Critique of Milstein Hall: Fire Safety

Jonathan Ochshorn

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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

This summary of code violations is an excerpt from a formal "Application for Variance or Appeal" that I filed with the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA) on May 28, 2013. All required documents and exhibits along with the full appeal can be viewed/downloaded as follows:
Application (pages 1-54): screen resolution pdf 3.4 MB or print resolution pdf 15.9 MB
Addenda (pages 55-81): screen resolution pdf 1.6 MB or print resolution pdf 19.3 MB
Notice of Hearing (July 18, 2013): screen resolution pdf 209 KB or print resolution pdf 1.3 MB
Notice to Reopen Hearing (September 19, 2013): screen resolution pdf 192 KB or print resolution pdf 1.3 MB
Hearing Results: Findings, transcript, and additional commentary | Latest developments: Blog updates | Official transcript of hearing (pdf)
Background reading: my papers on Designing Building Failures and A Probabilistic Approach to Nonstructural Failure

9. Summary from Code Appeal

Milstein Hall is an addition to two existing buildings on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY, completed in 2011, as shown in the site plan and photo below.

site plan of Milstein Hall, Cornell University

Site Plan showing Milstein-Sibley-Rand Hall (plan by Jonathan Ochshorn based on schematic site plan available on Cornell's Milstein Hall web site superimposed on a Google Map showing the Cornell campus).

site plan of Milstein Hall, Cornell University

Milstein Hall, center, is an addition to Sibley Hall, left, and Rand Hall, right (photo by Jonathan Ochshorn).

As a registered architect and user of Milstein-Sibley-Rand Halls, I noticed a series of Building Code irregularities and brought them to the attention of Cornell's project director as well as Code Enforcement Officials in the City of Ithaca Building Department. Some of these issues were addressed, but many remained unresolved. Therefore, I filed a formal complaint with the Ithaca Building Department, dated December 13, 2011, under Title 19 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York (1203.3 Minimum features of a program for administration and enforcement of the Uniform Code).

The response I received from the City of Ithaca Building Department, dated March 16, 2012, did not address any of the specific code irregularities that I itemized in my complaint. Rather, Ithaca Building Commissioner Phyllis Radke expressed confidence that the architects of record, Cornell University, and the Ithaca Building Department were "truly interested in making sure that all life-safety and health imperatives are met…" and that my "concerns had already been responded to by the project Architect Kendall Heaton and Holt Architects." However, because my concerns remained unaddressed and because life-safety issues remained unresolved, I submitted a "Local Code Enforcement Complaint Form" to the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA) on April 10, 2012.

After more than a year without receiving a formal response from DCEA, I was told by Brian Tollisen of the DCEA on April 24, 2013, that "in lieu of the complaint, you could apply for an appeal to our Regional Board of Review." This was confirmed by Charles Bliss of DCEA in an email to me dated May 10, 2013 in which he attached an application and offered to waive the required fee.

I have identified six primary Code irregularities or violations concerning Milstein Hall as an addition to Rand and Sibley Halls; Milstein Hall was permitted under the 2002 [sometimes referred to as 2003] Building Code of New York State. These six irregularities are described in the attached Exhibits 1-6. In addition, I have identified two primary Code irregularities or violations concerning renovations in Rand and Sibley Halls that were permitted under the 2010 Existing Building Code of New York State shortly after Milstein Hall received its Certificate of Occupancy. These two irregularities are described in the attached Exhibits 7 and 8.

The eight irregularities or violations are summarized here:

I. Inadequate exits from "crit room" assembly space. The crit room in Milstein Hall is noncompliant because its floor area supports assembly occupancy of more than 500 people, and yet it only has one exit (a second open stair is not "remote" from the first exit, so it doesn't count as a second means of egress). In addition, common path of travel limits of 75 feet are exceeded. These problems are compounded and replicated when permanent, movable partitions in the space are used to create smaller, but equally noncompliant spaces within the larger space.

II. Noncompliant protruding objects in egress path. There are numerous instances in Milstein Hall where sloping structural elements and sloping guards create protruding objects within the path of egress—the entire second floor counts as part of the path of egress since there are no defined corridors or hallways in the space, and egress takes place on all available surfaces (aisles) not occupied by desks.

III. Inadequate fire barrier between Milstein and E. Sibley Hall. The fire barrier between Milstein Hall (the addition) and Sibley Hall was never built per Code specifications, and so is noncompliant. The Tyco 5.6 K-Factor Model WS Specific Application Window Sprinklers added later appear to be noncompliant for this application as well.

IV. Improper mezzanine designation. Milstein Hall has three interconnected levels, in apparent violation of the 2002 Building Code. The middle level is being called a mezzanine, even though it is not "within" a larger space as required (rather, it is adjacent to, or connected to, that larger space, but clearly outside the larger space's structural and spatial boundaries). Additionally, the larger space it is claimed to be "in" has been subsequently subdivided with permanent partitions, so that its area is no longer three times the area of the so-called mezzanine.

V. Milstein-Sibley-Rand Halls exceed Table 503 floor area limits, based on Appendix K. Milstein-Sibley-Rand Hall is a single building with construction type V-B (based on combustible wood-frame construction of Sibley Hall's third floor exterior bearing walls). As an A-3 or Group B occupancy of construction type V-B, the floor area of the combined buildings greatly exceeds the allowable limit specified in Table 503 of the Building Code. Appendix K of the 2002 Building Code allows additions to increase building areas beyond those specified in Chapter 5 when a fire barrier is provided, but sets no limits on how much additional area is allowed. This makes no sense and is therefore unenforceable—no other known Code permits the combined area of existing buildings and additions to exceed the limits of Table 503 (or equivalent) without providing a fire wall, not just a fire barrier. Even if Appendix K is interpreted as allowing the "addition" to count as a separate building (i.e., as if it were separated by a fire wall—an assumption that is not supported by any provisions in the 2002 Code), the combustible wood-framed third floor exterior bearing wall of adjacent Sibley Hall still is problematic.

VI. Improper occupancy class designation. The second floor of Milstein Hall was inappropriately classified as both an A-3 and B occupancy, based on Section 302.4 (Spaces used for different purposes) of the 2002 Building Code of NYS. This section is meant to apply to spaces where different uses (occupancies) actually occur within the same space at different times, not to a situation where only a single occupancy occurs in the space, but where a hypothetical future occupancy—noncompliant under current building codes—would therefore be "grandfathered" under the old code.

VII. Inadequate exits from 261 E. Sibley Hall. When the Fine Arts Library was recently moved from Sibley Hall, a space formerly occupied by the library was changed into a different type of assembly or classroom space. This space can be occupied by as many as 240 people, yet has only a single exit. New York State's "Code Interpretation 2008-01" ruled that such spaces with more than 49 occupants must have two exits, even if they were compliant ("grandfathered") under older Codes.

VIII. Noncompliant A-3 library occupancy of Rand Hall, third floor. After Milstein Hall was completed, and under a separate building permit, the existing group B occupancy on the third floor of Rand Hall was replaced with a new A-3 occupancy in this location, without a required fire wall being installed. Creating a higher-hazard occupancy (A-3 replacing B) triggers a review under the current (2010) New York State Building Code, with which the proposed construction and occupancy must comply. Any nonconforming conditions that may have been allowed under the older 2002 Code do not count in the determination of whether this change to a higher hazard is compliant. Under the current Code, Milstein-Sibley-Rand Hall counts as a single building (since the three "fire areas" defining Milstein, Sibley, and Rand Halls are not separated by fire walls, and only fire walls create separate buildings) and therefore a single construction type (V-B) must be applied to all three fire areas. An A-3 occupancy on the third floor of a building with Type V-B construction is not permitted.

This summary of code violations is an excerpt from a formal "Application for Variance or Appeal" that I filed with the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration (DCEA) on May 28, 2013. All required documents and exhibits along with the full appeal can be viewed/downloaded as follows:
Application (pages 1-54): screen resolution pdf 3.4 MB or print resolution pdf 15.9 MB
Addenda (pages 55-81): screen resolution pdf 1.6 MB or print resolution pdf 19.3 MB
Notice of Hearing (July 18, 2013): screen resolution pdf 209 KB or print resolution pdf 1.3 MB
Notice to Reopen Hearing (September 19, 2013): screen resolution pdf 192 KB or print resolution pdf 1.3 MB
Hearing Results: Findings, transcript, and additional commentary | Latest developments: Blog updates | Official transcript of hearing (pdf)
Background reading: my papers on Designing Building Failures and A Probabilistic Approach to Nonstructural Failure