Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall should be required to meet fire safety standards embedded in the 2010 EBCNYS, not granted the right to lock in, forever, a noncompliant use within a nonconforming building.

This variance request contains numerous misleading statements, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, summarized in the final section of these comments (PDF, p. 37). But if one cuts through all the specious arguments, the request boils down to a single question: should a library in a nonconforming space in Sibley Hall be permitted to move to a noncompliant space in Rand Hall?

The petitioner argues that the library should be permitted to move, on the grounds that such a move would not decrease, and might possibly even increase, the level of fire safety in Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall. Yet no evidence is provided that would support this contention. In fact, Rand Hall, looked at as a separate building, has the second worse construction type allowed by the Building Code, as does Milstein Hall. The un-fireproofed IIB construction in Rand and Milstein (considered as separate buildings) is equivalent to combustible Type IIIB construction — both construction types have the same low tabular allowances for floor area and building height. The only thing worse is the Type VB construction of Sibley Hall, and the only thing preventing Sibley Hall from having the same fire safety values as Rand and Milstein Halls (as measured by Table 503 in the BCNYS) is the small amount of wood framing in its third floor exterior walls. Were those third-floor walls upgraded to 2-hour construction, even using fire-retardant wood, all three buildings, considered as separate structures, would have the same level of fire safety. And to repeat: this level of fire safety for a sprinklered building would be at the second-to-last rung of the construction type ladder, only VB being worse, and would still not meet floor area requirements under Table 503 of the BCNYS.

Moreover, a library in Rand Hall has a greater density of stacks than a library in Sibley would have, owing to the greater strength of Rand Hall's steel beams (the low-capacity wood joists of Sibley Hall require a low-density arrangement of book stacks there). Because of this, it is not at all self-evident that the higher density of books (i.e., the total available combustion content, or "fire load") in a Rand Hall library would create a situation that is safer than would the low-density arrangement of books stacks in Sibley Hall. In both cases, a fire in the library stacks would threaten the floor-ceiling or roof assemblies above, neither of which has any fire-resistance rating, and the greater fire load in the dense Rand Hall stack areas could create a far more dangerous situation than a fire in the less-dense stack areas of East Sibley Hall.

And even if one could make the case that a library in Rand Hall would be safer than one in Sibley Hall based on specific evidence derived from fire science principles or Building Code analysis — something not even attempted by the petitioner — it is still not clear why a variance should be granted. Cornell has willfully and knowingly created the very problem that it now seeks forgiveness for, by connecting Rand Hall to Sibley Hall with an addition. This addition not only made the third floor of Rand Hall off-limits for an A-3 assembly use because of its new VB construction type, but also made the entire Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall nonconforming because of the enormous size of the combined floor area — a floor area that is substantially larger than what would be permitted for a new building, even with sprinklers and fire barriers, and even if the entire complex were to be upgraded to Type IIB construction. Cornell had other options rather than designing a building addition that created this nonconformity, and Cornell has other options in either relocating the Fine Arts Library elsewhere, or upgrading the construction of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall so that a variance is not required.

It should also be remembered that this unprecedented and dangerous increase in building area was accomplished by exploiting a loophole in Appendix K of the 2002 BCNYS that has since been eliminated from the BCNYS, and that never appeared in any of the International Building Codes from which New York State codes derive. The petitioner is thus starting with an existing building that was knowingly created to be nonconforming (and therefore, from the standpoint of modern building codes, unsafe), and then is requesting a Code variance to permit, in this deliberately nonconforming existing building, a noncompliant occupancy.

As a minimum condition for granting a variance, the Review Board must find that at least one of the six arguments presented by the petitioner is valid, as follows:

1. Would the denial of this variance create an excessive and unreasonable economic burden? This is almost a joke: Cornell has just spent in excess of $50 million to create the very Code nonconformities that it now seeks to overcome through this variance process. Given the large sums of money that Cornell has already spent to build the Milstein Hall addition and the large sums of money currently earmarked for (a) a major renovation of the third floor of East Sibley Hall and (b) a major upgrade to the Fine Arts Library, it is inconceivable that the modest upgrades mandated by the 2010 EBCNYS to place a library in Rand Hall (i.e., upgrading the third-floor Mansard walls in Sibley Hall; and providing a more robust fire barrier between Rand and Milstein Halls) should be characterized as "excessive and unreasonable." It is also possible to relocate the Fine Arts Library to a code-compliant space so that not only would no variance be needed, but much less of an "economic burden" would be created compared to the enormous costs already earmarked for the creation of a new library space in Rand Hall.

2. Would the denial of this variance not achieve its intended objective? On the contrary, if this variance is denied, Cornell would either (a) need to upgrade the Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall complex and in doing so, improve its fire safety, or (b) place the Fine Arts Library in another location, of which several have already been suggested, including the A-3 space under Sibley Dome. If the objective of the Building Code is to enforce standards for fire safety, then denying this variance would absolutely achieve that objective.

3. Would denial of this variance inhibit achievement of some other important public policy? Absolutely not. There are no public policy issues at stake here. The petitioner's attempt to invoke a historic preservation argument, when absolutely no change to the exterior portion of this building is envisioned or required, is ludicrous.

4. Would denial of this variance be physically or legally impracticable? Creating a compliant fire barrier between Milstein and Rand Halls and/or upgrading the third-floor Mansard walls of Sibley Hall might cost some money (although a negligible amount compared to the money already spent to create these problems), but neither operation is physically or legally impracticable. Fire barriers between Rand and Milstein need to be fixed in any case, since even the 1-hour barriers required under the 2002 BCNYS for the construction of the Milstein Hall addition were never completed properly. Upgrading the third-floor walls of Sibley Hall is a relatively minor operation, since almost the entire exterior facade of Sibley Hall is already of masonry construction with at least a 2-hour fire-resistance rating. Finally, denial of this variance would not prevent Cornell from moving the library to code-compliant space in the Sibley Dome, an option that is both physically and legally practical.

5. Would denial of this variance be unnecessary in light of alternatives which, without a loss in the level of safety, achieve the intended objectives of the code? The petitioner has not provided any evidence, either in the form of an analysis based on fire science principles, or in the form of an analysis based on the BCNYS, that denial of this variance is unnecessary. On the contrary, it seems plausible that putting dense library stacks in Rand Hall could reduce the level of fire safety compared with leaving widely spaced library stacks as they were in Sibley Hall. But even if evidence were to be provided that the level of fire safety wouldn't be reduced by granting this variance (and such evidence was not presented), other alternatives are available that would not only make this variance unnecessary, but would increase the fire safety of Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall. Specifically, the library could be relocated elsewhere, for example to Sibley Dome, where it used to be housed.

6. Would denial of this variance entail a change so slight as to produce a negligible additional benefit consonant with the purpose of the code? On the contrary, denial of this variance might compel Cornell University to upgrade Rand-Sibley-Milstein Hall with respect to fire safety. Because Rand and Sibley Halls were made substantially less safe by joining them together with the addition of Milstein Hall (the combined building complex has more than double the floor area than what would have been allowed under the 2007 or 2010 BCNYS, and, in fact, could not have even been built under the 2007 or 2010 BCNYS), it would be more than a negligible benefit if Cornell were prevented from making these buildings even less safe by changing existing classroom/studios to a higher hazard occupancy, in violation of the Code.

This analysis of Cornell's variance application — to place the Fine Arts Library in noncompliant space in Rand Hall — is an excerpt from comments that I sent to the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA) on October 10, 2013. The complete document, along with Cornell's Variance Application, can be viewed/downloaded as follows:
Cornell's application for a variance: screen resolution pdf 7.5 MB or print resolution pdf 43.1 MB
Ochshorn comments on Cornell's application for a variance: screen resolution pdf 493 KB or print resolution pdf 750 KB
Ochshorn comments on Review Board ruling granting variance: Nov. 23, 2013 blog post