Critique of Milstein Hall: Sustainability

Jonathan Ochshorn


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

2. Sustainable Sites

Prerequisite 1: Construction Activity Pollution Prevention. LEED requires all certified buildings to make a plan to reduce construction-related pollution and degradation (including soil erosion, dust). This is a fairly routine requirement, and is probably standard operating procedure in most municipalities even without the LEED incentive.

Credit 1: Site Selection. To get this point, the project cannot be built on farmland, undeveloped land in a flood plain, parks, habitats for threatened or endangered species, or undeveloped land within 50 feet of water bodies. In other words, it would have been impossible for Milstein Hall not to get this point, except perhaps by extending its cantilevered floor plate another 150 feet over the Fall Creek gorge.

This credit prioritizes development on previously-developed land, even sites within flood planes. This makes no sense from a rational planning standpoint, as there may well be instances where, for example, development on previously undeveloped land is sensible. However, such an analysis cannot occur when virtually the entire planet is divided into parcels under the control of individual owners seeking to exploit their property for private gain. In that context, rational planning becomes an oxymoron, and the stipulations of Credit 1 become entirely arbitrary. Why, for example, does building in a flood plane, or near a water body, become desirable simply because the site has already been inappropriately developed?1

Credit 2: Development Density & Community Connectivity. For this point, there are two choices, both of which require that the site has been previously developed (it was, having had both buildings and parking lots in its illustrious past). The first choice is to build in a location where the local building density is at least 60,000 square feet per acre, much like a typical 2-story "downtown."

site plan Milstein Hall

Figure 1. Milstein Hall and its larger "urban" context: the circle represents an area approximately 28 times that of the building site.

Both the project on its own "site," as well as the local density measured within a circle somewhat arbitrarily defined as having an area about 28 (actually 9 x π) times that of the building site, must meet this criterion (see Figure 1). We first note that an acre = 43,560 square feet. If Milstein Hall has about 50,000 square feet of program area and if its "site," defined by the construction project limit line in the contract documents, has about 65,000 square feet, or 1.49 acres, then its density = 50,000 sq.ft. / 1.49 acres = 33,557 square feet per acre, not meeting the "downtown" criteria.2

For the larger "regional" density, we need to compute the total building area in a circle centered on the site with a radius of about 765 feet. Making gross assumptions about the building area on this regional site (i.e., assuming Baker Lab = 200,000 sq.ft.; Sibley Hall = 54,000 sq.ft.; Rand Hall = 27,000 sq.ft.; Tjaden Hall = 35,000 sq.ft.; Lincoln Hall = 37,000 sq.ft.; Goldwin Smith Hall = 120,000 sq.ft.; White Hall = 32,000 sq.ft.; Johnson Museum = 76,000 sq.ft.; Olin Chemical Lab = 40,000 sq.ft.; the Physical Sciences Building = 177,000 sq.ft.; 123 Roberts Place = 3,000 sq.ft.; 316 Fall Creek = 4000 sq.ft.; Milstein Hall = 50,000 sq.ft.), we get a total building area = 855,000 square feet.

The regional site area = π x 7652 = 1,838,540 square feet = 42.2 acres. Therefore, the regional density = 855,000 sq.ft. / 42.2 acres = 20,260 sq.ft. / acre, which also does not meet the criterion. This is not particularly surprising since the arts quad at Cornell was not intended to be an "urban" space.

Luckily, there is another way to satisfy this credit. If the site is within 1/2 mile of a residential area (Cornell Heights and Cayuga Heights, as well as all the Cornell dorms west and north of the site seem to qualify) and within 1/2 mile of 10 "basic services" (things like banks, grocery stores, laundry, etc.), then you get the LEED point. As can be seen in Figure 2, there is enough stuff within this 1/2 mile radius actually on campus—including the Statler Hotel, Cornell Store, numerous eateries, fitness centers, bowling, and post office—to satisfy the requirements for this LEED point.

services near Milstein Hall

Figure 2. Basic services and residential neighborhood within 1/2 mile of Milstein Hall.

The "Development Density & Community Connectivity" credit idealizes urban density, which it correlates with sustainability—while at the same time prioritizing the exact opposite tendency in its open space initiatives (Credits 5.1 and 5.2). The fact that points in both categories can be awarded to a single project—i.e., a project can maximize open space while achieving urban densities—demonstrates the futility of finding any coherence in the LEED guidelines. And the idea that either open space or density, per se, has anything to do with sustainability, raises a broader issue. Rather than create policies to preserve environmental conditions that otherwise, if left to the whims of market forces and the competition among both corporations and states, would compromise the ability of humans to live on this planet, the LEED guidelines promote abstractions and myths such as "community."

The "communal" ideal outlined in Credit 2—living 1/2 mile from both one's workplace as well as "basic services"—abstracts from the reality of work under capitalism. Cities, i.e., urban areas, are useful to businesses precisely to the extent that physical proximity to a range of services and labor makes sense to them; the attraction of such places to those who need to find work has a well-documented trajectory, but one that is entirely contingent upon the presence of businesses whose decisions to locate in a particular place have to do only with calculations concerning profitability. Whether workers move to follow jobs, or businesses move where labor and material can both be efficiently procured, has nothing to do with supporting a "more stable… community."3 "Community" is a historically-bounded and unintended consequence of urbanization, neither its driving force nor its inevitable result.

And businesses may need to locate in an urban area for reasons that have nothing to do with preserving greenfields or fostering "community." In many cases, there is no impact on "community" or on the preservation of greenfields (i.e., the nature of such a business may preclude development outside of urban areas so that greenfields, in any case, were never threatened) as a result of such development, yet the LEED credit is still awarded. In the case of Milstein Hall, a point is awarded for "density" based on proximity to campus services like banks and fitness centers which could not not have been awarded, given the decision to expand program facilities in that particular spot on campus. Is this a "sustainable" decision that deserves recognition (and points), when more resource-efficient schemes that would not involve new building construction at all, but rather would focus on improvements and modest additions to existing buildings, were not implemented? Such questions are never asked within the LEED rating system.

Credit 3: Brownfield Redevelopment. This point is only given to projects that remediate damaged sites. While this credit does not apply to Milstein Hall, it demonstrates an important problem with the LEED system. In virtually every section of the guidelines that explains how points are awarded, the LEED authors promote the notion that market forces ought to direct savvy business owners to sustainable practices. In other words, LEED is merely itemizing and rewarding practices that businesses would do on their own, without any recognition or certification, purely on the basis of self-interest—if only information about such practices were organized in a useful way. That this self-serving ideology runs counter to virtually the entire history of environmental practices is somehow not noticed: for wasn't it precisely the search for the best (most profitable) industrial and agricultural fuels that led to the use and abuse of first wood and then coal, gas, oil, and uranium? Is it not clear from the back-and-forth pronouncements of market-driven guardians of the environment like T. Boone Pickens that the time for investment in wind energy is, or perhaps is not, now—depending, of course, on the relative cost of coal, oil, and gas.4

In the case of Credit 3, the LEED authors implicitly acknowledge that market forces would leave brownfields pretty much unremediated, since fixing them up is usually not a profitable practice. The LEED commentary references CERCLA (the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, a.k.a. the "Superfund") which funds governmental intervention to remediate contaminated sites; the use of "incentives" at all levels of government is also mentioned as a way of encouraging "brownfield redevelopment by enacting laws that reduce the liability of developers who choose to remediate contaminated sites." From this, it is clear that sustainable development often does not make economic sense to businesses without state intervention (where such intervention takes the form of subsidies or is directly legislated as a specific requirement).

But state intervention has its own calculus: "Such intervention is designed to protect the system of private property as a whole, not the humans or environments damaged as a matter of course within the routine processes of capital accumulation. A government interested in 'securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity' intervenes reluctantly to constrain the freedom of developers who, together with their architects, search for opportunities to exploit the natural and built environment. Governmental intervention occurs, certainly not on the basis of abstract ideas such as social or environmental justice, but only when an opportunity to foster economic growth is noticed, or when the actual consequences of capitalist competition ('the blessings of liberty') threaten to undermine the system itself."5

Credit 4.1: Alternative Transportation. Public Transportation Access. To get this point, the project needs to be within 1/2 mile of a rail line (this might have worked in 1927 when the campus-downtown trolley was still in place...) or 1/4 mile of at least two bus lines. Even with the bus routes temporarily altered to detour around the Milstein Hall construction site, there are plenty of other routes within a 1/4 mile radius (see Figure 3).

transportation near Milstein Hall

Figure 3. Bus route map in the vicinity of Milstein Hall.

Credit 4.2: Alternative Transportation, Bicycle Storage & Changing Rooms. This credit requires bike racks for 1/20 of the project's "peak" user population and showers for 1/200 of the building's full-time equivalent occupants. If we assume peak loads of 20 FTE (full-time equivalent) and 500 transients (this assumption is based on design phase programming estimates),6 the required number of bike racks is 520 ÷ 20 = 26. There appear to be about 22 spaces provided for bikes on the dome—see Figure 4—which seem insufficient. Additional bike storage is possible if the guard rails adjacent to Sibley Hall are included—they are certainly used by students for this purpose, but it is unclear whether such use is sanctioned or unsanctioned. Certainly, the use of required hand rails (see Figure 5) for bike storage is unsanctioned.

bike racks at Milstein Hall

Figure 4. Milstein Hall bike racks contain 11 semi-circular supports, presumably to accommodate 22 bikes. Photo by J. Ochshorn, 5 Dec. 2011.

unsanctioned bike storage at Milstein Hall

Figure 5. LEED-recommended storage for 26 bikes is clearly inadequate for 520 bike-friendly building users. Here, unsanctioned bike storage takes place along hand rails. Photo by J. Ochshorn, 5 Dec. 2011.

In any case, there are no changing rooms or showers in the building. Luckily, the fine print in the LEED guidelines permits campus buildings to share shower facilities, as long as the showers are no further than 600 feet from the entrance to the building seeking certification. As it turns out, Baker Lab—a campus building diagonally across East Avenue from Milstein Hall—has a single unisex shower on the second floor and on this basis Milstein Hall is claiming the bike rack credit. With only 20 FTE occupants of Milstein Hall (the remainder are classified as "transient"), this single shower would be more than enough to satisfy the mandate of 20/200 = 0.1 required showers. Unfortunately, the shower room appears to be more than 600 feet from the entrance to Milstein—see Figure 6—so this additional criterion for the LEED point also appears not to have been met. And even if the distance limit were overcome, the remote shower would not qualify since the hours of operation of the building it is in do not match the 24/7 operating hours of the architecture studios in Milstein Hall.7 In spite of this, Cornell has claimed the credit and LEED's reviewers have accepted the claim based on plans "provided showing the location of the shower/changing facilities and the bike storage facilities."8

map-photo showing path to bike showers

Figure 6. The path from Milstein Hall's entrance to the Baker Lab shower exceeds 600 feet (top); The shortest path to Baker Lab is actually closed each winter season (bottom), and may well be eliminated entirely; the alternate path, shown with a dashed line, is even longer.9 Photo by J. Ochshorn, 5 Dec. 2011.

LEED's bike-rack-as-sustainable-building-element credit is widely disparaged and ridiculed.10 However, the issue really isn't whether or not bike riding saves energy, reduces pollution, and encourages healthy life styles compared with car driving. All of these arguments are clearly valid. Whether the provision of bike storage is a "building energy" issue that belongs in a "green building" guideline at all might be a reasonable criticism if there existed a logical hierarchy of "green" standards that addressed sustainability at various scales—from the individual to the community to the entire planet. Given that no such mandates exist, it seems premature to unilaterally exclude bike racks from a green building guideline on this basis. Whether the credit given for provision of bike storage is consistent with the allocation of credits elsewhere in the LEED guidelines is actually impossible to determine, since simply providing a bike rack does not automatically cause people to stop commuting with cars, buses, or trains in any consistent manner. In other words, the real issue is whether providing bike racks and showers per the LEED specifications actually accomplishes any of desirable goals for which bike use is properly credited.

At one extreme, one can certainly identify projects where either the program (e.g., luxury business hotel) or environmental conditions (e.g., unfriendly roads or steep hills with no provision or accommodation for bicycles) simply do not support cycling. Even the "LEEDuser" website suggests that providing bike racks in such circumstances may not be an efficient use of resources.11 But it seems clear that some building owners will install such bike racks for the cynical purpose of achieving a higher LEED certification level, even when the anticipated use of bike storage is uncertain or unlikely.

At the other extreme one can find projects where a bike culture already exists, and where the provision of bike racks is not only necessary to support this existing culture, but where LEED specifications actually hinder bike usage by dramatically understating the actual need for such facilities. Such a condition applies to Milstein Hall at Cornell, where the LEED-recommended bike racks are woefully inadequate (see Figure 4).

The cynical collection (purchase) of LEED points is hardly unusual; the bike rack credit serves as a prime example in Milstein Hall, not because bike use shouldn't be encouraged and supported for all the reasons mentioned above, but because neither the explicit goal of this credit—supporting bike use to reduce pollution, reduce reliance on non-sustainable fossil fuels, and support healthy life styles—nor even the straight-forward, if misguided, criteria for implementation of the credit—providing bike storage for 5% of the building's peak users and showers for 0.5% of the FTE population no farther than 600 feet from the building entrance—are met. Milstein Hall's expropriation of the Baker Lab shower is particularly egregious: I can state with some certainty that not a single Milstein Hall bicycle user is aware that such a shower exists, or has been informed that this shower has been made available to them (not that any of them would have the slightest interest in using it if they were made aware of its existence). Furthermore, the fact that this LEED credit was actually "earned" in Cornell's LEED design application, in spite of the fact that the criteria for the credit appear not to have been met, illustrates how the need to collect points in order to meet threshold requirements for a desired certification level (in this case, "gold") encourages a kind of sloppy (corrupt? cynical?) book-keeping where the points themselves become more important than actually understanding and creating the conditions for sustainable building.

Credit 4.3: Low-emitting and Fuel-Efficient Vehicles. There are several options to get this point, none of which are attempted or met by Milstein Hall.

Credit 4.4: Alternative Transportation, Parking Capacity. To get this point, you need to provide 5% of total parking as "preferred parking" for carpools or vanpools; or you need to provide no new parking for the project. Cornell has various programs to encourage carpooling, but none are directly tied to this project.12 Both structured underground and surface parking were originally planned adjacent to the Milstein site, but the underground component was cut in response to the financial crisis of 2008. Cornell had already cut down Redbud Woods in 2005 to build a new parking lot a few blocks from Milstein Hall,13 but this lot was not built specifically for any one building project. Since parking on campus is often (always?) disengaged from particular buildings on campus, one can claim that no new parking has ever been created for any building and in this way apply for a LEED point. The reality is different: buildings get built and parking gets increased on campus.

In fact, new underground parking next to Milstein Hall may well get built at some point: "Construction of an adjacent plaza will incorporate a turnaround for vehicles and access to an eventual parking garage on the site. The building of Milstein Hall will eliminate about two-thirds of existing parking space behind Sibley, 'with the hope that the parking garage will be built in the future, with more spaces than the existing parking lot,' McKeown said."14 But even if the increased parking is built in the future, the point gained under this credit will not be not revoked; LEED ratings remain intact forever, no matter how the building, or its site, changes.15

The "Alternative Transportation" credit provides LEED points even though it would be virtually impossible not to satisfy the listed criteria for this campus building. In the case of Milstein Hall, campus and city buses stop near the site, so the points for "public transportation access" are automatic, and have nothing to do with the building itself. I've also noticed that students often take these buses to get to classes that are only a half mile or so away, rather than walking or biking: is this really a "sustainable" (i.e., energy-conserving or health-encouraging) practice? Such buses also bring faculty and staff from "remote" parking lots to the central campus—again both encouraging car use while simultaneously discouraging the half mile walk from the remote lot. In other words, the ideology of "public transportation" obscures actual practices that discourage healthful and energy-conserving activity.

The provision of bike racks is certainly a useful practice, but it is not clear whether it can rationally be made part of a "green building" checklist. While students certainly use such bike storage devices at a place like Cornell, there is no way to know for certain whether the provision of bike racks in other contexts (e.g., hotels or office buildings) would have any positive impact at all. LEED doesn't require that building owners demonstrate that bike racks are used, or that bike use has increased. Unlike "green building" requirements for reduced energy use that can be correlated with things like R-values or mechanical equipment efficiency, elements like bike racks have no automatic impact on anything. And the requirement for complimentary showers and changing rooms is quite curious: does this type of utilitarian bike activity (i.e., using the bike to just get somewhere, rather than in a competitive sports event) really require such an infrastructure?

Credit 5.1: Site Development, Protect or Restore Habitat. To get this point for a non-greenfield site, at least half the site (not counting the building) needs to be planted with native or adapted vegetation. As most of the Milstein site is paved, this point appears not to be possible. Certain green roofs can, however, be counted in dense urban sites, in which case only 20% of the site area (including the vegetated roof area) need be so planted. The vegetated roof plantings need to actually support a diverse range of birds and insects. While Milstein Hall is, apparently, a "dense urban site" (having earned Credit 2, Development density and community connectivity) and would seem to qualify for this site development point based on the size of its green roof, it may be that a lack of habitat diversity prevents Cornell from earning this LEED point: Milstein's vegetated roof appears to be more decorative than ecologically functional.

Credit 5.2: Site Development, Maximize Open Space. This credit can be satisfied in numerous ways, depending on the zoning requirements for open space. Cornell University is governed by the City of Ithaca Zoning ordinance, which has a 35% maximum lot coverage for so-called U-1 (post-secondary) zones; in other words, there is a 65% open space requirement. LEED requires that vegetated open space exceed this zoning requirement by 25%. The Milstein site therefore would need 81.25% vegetated open space for this credit. Of course, Milstein Hall isn't really a "site" from the City's perspective; it is just one part of a larger campus for which the 35% maximum building area applies.

So, it isn't clear whether Milstein Hall gets this LEED point by meeting the 81.25% open space requirement on its own construction site, or rather by identifying some far-away campus green space, perhaps part of the Cornell Plantations, and assigning it as Milstein Hall's vegetated open space.

In the first case, and assuming that the site area is 65,000 square feet, the required vegetated open space is 0.8125 x 65,000 = 52,812 square feet. In reality, most of the open space on the site consists of a paved area to the west of Milstein Hall used for parking and vehicular service access. The small garden and other assorted green spaces account for only about 4,000 square feet (this is an approximation; the actual green space may be a somewhat different), far short of the required vegetated area.

However, since Milstein Hall will presumably earn Credit 2 (Development Density & Community Connectivity) and will therefore count as an "urban" site in the eyes of LEED, it can get this point by providing up to 75% of required vegetated open space as "pedestrian oriented hardscape," and can also count the green roof as open space in this calculation. Because Milstein Hall's upper floor plate is raised above the ground plane, it may be possible to count the space under this floor plate (see Figure 7, as well as area "A" in Figure 8) as well as the area over this floor plate (see the green roof in Figure 9). In this way, Milstein Hall may well satisfy the requirements for this credit based on open space within its own site area.

bike racks at Milstein Hall

Figure 7. Milstein Hall's hardscape (image from Cornell's Milstein Hall web site).

unsanctioned bike storage at Milstein Hall

Figure 8. Milstein Hall's designated site and open space (not showing the vegetated green roof): perhaps the paved covered space under the upper-floor plate (A) and the outdoor paved "plaza" (B) can be counted.

unsanctioned bike storage at Milstein Hall

Figure 9. Milstein Hall's green roof and construction site boundaries.

In the second case, if it is determined that the City's zoning requirement for maximum lot coverage cannot be applied to the unofficial and ad hoc "site" area that has been designated for Milstein Hall's LEED calculations, then the credit can certainly be gained using LEED's remote-campus-open-space loophole.

The "Site Development" credit rewards habitat protection/restoration and open space, in contradiction to Credit 2 incentives for urbanity and density. But creating such bizarre incentives for individual parcels of land—even if the contradictions in LEED were removed by promoting one or the other objective—makes no sense. Individual owners of property, acting in their own self-interest, simply cannot be expected to manage environmental conditions in a sustainable manner: first, the "environment" is a bit bigger than any individual land holding; second, the necessity for business owners to exploit their own property in order to compete successfully with other business owners (or for governmental entities to compete successfully with other governmental entities) makes environmental and health concerns just another line item in a cost-benefit calculation, not an end in itself.

Rather than confronting the true nature of capital and of environmental exploitation, the LEED commentary simply invents an imaginary world where business owners don't really care about the bottom line. For example, the LEED commentary's economic justification for open space is articulated as follows: "Even in cases where rent values are high and the incentive for building out to the property line is strong, well designed open space can significantly increase property values." This type of justification has no logical underpinning, in as much as the same premise could generate the opposite conclusion (i.e., it is equally plausible that in cases where rent values are high and the incentive for building out to the property line is strong, well designed open space—where such open space replaces otherwise rentable area—would significantly reduce property values).

The point is that real capitalist development is based on calculations to maximize profitability, where the provision of "open space" may or may not pay off for the developer. Furthermore, increasing the value of property is not the same as increasing profits: a developer can build an entire facade of gold bricks to create a building of extraordinarily high value while going broke at the same time. This is, in fact, exactly the case with Milstein Hall, which would certainly fall apart under its own financial weight were it not for the peculiar infrastructure of alumni who seem willing to subsidize (bail out) such projects.

In its final submission for LEED review, Cornell claims that "the project has been developed in an area with zoning requirements, but with no requirement for open space..." This seems inaccurate, since the requirement for 35% maximum lot coverage in its U-1 zoning district seems identical to a stipulation for 65% open space. In any case, the credit is easy to obtain for a building on a large campus with a vegetated roof.

Credit 6.1: Stormwater Design, Quantity Control. This credit requires that peak discharge rates of storm water—water landing on the site from rain or snow—are reduced or controlled. Different criteria apply depending of the site's imperviousness; various strategies are suggested, including water retention facilities, harvesting and reusing rainwater, and so on. Milstein Hall, on the other hand, discharges virtually all storm water from the site and so doesn't satisfy the criteria for this credit. Its vegetated roof, described in more detail below, is not particularly effective at reducing storm water discharge during serious storm events.

Credit 6.2: Stormwater Design, Quality Control. To get this credit, 90% of an average year's stormwater must be captured and treated. Milstein Hall's green roof becomes saturated pretty quickly because it consists of only a few inches of growing media (one cannot really say "soil," as the medium is more like a fine gravel). A great deal of water falling on the green roof actually ends up finding its way to roof drains, traveling through enormous drain pipes that are visible within the building, and ending up in the storm sewer system, rather than being "captured" by the roof's nominal growing medium or plantings, or directed into cisterns for use on site (there are none).

This "Stormwater Design" credit encourages quality and quantity control of run-off from rainstorms. Like the site development credits discussed earlier, the underlying premise of dealing with such environmental issues on a site-by-site basis may, or may not, make any sense. In some cases, dealing with stormwater design on a larger regional scale may be more efficient, and more sustainable. Yet LEED has no interest in actually solving regional or global problems: each site is considered in isolation from all others, so that questions about regional or global outcomes are never asked, and therefore never addressed.

In the case of Milstein Hall, the issue of stormwater runoff is particularly interesting given the provision of a vegetated ("green") roof. A more serious, heavy, and "intensive" green roof might have contributed significantly to the mitigation of storm runoff, but would not have been compatible with the architectural design. The actual green roof is thought of more as a nuanced pattern of colors than as a useful environmental feature: "The entire roof, with the exception of the skylights, is vegetated in a graphic pattern of two types of sedum plantings. The sedum 'dots' gradually increase in diameter as they approach the gorge, creating a landscape that is orderly and structured nearest the Arts Quad, and a denser, less structured field as it reaches the gorge. Given the visibility of the roof from the third floor of Sibley Hall, and from Rand Hall and Baker Lab to the east, a vegetated roof creates a varied, living landscape far more appealing than a ballast roof, and also absorbs water rather than channeling it to the existing storm water system."16

Of course, the green roof cannot actually be seen from Rand Hall, except from one clear pane of glass in the men's room, as the main third-floor windows that face the green roof are small and high, and separated from any potential viewer by a large duct enclosure. The ducts in this enclosure actually lead to Milstein Hall from a mechanical room on the third floor of Rand Hall—an amazingly cynical and parasitic design decision that "frees up" space in Milstein Hall by permanently crippling the adjacent space on the third floor of Rand. And both the low profile of Milstein's elevation along with its inability to sustain large roof loads over cantilevered sections (also preventing things like libraries from ever occupying such spaces) makes a heavy and intensive green roof impossible. Instead the "graphic"-green roof drawn on the plans (see Figure 10) can only sustain a few inches of "engineered soil media" which is not capable of absorbing and storing significant amounts of storm water.17 As a result, roof drains in Milstein Hall direct excess storm water into large-diameter drain pipes and then into the storm sewer "express lanes" below the street grid to help overload water treatment facilities and, ultimately, Cayuga Lake. It is true that even such nominal "extensive" roofs absorb small quantities of rainfall from ordinary rain events, but the real problems—not at all addressed with such systems—are major rain events that overwhelm existing treatment facilities and contribute not only to pollution (when both raw sewage and untreated storm water need to be discharged into Cayuga Lake) but also to the risk of flooding.

Milstein Hall's roof plan

Figure 10. Milstein Hall's green roof (image from Cornell's Milstein Hall website no longer available as of 7/22/15; try this one instead).

Credit 7.1: Heat Island Effect, Non-Roof. It's hard to take this credit seriously when vegetated campus sites get points for using relatively reflective pavement for drives and parking areas. Is anyone really concerned that Cornell is heating up when asphalt paving is used? Be that as it may, I presume that this credit is obtained because concrete (with a solar reflectance index of 29 or higher—actually, it has an SRI of about 47—has been used for hardscape areas around Milstein Hall. The SRI is defined on a scale of 0 (black) to 100 (white), so a dark asphaltic pavement would presumably not qualify, although it is not at all clear that its use would have any negative impact on anything. In fact, the final LEED review indicates that 58% of the 39,110 square feet of site hardscape is paved with reflective concrete, satisfying the criteria for this credit.

Credit 7.2: Heat Island Effect, Roof. Here, the credit is earned by having a vegetated roof. The green roof doesn't do much for storm water control, and isn't at all necessary to reduce the heat island effect (any light colored roofing material would do as well or better). It's also not clear that having a light (cool) roof saves energy in this climate (see Figure 11), where basically half the year is governed by heating rather than cooling loads. According to the U.S. Department of Energy: "Your climate is an important consideration when deciding whether to install a cool roof. Cool roofs achieve the greatest cooling savings in hot climates, but can increase energy costs in colder climates due to reduced beneficial winter time heat gains."18

To comply with this credit, roof options are as follows: either have 75% of the roof conform to the LEED reflectance criteria (i.e., SRI of 78 for low-slope; 28 for steep-slope); or have 50% of roof be vegetated; or have combined high-reflectance (albedo) and vegetated roof such that total SRI plus veggie area ≥ SRI area ÷ 0.75 + veggie area ÷ 0.50.

Milstein Hall's vegetated roof, while comprising most of what appears as the building's roof (other than about 1900 square feet of skylights), covers only 60 percent of the actual building roof area, since much of the concrete hardscape surrounding the "building" is really a roof for below-grade spaces.

Ithaca, NY average temperature chart

Figure 11. Average monthly temperature range for Ithaca, NY.19

Credit 8: Light Pollution Reduction. Not even close. In a previous competition-winning scheme for Milstein Hall designed by Steven Holl, the idea of the building as a metaphorical lantern was actually exploited as a positive value (Figure 12). OMA's design is no different in that respect, as can be seen in virtually any night image (e.g., Figure 13). Architecture studio instruction promotes all-nighters as a de facto hazing ritual, so the glass facades of both schemes—projecting this idiocy as a point of pride for the community's enlightenment (pun intended)—is no accident.

Ithaca, NY average temperature chart

Figure 12. Rendering of Steven Holl's competition-winning design for Milstein Hall.20

Ithaca, NY average temperature chart

Figure 13. OMA's Milstein Hall at night.21

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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 This comment, and many of those that follow appear in my Summaries and critiques of the Version 2.2 and 2009 Green Building Design & Construction Reference Guide, here and here.

2 The approximate site area of Milstein Hall is based on email exchanges with Matthew Kozlowski, Cornell Environmental Services, Facilities Engineering, Jan. 4, 2012, but without seeing an actual site plan. The actual site area used in Cornell's LEED calculations is undoubtedly a bit different.

3 Quotes are from: U.S. Green Building Council, New Construction Reference Guide, Version 2.2, Second Edition, Washington, D.C., September 2006.

4 Jennifer Alsever, "Pickens Plan no longer features wind energy," Going Green on, Dec. 14, 2010: "Since the billionaire's plans for the world's largest wind farm fell apart in the Texas Panhandle, Pickens has edited his much-hyped 'Pickens Plan' to focus primarily on his other big business interest: natural gas." Article can be found here (accessed Oct. 19, 2011).

5 Jonathan Ochshorn, "What Sustainability Sustains," Presented at the Hawaii Conference on Arts & Humanities, Honolulu, Hawaii, January, 2008. Abstract published in Conference Proceedings, ISSN# 1541-5899, pp. 4024-4025. Full text is available online here (accessed Oct. 20, 2011).

6 Milstein Hall occupancy estimates provided by Matthew Kozlowski, Project Coordinator, Facilities Engineering, Cornell University in email dated 30 November 2011.

7 "If shower/changing facilities are located in another building, be sure that the building allows project occupants full access to the facilities during the same hours as the project building." LEED Project Submittal Tips: New Construction 2009, Green Building Certification Institute, Dec. 23, 2011, p.4.

8 "LEED for New Construction Application Review," June 14, 2012, Cornell University, Milstein Hall, No. 10097687. Document can be found here (accessed July 6, 2012).

9 Information about the closed stair to Baker Lab was provided by Kevin McCord, Facilities Management Customer Service, Cornell University, phone conversation, December 5, 2011.

10 For a discussion of the pro and con LEED bike-rack-credit issue, see Lloyd Alter, "In Defence [non-American usage] of LEED: Stop Bashing the Bike Racks!,", which can be found here (accessed 5 Dec. 2011).

11 "You can lead a horse to water… But you can't make it drink. In other words, bike racks and showers will probably not be enough to encourage biking in an area that's unfriendly to bicyclists. If you're thinking of pursuing this credit, first consider the realities of the neighborhood around your project. Is it realistic that building occupants will ride bicycles and make use of the bike racks and storage or the shower facilities? It's important to consider whether the intent of this credit will bear out in reality or if your resources might be better allocated elsewhere." "NC 2009 SSc4.2: Alternative Transportation—Bicycle Storage and Changing Rooms," Article can be found here (accessed 5 Dec. 2011). According to this website, LEEDuser is an "independent, third-party tool which the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) supported in its development."

12 Information about Cornell's "rideshare" program was accessed here Nov. 18, 2011, but seems unavailable as of July 9, 2012; instead, see this Cornell site.

13 Remarkably, Cornell uses the case of Redbud Woods to demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable environment: see "Transportation—University Ave. Parking Lot Redbud Woods: A Controversial Development Case" on the Cornell Sustainable Campus website here (accessed 5 Dec. 2011). After describing how Cornell successfully sued both the Ithaca Planning Board and the Ithaca Landmark Preservation Commission in order to overturn each of their independent rulings against the proposed parking lot, and after describing how Cornell Police arrested students engaged in a sit-in at the President's office and finally bought off students, faculty, and community members who had occupied the Redbud Woods site with a $50,000 sustainability research commitment, the article concludes that being sustainable is inherently contingent and unpredictable since "people value both cars and natural or historic lands."

14 Daniel Aloi, "Construction under way on Milstein Hall project," Chronicle Online, Aug. 4, 2009 here (accessed Nov. 18, 2011).

15 While LEED reserves the right to revoke certification where projects have not met the requirements for certification at the time of submission, there is no process in place to revoke certification for projects that—after gaining certification—are in some way altered so that credits or prerequisites once met are no longer viable. The standards for revocation of certification are stated as follows: "To the extent the veracity or accuracy of such documentation, or GBCI's evaluation of the same, is called into question, GBCI may initiate a certification challenge thereby revisiting its determination that the submitted documentation properly demonstrates that the project satisfied all credits, prerequisites, and MPRs necessary to achieve the awarded level of LEED certification." Green Building Certification Institute, LEED Certification Policy Manual, online here (PDF accessed July 24, 2012). There are also technical issues that can lead to certification revocation: "1. Your Project Wasn't Submitted Before the Rating System Sunset Date… 2. Your Project Has Been Inactive on LEED Online for Too Long… 3. You Waited Too Long to Submit After Project Completion…… 4. Someone Challenged Your Certification Rating (and They Were Right)… 5. You Forgot To Recertify Your LEED-EB Project," "5 Ways Your LEED Project Can Be Challenged, Cancelled, or *GASP* Revoked!,", online here (accessed July 24, 2012).

16 "Milstein Hall's Innovative Design," AAP/ Architecture Art Planning website here (accessed July 9, 2012: click on "read more" about Green Roof and Skylights).

17 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."

Found online here (accessed Oct. 20, 2011)

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.

18 "Deciding Whether to Install a Cool Roof," Department of Energy web site at, here (emphasis added; accessed Oct. 18, 2011). Also, see Craig A. Tyler, "Rethinking Cool Roofing: Evaluating Effectiveness of White Roofs in Northern Climates," The Construction Specifier, November 2013, pp.44-50 (accessed Nov. 18, 2013). In particular, Figure 1 shows a "net loss" in energy savings for all U.S. cities modeled except for Phoenix and Miami when a "cool roof" is used.

19 Average monthly temperatures for Ithaca, NY, graphic edited from The Weather Channel here (accessed Oct. 18. 2011).

20 This image of Steven Holl's competition-winning design for Milstein Hall appears in CultureGrrl here (accessed Oct. 18, 2011).

21 This image of OMA's Milstein Hall appears in "OMA's Millstein [sic] Hall is Officially Open," Architizer, Sept. 16, 2011, here (accessed July 9, 2012).