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

5. Noncompliant E. Sibley Hall egress [Updated below: 03/16/15]

After Milstein Hall was occupied in Fall 2011, the Fine Arts Library in adjacent Sibley Hall was moved to Rand Hall (this move is discussed in more detail in a subsequent section) and a new form of assembly occupancy was created in the spaces vacated by the library. A posted occupancy sign for one of these spaces, 261 E. Sibley Hall, permits from 112 to 300 people (recently replaced with a sign permitting up to 240 people: see Figure 1). Any assembly or classroom space with more than 49 occupants requires at least two exits.1

posted egress instructions for room 261 E. Sibley Hall at Cornell

Figure 1. (a) Posted occupancy sign in room 261 E. Sibley Hall shows occupancy in excess of 50 people without two remote exits; (b) detail of plan, with new partitions and notations added in blue, shows Room 261 distance between exits, d, much less than 1/3 the diagonal length, D (photo by J. Ochshorn taken March 26, 2012).

Having two exits is not enough: clearly, such exits cannot be located at the same place in the room, since the whole point is to provide two remote means of egress in case one of them cannot be used. This requirement is clearly articulated in all building codes.2

Assembly spaces with one exit cannot be "grandfathered" based on a prior legal occupancy: a recent court ruling involving Cornell University and affecting this very building (Sibley Hall) supported New York State's "Code Interpretation 2008-01" and its requirement that all assembly spaces with more than 49 occupants have at least two remote means of egress.3 Room 261b almost has an egress problem as well: as in the crit space of Milstein Hall (see previous section), the common path of travel limit of 75 feet appears to be exceeded; however, an exception for Group B occupancies in sprinklered buildings increases this limit to 100 feet. This exception does not apply to the crit space, which is an assembly (Group A) occupancy.

Figure 2 contains two embedded YouTube videos illustrating the various egress problems with this room.

Figure 2. Two short videos posted on YouTube illustrate various egress problems in Room 261 E. Sibley Hall, triggered by the construction of Milstein Hall and the move of the Fine Arts Library out of Room 261 (and other E. Sibley spaces) to Rand Hall.

One would think that, more than one hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (well-documented by Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations4) spurred legislators to increase fire protection in buildings, Cornell would take such issues more seriously. It is always useful to be reminded of the conditions that led to the deaths of 145 workers in New York City: "In the hell of the ninth-floor, 145 employees, mostly young women, would die. Those that acted quickly made it through the Greene Street stairs, climbed down a rickety fire escape before it collapsed, or squeezed into the small Washington Place elevators before they stopped running. The last person on the last elevator to leave the ninth floor was Katie Weiner, who grabbed a cable that ran through the elevator and swung in, landing on the heads of other girls. A few other girls survived by jumping into the elevator shaft, and landing on the roof of the elevator compartment as it made its final descent. The weight of the girls caused the car to sink to the bottom of the shaft, leaving it immobile. For those left on the ninth floor, forced to choose between an advancing inferno and jumping to the sidewalks below, many would jump. Others, according to survivor Ethel Monick, became 'frozen with fear' and 'never moved.'"5

Having more than a single means of egress in any large assembly space is one of the most basic prerequisites for fire safety. Such requirements were, in part, triggered by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster: "The public responded to the fire and legal fiasco by demanding action. New York responded by establishing the New York City Committee on Public Safety. Frances Perkins, who went on to become the Secretary of Labor under Franklyn [sic] D. Roosevelt, and who stood in the crowd outside the building watching the tragedy unfold, was appointed to head the Committee. New York State established the New York Factory Investigation Commission, headed by Robert Wagner. The recommendations of the two groups spurred a wave of safety regulations that made New York a national model for occupational safety. Some 36 laws were passed to improve work place safety. These ranged from such basic rules as having exit doors open outward, placement of lighted exit signs and fire equipment in work places to a complete reorganization of the states occupational safety laws, and improvements in working conditions."6

That Cornell continues to maintain a space with a posted occupancy in excess of 49 and only a single means of egress, directly above a space (157 E. Sibley Hall) that was the subject of a lawsuit in which Cornell unsuccessfully argued that such spaces were legal, is hard to comprehend.

Update: 03 March 2015

Cornell eventually created a second exit from this space, as described in the following video:

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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


1 The 2010 Building Code of NYS, Section 1015.1, states: "Exit or exit access doorways required. Two exits or exit access doorways from any space shall be provided where one of the following conditions exists: 1. The occupant load of the space exceeds the values in Table 1015.1…" Table 1015.1 unambiguously sets a "maximum occupant load" of 49 for Group A, B, E, F, M, and U occupancies (except that the maximum occupant load with one means of egress for group E day care facilities is reduced to 10). The occupancy of Room 261 is either Group A (which includes exhibition halls, lecture halls, or, in general, "the use of a building or structure, or a portion thereof, for the gathering of persons for purposes such as civic, social or religious functions…) or Group B (which includes "educational occupancies for students above the 12th grade"). The NYS Code is available online here (accessed July 23, 2012).

2 Ibid. Section 1015.2.1 of the NYS Code states: "Where two exits or exit access doorways are required from any portion of the exit access, the exit doors or exit access doorways shall be placed a distance apart equal to not less than one-half of the length of the maximum overall diagonal dimension of the building or area to be served measured in a straight line between exit doors or exit access doorways. Interlocking or scissor stairs shall be counted as one exit stairway." An exception reduces the required separation length from one-half to one-third for sprinklered buildings.

3 I have discussed the court ruling against Cornell in a blog post here, which includes a link to the New York State, Department of State, Codes Division's Code Interpretation 2008–01 [PDF] dated Jan. 1, 2008; and a link to Cornell's "complaint" [PDF] filed with the State of New York Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2009. A short video showing the construction of a second exit in Room 157 E. Sibley Hall, required by this ruling, can be found here (all sources accessed July 23, 2012).

4 "Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire," Cornell University, online here (accessed July 23, 2012).

5 Doug Linder, "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial," 2002, online here (accessed July 23, 2012).

6 Stephen C. Embry, "The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: One Hundred Years Later," March 18, 2011, online here (accessed July 23, 2012).