Critique of Milstein Hall: Sustainability

Jonathan Ochshorn

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Sustainability contents: 1. introduction | 2. sustainable sites | 3. water efficiency | 4. energy & atmosphere | 5. materials & resources | 6. IEQ | 7. innovation | 8. Cornell's vision | 9. conclusions
 

1. Introduction

By any rational calculation, Milstein Hall is not a sustainable building. It is basically a sealed glass box with undifferentiated facade treatment on all four elevations. It is a flat pancake of a building that maximizes weather-exposed surface area not only by spreading out the bulk of its program area on one enormous floor plate, but also by lifting this floor plate off the ground, thereby exposing not only its roof but also its underside to the weather—while simultaneously creating outdoor platforms directly above underground rooms that then become exposed to the weather as well. It turns thermal bridging into an art form, with uninsulated structural steel columns and steel shelf angles bypassing insulation to funnel heat into cool spaces and cold into heated spaces. It proudly exposes its floor-to-ceiling continuous glass facades to the eastern, southern, and western sun without mediation (well, you can draw the curtains). It promotes daylighting (which is not even available most of the time the building is used, and is increasingly dubious in an age of computer monitors and digital projection) at the expense of energy conservation. Milstein Hall, in its structural exhibitionism, uses far more building materials than would otherwise be needed: the quantity of steel used in this two-story building—many of its truss chords and columns have four-inch thick flanges—is mind-boggling. In virtually every aspect of the building's design, decisions have been made that increase complexity, cost, and quantity of material resources expended. For example, glass is placed around an auditorium that requires darkness and acoustical isolation: so the glass is made inordinately thick (to keep sound out), and then covered with elaborate curtains (to make the room dark).

Complexity, if not matched by a rigorous program of design research and testing, leads to unsustainable buildings. This is because needlessly complex design elements will experience a greater rate of failure than more conventional elements, which results in the expenditure of more resources over time for maintenance, repair, and replacement.

In fact, there is only one possible way to pretend that this building is "green": by buying into (literally) the USGBC's LEED rating system. "The benchmark for measuring 'Green' Buildings is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Rating System developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. As part of developing a sustainable campus, Cornell has embraced the LEED Rating System and requires that new construction and major renovation projects achieve a minimum LEED Silver Rating."1

As will be shown, achieving a LEED silver, or even a gold, rating has nothing to do with any rational measure of sustainability. In fact, Cornell's own internal goals are simpler and more ambitious: "In addition to LEED Silver requirements, to support our Climate Action Plan goals of climate neutrality by 2050, projects initiated since 2008 need to use 30% less energy than current energy standards and strive towards 50% less energy."2 How does Milstein Hall stack up to other recent Cornell projects in reaching these internal goals?


Table 1. Milstein Hall's anticipated energy reduction, compared to current energy standards, is a mere 2 per cent. (Table based on Cornell's data3)

Project Name/Completion Year Gross Square Footage % Energy Reduction LEED Rating Target
Physical Sciences Building/2010 97,00029%NC-Gold
Paul Milstein Hall/2011 69,0002%NC-Silver
Combined Heat & Power Project Office/2010 3,00061%NC-Gold
Animal Health Diagnostic Center/2011 109,00022%NC-Gold
Plantations Welcome Center/2010 6,00053%NC-Gold
Riley-Robb Biofuels Research Lab/2009 21,00038%NC-Gold
Human Ecology Center for Science/2011 227,00033%NC-Gold
MVR '33 Phase 1 Renovation/2010 58,00031%NC-Gold

Table 1 shows that Milstein Hall uses energy at a rate virtually identical to current (presumably non-sustainable) standards. In contrast, every other project initiated by Cornell during this time period is reducing energy consumption by 22% to 66%. That Cornell's flagship architecture building—a building with nothing but a large floor plate for desks, an auditorium, and a critique space—cannot figure out how to reduce its energy consumption beyond currently mandated standards is consistent with the architecture program's historic values, but hardly in tune with the either the University's or the profession's stated goals.

Cornell architecture has always been fixated on form and the intellectual/artistic basis underlying formal design: "If one could identify a singular philosophy for the architecture program at Cornell, it would be that architecture is a conceptual problem-solving discipline… The intention has always been to instruct architecture students in issues of basic and more sophisticated formal principles… The development of form and space is critical to architectural design... The excellence of architectural art, however, derives from the exploration and refinement of ideas, upon which form, purpose, and structure are dependent…"4

In contrast, the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) "reflects the profession's commitment to provide healthy and safe environments for people and is dedicated to preserving the earth's capability of sustaining a shared high quality of life. The committee's mission is to lead and coordinate the profession's involvement in environmental and energy-related issues and to promote the role of the architect as a leader in preserving and protecting the planet and its living systems."5

If we temporarily suspend our disbelief, it is possible to evaluate Milstein Hall's sustainable attributes based on the LEED rating system—in this case, LEED-NC Version 2.2.6 Green building, per LEED, is measured within five categories, each of which will be examined in turn: site, water, energy/atmosphere, materials, and indoor environmental quality. A sixth category for "Innovation & Design Process" provides extra points for projects that either exceed expectations, or provide innovations that were not anticipated under these five categories. Items listed as "prerequisites" are mandatory for LEED certification; all other so-called credits are discretionary. One can completely disregard whole categories of green building design so long as enough points are collected in the remaining categories to satisfy the criteria for the various ratings: 26-32 points = certified; 33-38 points = silver; 39-51 points = gold; and 52-69 points = platinum. As might be expected, most projects are certified at the bottom range of their rating classification rather than at the top. In other words, a project with a projected point total of 32—the top of the lowly "certified" range—would most likely find a way to "buy" one more point in order to get the LEED-silver designation. Milstein Hall, aiming for gold, was one point short of that goal in September 2011 but managed to find enough points to achieve the "Gold" designation in June 2012.7

In the sections that follow, all 69 LEED points and 7 prerequisites, listed in the order established by the U.S. Green Building Council, are examined in terms of their relationship to sustainable building and, where applicable, in terms of Milstein Hall's design.

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Sustainability contents: 1. introduction | 2. sustainable sites | 3. water efficiency | 4. energy & atmosphere | 5. materials & resources | 6. IEQ | 7. innovation | 8. Cornell's vision | 9. conclusions

Notes

1 "Cornell LEEDing" handout produced by Cornell University, undated, found here (PDF accessed Oct. 20, 2011)

2 ibid.

3 ibid.

4 Cornell Department of Architecture's mission statement, in full, is as follows:

"If one could identify a singular philosophy for the architecture program at Cornell, it would be that architecture is a conceptual problem-solving discipline. The goal of the program is to produce conceptual thinkers, versed in the skills, history, theory, and science of their field. In part, the success of the program can be attributed to the quality of students and faculty members combined with their dedication and enthusiasm. Companion undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts and in city and regional planning have also greatly contributed to the department's strength. The influence of these programs has created a philosophy that is unique to Cornell: that the individual work of architecture is thought of as part of a greater whole and exists in a determinate physical context. Furthermore, the students and their work are also placed in a historical context, creating a sense of the continuity of architectural thought.

"The intention has always been to instruct architecture students in issues of basic and more sophisticated formal principles, developing an aptitude for functional and programmatic accommodation, structural and technological integration, energy-conscious design, and materials and methods of construction. Virtually every architecture school does this. Cornell, however, differs from most schools in the way it teaches students about architecture: we do not teach architecture; instead we try to teach students how to learn about architecture (witness, for example, the inordinate number of Cornell alumni teaching in architecture programs). Rather than train architects who think of buildings as autonomous objects frozen in an assigned ideology, our goal is to produce architects who are capable of making independent judgments rooted in an ever-changing context of architectural thought.

"To effect these goals, design at Cornell is taught as an intellectual discipline steeped in societal and cultural values. Architecture is taught as the integration of thought, form, and structure. Design problems frequently are located within real physical contexts and are evaluated in relation to those motivations that shaped the environment over time. Architecture, it is assumed, resides in the integration of idea and fact and history and the future.

"The development of form and space is critical to architectural design. Equally significant is the responsible resolution of functional requirements integrated with actual and perceived structure. The excellence of architectural art, however, derives from the exploration and refinement of ideas, upon which form, purpose, and structure are dependent. Deemed essential at Cornell is that the student grapple not only with fact, but with the substance of fact. Consequently, the investigation of architectural content is pursued in protracted and continuous study. Architecture studios extend into the classroom and the library; they embrace the humanities and sciences, tradition and innovative effort."

Of course, lip service is paid to "structural and technological integration, energy-conscious design, and materials and methods of construction," as these are subjects mandated by accreditation agencies. The program's true priority, however, is and has been to teach design as a formal—rather than as a technical, social, or ecological—discipline.

Found online here (accessed Oct. 20, 2011)

5 AIA Committee on the environment, "COTE Mission," found here (accessed Oct. 20, 2011)

6 Milstein Hall's anticipated LEED points are found in the "Milstein LEED Checklist," (based on LEED-NC Version 2.2 Registered Project Checklist), Sept. 2, 2011, prepared by BVM Engineering. A detailed description of the various LEED credits and prerequisites can be found in: U.S. Green Building Council, New Construction & Major Renovation Reference Guide (Version 2.2), 2nd edition, 2006.

7 "LEED for New Construction Application Review," June 14, 2012, Cornell University, Milstein Hall, No. 10097687, no longer found at http://www.sustainablecampus.cornell.edu/buildings/milstein.cfm (originally accessed July 6, 2012) but can be accessed here; the preliminary document showing Milstein Hall's anticipated LEED credits is described in the "Milstein LEED Checklist," op. cit.