© 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."
Even assuming that the issues described in the preceding section are resolved, the actual fire barrier provided between Milstein and Sibley Halls is noncompliant. Section 706.6 of the 2002 Building Code of NYS limits openings in fire barriers to a maximum aggregate width of 25 percent of the length of the wall. The opening width in the fire barrier between Milstein and Sibley Halls exceeds 25 percent and is therefore noncompliant, as shown graphically in Figure 1.
Gary Wilhelm, Project Director at Cornell, suggested to me that Tyco 5.6 K-Factor Model WS Specific Application Window Sprinklers could be provided to create a compliant fire barrier.1 These sprinklers were recently installed. However, Tyco product specifications2 indicate that this system is inappropriate for this application for the following three reasons, illustrated in Figure 2:
The history and pattern of systematic Code noncompliance with Milstein Hall can be illustrated by the way in which this fire barrier was initially specified. When a building permit was originally granted, a fire barrier was specified only for the second floor between Milstein Hall and Sibley Hall. Only later were the drawings and specifications revised to extend the fire barrier to the first floor and basement. The third floor wall remains unprotected wood-frame construction, as described above. None of these fire barriers were ever actually code-compliant, however, since the aggregate width of openings exceeds the maximum allowable width. And the latest intervention, placing special sprinklers between the fire-resistant-rated glazing and existing windows in some of the openings, appears to be noncompliant, as described above.
Five years after a building permit was inappropriately issued for Milstein Hall, a code-compliant fire barrier between Milstein and Sibley Halls is still not in place. And it is still unclear why even a code-compliant fire barrier would allow the combined floor area of Milstein-Sibley-Rand Hall to exceed the limits specified in Chapters 3 and 5 of the 2002 NYS Building Code.
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1 For details, see my March 9, 2012 blog post here (accessed July 20, 2012).
2 Tyco document TFP620 (February 2011) for "Model WS Specific Application Window Sprinklers Horizontal and Pendent Vertical Sidewall 5.6 K-Factor" online here (PDF accessed July 20, 2012).
First posted 25 July 2012. Last updated: 25 July 2012