Critique of Milstein Hall: Nonstructural failure

Jonathan Ochshorn


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Nonstructural failure contents: 1. introduction | 2. water and thermal control | 3. sloppy or dysfunctional details | 4. dangerous details | 5. maintenance issues | 6. cracks

4. Dangerous details

The first, and last word, on dangerous architectural details is Monty Python's legendary "Architects Sketch" (Figure 1): "The tenants arrive in the entrance hall here, are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort and pass murals depicting Mediterranean scenes towards the rotating knives..."1

Figure 1. Video (4 minutes long): "Architects Sketch" by Monty Python (video can also be viewed directly on YouTube).

One might wonder why architects — at least those who are not engaged in satire or parody — would create buildings that could cause injury. In most cases, the answer seems to be a pathologically narrow focus on how building elements appear — i.e., what they look like — and a corresponding inattention to qualities of these same building elements that could cause harm. This is, at least in part, related to building complexity or peculiarity, as such buildings invariably contain elements that are original, newly conceived, and untested. That these elements are untested or unprecedented doesn't completely explain their danger; rather it is the combination of their being untested, while at the same time being designed from a standpoint that is almost exclusively formal, artistic, and expressive, that increases the likelihood of danger.

What follows is not an all-inclusive list of dangerous details. I have not been given official access to such information, so the items that follow are based only on my random observations of the building:

  1. Snow drifts on the roof, unconstrained by railings or parapet walls (there are none) will themselves cantilever over the roof edge, presenting a hazard to cars and pedestrians below. This phenomenon depends, of course, on the amount and consistency of the snow, and the direction of the prevailing winds, but dangerous overhanging hardened snow "icicles" have already appeared, much larger and more dangerous than those documented in Figure 1a. [Updated Dec. 11, 2014] Figure 1b shows a bigger protruding snow drift.

    Milstein Hall snow drifts

    Figure 1a. Drifting snow overhangs the roof of Milstein Hall; this instance is not so severe. Photo by J. Ochshorn, January, 2013.

    Milstein Hall snow drifts Dec 2014

    Figure 1b. Drifting snow overhangs the roof of Milstein Hall; in this case, just a few inches of snow generated a much larger cantilevered drift. Animation.gif by J. Ochshorn, December, 2014.

  2. Milstein Hall, cantilevered above University Avenue, may be struck by a car, truck, or maintenance vehicle at some point, as it is only fifteen feet above the street surface. This is not to suggest that trucks hit over-road bridges all the time (Figure 2). However, the likelihood of such a collision between a vehicle and a building is dramatically increased when the building is put in, or over, the roadway.

    trucks hitting bridges

    Figure 2. Trucks hit bridges all the time.

    Figure 3a shows the aftermath of a truck-bridge collision (March, 2012) in which the bridge was actually higher above the street than is Milstein Hall. The bridge damage is transferred to the lower stone fascia of Milstein Hall (Figure 3b) through the magic of Photoshop.

    Milstein Hall snow drifts

    Figure 3. Truck-bridge collision reported by V. Davila and J. Davenport (top), "Expect delays on U.S. 281 after truck hits overpass,", March 17, 2012 (online source accessed 6/8/12); Milstein Hall's west facade (bottom) showing hypothetical damage to stone fascia (collaged by J. Ochshorn).

    The Milstein Hall cantilever over University Avenue is problematic in two other respects. First, because of the structural flexibility (not to be confused with functional flexibility) of such cantilevered spans, the live load allowance for the upper level space above the street needed to be reduced, thereby precluding its future use as a library or other similarly-loaded occupancy. Second, it is not clear how the adjacent wood-framed Foundry building will be protected in case of fire, especially if a fire occurs in the pitched roof running parallel to University Avenue (Figure 4). In such a case, the capability of fire department vehicles would be severely constrained, as the soffit of Milstein Hall appears to prevent the use of turnable or telescoping ladder equipment.

    Milstein Hall cantilever constrains fire fighting

    Figure 4. Milstein Hall's cantilever over University Avenue may prevent fire trucks from using turnable or telescoping ladder equipment in the event of a roof fire in the wood-frame Foundry building across the street (hypothetical photo collage by J. Ochshorn).

  3. It's one thing to explicitly design a building to interact creatively with skateboard users, perhaps because such a function corresponds to the desires of the building or site users; it's quite different to design a building whose formal characteristics encourage skateboard use, while facilities managers or risk management consultants simultaneously prohibit the practice. Whether the building architects envisioned this sort of activity when designing the concrete "dome," or whether this was an unforeseen outcome, the fact that the building's form increases the probability of injury — both to skateboarders as well as to the building itself — can be characterized as a building failure (Figure 5).

    skateboard users on Milstein dome

    Figure 5. Skateboarders are attracted to Milstein Hall's dome; Cornell worries about injury to both skateboarders and to the building itself (video by J. Ochshorn, January 2013).

  4. Building codes generally prohibit the use of a single step within a building to negotiate a small change in elevation, since such subtle transitions are not always noticed, leading to injuries. In the outside world, things are a bit different, as there is an important "single-step" elevation change that is hard to avoid: the curb between sidewalk and street. On the other hand, curbs are generally quite easy to see, since they are part of a larger system that often includes visible clues, mostly with different colors and textures that identify the transition. These transitional elements include things like light-colored concrete sidewalks, green-colored grass strips (often with trees), grey-colored granite (or concrete) curbs, and dark-colored asphalt streets.

    There is clearly no regulation prohibiting such curbs, which serve a useful purpose. The designers of Milstein Hall, however, have used this "loophole" in the no-single-step rule to create an incredibly dangerous transition between the paved outdoor area above the gallery space and the paved loading dock. Not only are all the typical curb-elements identified above missing (i.e., there is no articulated "curb" material at all, there is no grass strip, and there is no significant change in color or texture between the "pedestrian" area and the truck-loading area), but the elevation between the two concrete surfaces changes in a linear fashion from zero to 20 inches, further increasing the danger.2 Due to the north-south orientation of this transitional "line," there are not even any shadows created by the elevation change in the afternoon or evening, further obscuring the dangers (Figure 6).

    Figure 6a. Video (2 minutes long) by J. Ochshorn shows poorly marked elevation discontinuities at Milstein Hall plaza and loading dock — i.e., accidents waiting to happen (video shot Sept. 9, 2011; can also be viewed directly on YouTube).

    Cornell has fixed the dangerous curb condition at Milstein Hall

    Figure 6b. Just about 1 year after this critique was posted online, someone has finally acknowledged the danger of these "hidden" curbs; this photo (taken Sept. 18, 2014 by J. Ochshorn) shows the remedy that I had recommended (see the video immediately above at about 1:47 minutes). Whether this represents a permanent solution is yet to be seen [see Figure 6c below for update].

    Cornell has permanently fixed the dangerous curb condition at Milstein Hall

    Figure 6c. About a month and a half after the photo in Figure 6b was taken, it looks like Cornell has found a permanent fix for the dangerous curbs at Milstein Hall — this solution also seems to protect the curbs themselves from damage, and not just the humans that come into contact with them (photo by J. Ochshorn taken Nov. 4, 2014).

  5. There are numerous instances in Milstein Hall where vertical discontinuities greater than 30 inches in the horizontal walking surface present hazards to people walking on those surfaces (Figure 7). In some cases, the surface may not be intended as a walking surface, but could easily be used as such, especially by small children searching for adventure (see the ledge overlooking the sunken garden facing the loading area, as shown in the video below). In other cases, horizontal surfaces are designed and built, presumably for formal or expressive purposes, that are separated from habitable spaces by guard rails, but remain as tempting perches for students — for example, as "overflow" seating in the auditorium.

    Figure 7. Video (2 minutes long) by J. Ochshorn shows ledges in Milstein Hall with vertical discontinuities greater than 30 inches, the maximum allowed by Code (video shot August 2011 and August 2013; can also be viewed directly on YouTube).

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1 A more complete account of the Architects Sketch can be found in Wikipedia, accessed Aug. 26, 2013.

2 The change in elevation actually increases to more than 37 inches, if one includes the 17-inch-wide concrete "path" alongside the glass guardrail above the sunken garden. Whether this is noncompliant is subject to debate; whether it is dangerous, especially for young children, is clear.

Nonstructural failure contents: 1. introduction | 2. water and thermal control | 3. sloppy or dysfunctional details | 4. dangerous details | 5. maintenance issues | 6. cracks