Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety

Jonathan Ochshorn


contact | homepage | index of selected writings | Critique of Milstein Hall contents and introduction
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

8. Conclusions

Fire safety regulations, initially promulgated to prevent conflagrations that routinely destroyed large portions of cities, have been incrementally improved over the past several centuries, first to prevent fires from spreading to adjacent buildings, then to prevent fires from spreading from their floor of origin, and now to prevent fires from spreading even from their room of origin. Automatic sprinkler systems, combined with more traditional passive construction elements (including fire barriers and fire walls), have greatly reduced the risk of loss of life and property damage. Yet even so, fire still exacts an enormous cost: in New York State alone, structural fires cause hundreds of injuries and deaths each year, both to civilians and fire fighters.1 Loss of property is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, again, just in New York State.

At Cornell University, fires routinely occur in both lab buildings and dormitories, and numerous Cornell students have been killed in off-campus houses and clubs.2 Even buildings designed by noted architects like OMA/Rem Koolhaas have been damaged by fire. OMA's New York City Prada store "became one of Prada's most successful stores, but on Saturday night [Jan. 21, 2006] a fire that began in neighboring American Eagle Outfitters injured seven people, including six firefighters, and caused extensive water and smoke damage throughout the building."3 More recently, OMA's 34-story hotel under construction as part of the China Central Television headquarters in Beijing was engulfed by "a fierce blaze started by an illegal fireworks show."4

Such examples illustrate precisely the issues at stake with the construction of Milstein Hall at Cornell University and, in particular, with the inadequate fire barrier installed between Milstein and Sibley Halls. The Prada store (Figure 1), a retail establishment that should have been isolated from adjacent building areas by a fire barrier, suffered extensive damage when that isolation proved illusory (Figure 2). While it is difficult to determine precisely why the fire spread from the adjacent American Eagle store, it is likely that fire separation between the adjacent stores was inadequate, even though the two stores were "separated by a brick wall and 16 feet of lobby area."5 Legal documents allege that the fire "originated in a first-floor HVAC duct/mechanical room and that the fire was permitted to spread via a voids [sic] or voids in the HVAC duct/mechanical room." It was further alleged that "the installation of firestopping material in about the aforestated HVAC duct shaft/mechanical room located on the first floor of the building at 573-575 Broadway, New York, New York was negligently performed." Building code provisions cited in legal documents stemming from the Prada fire reference numerous sections of the 2002 Building Code of NYS, including those that deal specifically with fire barriers.6

Site plan based on Sanborn Map showing Prada store

Figure 1. Collage of Sanborn Map and first-floor plans of Prada Store in New York City. The gray areas in the plan indicate non-Prada occupancies (American Eagle)

The Prada fire caused numerous injuries, mainly to firefighters. One firefighter, in particular, allegedly "sustained serious personal injuries, severe physical pain and mental anguish as a result thereof, incapacitation from his usual vocation and avocation, and was caused to undergo medical care and attention…"7 In response to this five-alarm fire requiring the deployment of "nearly 200 firefighters and scores of fire trucks and other equipment"8 and causing not only injuries to seven people (six of whom were firefighters) but extensive property loss, architect Koolhaas appeared capable only of considering the extensive water damage at the store as a source of wry amusement. As reported in the New York Times: "A sense of humor was also water resistant. Through an assistant in his Rotterdam office, Mr. Koolhaas relayed his condolences: "It's raincoats next season," he said."9

Fire at Prada Store in New York City

Figure 2. "Firefighters looking on at the five-alarm blaze at 575 Broadway, near Prince Street." Photo and caption from NY Times here.

In a separate incident, a fire at OMA's Beijing Mandarin Oriental Hotel, under construction and adjacent to—but spatially separated from—OMA's more famous CCTV tower, did enormous damage to the hotel, but did not spread to the CCTV tower. While damage was extensive in the hotel where the fire started, the effectiveness of code-based requirements for either physical separation (frontage), or fire-resistive barriers (fire barriers or fire walls) was clearly borne out here. Reducing code-sanctioned fire separation strategies to lower construction costs or to achieve some formal design objective, as has apparently been done at Milstein Hall, is a risky strategy.

Fire at Beijing Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Beijing

Figure 3. "The blazing Mandarin Oriental hotel." Photo and caption from The Guardian here.

It is clear that many architects and even building owners often don't appreciate the risk of fire, and make assumptions about the safety of buildings without any logical basis. Such attitudes gain currency in part because fire safety is measured in a probabilistic context where the risk of damage, injury, or death is not immediately evident. Yet fires are a recurring threat, even on Cornell's campus, and even in buildings connected to Milstein Hall (Figure 4).

Referring to nonconforming (actually noncompliant, as it turned out after Cornell lost its lawsuit) lecture halls in Sibley and Myron Taylor Halls at Cornell that were required to be either upgraded with a second exit or downgraded to a maximum occupancy of 49 people, Cornell's Deputy University Spokesperson Simeon Moss explained that the University had challenged the State's ruling in court because: "We're quite confident in the safety of the buildings."10 Such "confidence," however, has no basis in building science or logic. In fact, Cornell's legal complaint against the New York State Department of State's Director of Code Enforcement and Administration and others makes no reference to any actual fire science that would, in even the smallest way, justify confidence in the safety of those buildings. Rather, it hinged entirely on a dubious and ultimately discredited legal judgment that the State's Code Interpretation 2008-01 "is invalid and contrary to law."11

Sibley fire, image from 1906 Cornell Alumni News

Figure 4. Sibley Hall's "Mechanical Laboratory After the Fire" Photo and caption from the Cornell Alumni News, Vol. IX. No. 3, Ithaca, N. Y., Oct. 17, 1906, online here.

Can campus buildings catch on fire at Cornell? "Morse Hall, which housed the University's department of chemistry, was almost wholly destroyed by fire last Sunday, February 13. Little more was left standing than the walls of the building."12 "A laboratory fire today damaged a portion of Cornell University's Space Sciences building, where research financed by NASA and the National Science Foundation is conducted."13 "The S.T. Olin Chemistry Research Laboratory at Cornell University returned to use this morning after a second-floor fire in a research lab Thursday evening, July 8. The fire began at approximately 10 p.m. and involved a quantity of flammable liquids. The building was evacuated and the fire was extinguished by the Ithaca Fire Department."14 "Early yesterday morning, an electrical transformer device erupted in flames at the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory, which houses a particle physics accelerator. Ithaca firefighters responded to the fire alarm at 12:47 a.m., at first with only two fire engines, but because of the severity of the smoke, a third engine was dispatched. The cause of the fire appears to be accidental, but it is still under investigation, according to the IFD."15 "A small fire broke out at the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory yesterday afternoon around 2:47 p.m., marking the second fire in less than a month at the laboratory. An internal a power supply for a vacuum pump short-circuited and caused the fire, according to the Ithaca Fire Department."16 Finally, Sibley Hall, currently home to the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and now separated from Milstein Hall with a deficient fire barrier, also has experienced a damaging fire:

"Fire early last Friday morning caused damage of $5,000 to the mechanical laboratory in the rear of Sibley College, and threatened to destroy the entire building. Good work by the Ithaca fire department, assisted by University officers and students, confined the flames to two rooms. The loss is covered by insurance.

"How the fire started is not known, but it is supposed to have been the result of a crossing of electric wires. It was discovered about 4 A. M. by a watchman, who saw a small blaze showing through the first and second story windows. He ran across the campus, shouting "Fire!" and at Morrill hall he turned in an alarm on the new campus system. By this system a campus alarm is sounded by the big bell in the Library clock tower, as well as by the city fire bell downtown and by the whistle at the pumping station near the Inlet.

"Residents of the campus were aroused at once, and they got out the University hose cart, which was manned by President Schurman and others. They had the first stream on the fire. The President had been sitting up with a sick son and was on his way to the fire as soon as he heard the alarm. Several companies of the Ithaca fire department arrived promptly, and four members of the volunteer company on Cornell Heights also dragged their hose cart over the bridge. By this time the flames could be seen downtown, and the entire section of the building occupied by the testing machines on the first floor and by the storeroom, cement room, etc., on the second floor was ablaze.

"Brick fire walls had kept the flames confined to this section, and the firemen prevented it from spreading further. Pressure was obtained from the big pump directly west of the building. By 6 o'clock the fire was all out.

"When the University authorities came to estimate the damage they found it much less than they had expected. The big beams supporting the second floor had given way and the contents of the storeroom, consisting mostly of smaller testing apparatus such as dynamometers, calorimeters and steam gauges, had fallen upon the machinery below. The work of cleaning up was begun at once, both students and faculty taking a hand. Under the direction of Professor Carpenter the rubbish around the various machines was thrown out of the windows and carried away, and most of the expensive apparatus was found to be virtually uninjured. No records or other papers were lost.

"The rooms which were damaged were those used by the juniors and seniors of Sibley in experimental work. Some of this work was discontinued until Monday as a result of the fire."17

The efficacy of fire barriers or fire walls ("Brick fire walls had kept the flames confined…") was evident in 1906 when Sibley Hall, now connected to Milstein Hall, experienced a serious fire. Yet such barriers can be compromised, either by the actions of complacent architects and code enforcement officers, as evidenced in the design of Milstein Hall; or—ubiquitously—by the behavior of ordinary building users who, as students, faculty, and staff within a Department of Architecture, ought to know better (Figure 5).

Fire doors propped open in Rand Hall, Cornell

Figure 5. Fire barriers are routinely compromised by propping open fire-resistance rated doors, here in two locations in Rand Hall at Cornell. Photos by Jonathan Ochshorn, July 24, 2012.

One cannot say with certainty either that Milstein Hall would be free of risk by adopting modern fire-safety standards, or that Milstein Hall will experience fire damage if designed, as it has been, according to more lax standards. What can be stated with certainty, however, is that Milstein Hall is less safe than it could be and less safe than current building codes would require it to be.

Update: Fires continue to occur on the Cornell campus.18

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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 See fire injury and death statistics for New York State here (accessed 9/13/11).

2 See "Student Dies in Early Morning Cook Street Fire," May 6, 2011 here and "Student Dies in Apartment Fire," May 14, 2006 here (both accessed 2/12/18). Nine Cornell students were killed in a 1967 fire at the Cornell Residential Heights Club; there have been dorm fires in Balch Hall and the Low Rise dorms in 2004 and 2006 respectively; and there have been "129 campus-related fire fatalities nationwide since 2000" (up until Nov. 10, 2008) per "Renovation Highlights Fire Safety Issues," The Cornell Daily Sun here (accessed 2/12/18).

3 Eric Wilson, "Prada Store Wrings Out," New York Times, Jan. 26, 2006 here (accessed 9/13/11).

4 Andrew Jacobs, "Fire Ravages Renowned Building in Beijing," New York Times, Feb. 9, 2009, here (accessed 9/13/11).

5 Blanco v. Prada USA Corp. 2009 NY Slip Op 33030(U), Robert Blanco, Plaintiff, v. Prada USA Corp., American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., 575 Broadway LLC, 575 Broadway Associates L.P. and 575 Broadway Corporation and A.R.I. Investors, INC., Defendants. No. 101644/07, Seq. No. 003. Supreme Court, New York County. December 21, 2009. December 30, 2009. Found online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

6 Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, Robert Blanco, Plaintiff against Prada USA Corp., American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. etc., Feb. 2, 2007, online at (direct links to the court's website are prohibited without written permission).

7 Supreme Court of the State of New York, Robert Blanco, Plaintiff, against Prada USA Corp, American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., et. al., Verified Complaint, online here (accessed July 24, 2012; downloaded from original site Oct. 2, 2011).

8 "7 Injured in Soho Blaze," New York Times, Jan. 22, 2006, here (accessed July 24, 2012).

9 Eric Wilson, op. cit.

10 Krisy Gashler, "Cornell Sues State, City over Fire Code," Ithaca Journal, June 17, 2009 (accessible with payment here).

11 See Cornell's Complaint and petition to the State of New York Supreme Court here PDF accessed July 24, 2012).

12 "Morse Hall Is Destroyed by Fire," Cornell Alumni News, Vol. XVIIL, No. 20, Ithaca, N. Y., Feb. 17, 1916, online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

13 "Cornell Space Lab Is Damaged by Fire," New York Times, April 26, 1995, here (accessed July 24, 2012).

14 "S.T. Olin Lab at Cornell back in use after fire," Cornell News, July 9, 1999, here (accessed July 24, 2012).

15 Ayala Falk, "Electrical Unit Catches Fire At Synchrotron Laboratory," Cornell Daily Sun, September 17, 2009, online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

16 Seth Shapiro, "Old Equipment Sparks Fire at Synchrotron," Cornell Daily Sun, October 14, 2009 online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

17 "Fire Threatens Sibley; Mechanical Laboratory Damaged to the Extent of $5,000," Cornell Alumni News, Vol. IX. No. 3, Ithaca, N. Y., Oct. 17, 1906, online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

18 Other Cornell University fires: