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

7. Innovation & Design Process

Credits 1.1–1.4: Innovation in Design. Milstein Hall gets 4 points here (the maximum possible) for developing and implementing strategies that address sustainability issues in ways that are either not covered in the LEED guidelines, or that substantially exceed base LEED requirements. In order to get these points, the same sort of documentation normally required for LEED credits is expected: i.e., identifying the intent, the proposed requirements, the required submittals, and strategies (design approach).

There are some general guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable credit under this category: where existing LEED guidelines are exceeded, one should double the required outcome, or get to the next percentage increment; and where something new is proposed, it must "demonstrate a comprehensive approach and have significant, measurable environmental benefits…"

Milstein Hall gets "innovation" points as follows:

  1. Credit 1.1: Transportation Demand Management (TDMP). This credit is another boiler-plate "innovation" that Cornell applies to all its LEED-seeking buildings, based on a program initiated in 1990 "to reduce commuter demand for parking spaces by providing efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to commuting via single-occupancy, personal vehicles (SOVs)." The program has little to do with Milstein Hall: while Milstein Hall is occupied overwhelmingly by students, Cornell's "TDMP concentrates on faculty and staff at the university, because it was their commuting habits that could be most impacted, and as a group, students own or operate far fewer vehicles than do employees."1 As was pointed out under Sustainable Sites Credit 4.4, Cornell was, and still is, intending to actually increase parking adjacent to Milstein Hall. While it is often difficult to assign particular parking spaces to specific buildings on a campus like Cornell, the connection between Milstein Hall and the proposed adjacent parking structure was made explicit by linking them together in a single Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).2

  2. Credit 1.2: Exemplary performance, Open Space. For this innovation credit, the base requirement found in Sustainable Sites Credit 5.2 must be doubled: in other words, instead of a 25 percent open space increase, one needs to provide a 50 percent increase over the standard zoning requirement of 65 percent; i.e., one needs 1.5 x 65 = 97.5 percent open space on the site rather than 1.25 x 65 = 81.25 percent. So, yes, 50 percent (for "innovation") is twice the increase required under the normal Sustainable Sites credit, but notice that the "innovative" outcome is only marginally different than before: the actual open space area required for this extra innovation point represents only a (97.5–81.25) / 81.25 = 20 percent increase in open space over the normal Sustainable Sites requirement.

    In the first case, this credit might be awarded because—as an "urban" project qualifying for SS Credit 2—Milstein Hall can count it's vegetated roof as well as 75 percent of the concrete "hardscape" as vegetated open space, and this hardscape extends under the floor plate carrying the vegetated roof.

    But if this proves insufficient, the same loophole available for Sustainable Sites credit 5.2 might be invoked here: a remote vegetated open space somewhere on campus can be assigned to Milstein Hall for the purpose of satisfying this credit.

    That Milstein Hall's non-vegetated ground-level pedestrian zones are credited not only with being a "green" design feature, but actually as representing an innovation in the design of vegetated open space illustrates clearly how the LEED system can be gamed. The one potentially innovative feature of the paved areas—using the curved and sloped ground surfaces as a kind of skateboard park—seems to have been an unintended consequence of other formal interests and, in any case, has been strictly forbidden (Figure 1) if not completely extirpated (Figure 2).

    images of the Milstein Hall dome and skateboarding

    Figure 1. "Jason Salfi getting rad with some hipster grindage somewhere in the heart of Cornell University" (top; caption and photo taken from Wheelbase,3 photo by Marcus Bandy); Cornell's immediate response to this improvised open-space activity (bottom; photo screen-captured from video taken by Jonathan Ochshorn, 28 September, 2011).

    Figure 2. Skateboarders practice their technique at Milstein Hall during winter break, 2013 (video taken by Jonathan Ochshorn, 4 January, 2013).

    What remains is a barren and cold wind tunnel with little, if any, plausible pedestrian "recreation opportunities" as designed. What may help is the addition of a "food cart" or "food truck" currently being designed by a consortium of students (Figure 2). While it's relationship to the legendary Green Dragon Café is unclear (the Café is situated just inside Sibley Hall immediately behind the food cart's proposed location), it is conceivable that students, faculty, and staff may be induced to enter and remain in this otherwise vacuous space if food and drink are provided. Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an organization that studies such things, quotes Holly Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: "If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food… Food attracts people who attract more people." PPS adds that "food carts often act as temporary destinations and gathering places for the culinarily curious; they also increase the number of reasons that people have to spend time in a place."4

    Milstein Hall's student-designed foot cart 

    Figure 2. "The AAP (Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning) Food Truck is a student-led, student-designed project enabled by the generosity of an alumna of the college, Frances Schloss '45."5: as designed (left) and as installed, fall 2014 (right — photo by J. Ochshorn, Sept., 2014)

    As it turns out, students and faculty have been lining up for food, although the space itself remains mostly empty (not too many people choose to remain outside to eat). And in its first winter of operation, the problems with this space overcame even the provision of food; the food truck ceased operation "until the weather is consistently warmer for both the customers and Franny's staff" (according to an email sent out to college students, faculty, and staff by Dean Kent Kleinman on February 27, 2015; see Figure 3).

    Milstein Hall's student-designed foot cart in February 2015

    Figure 3. The bleakness of this space is accentuated during Cornell's winter term (AKA "Spring semester"), when the cold weather on the north face of the building makes any human occupation problematic; even the food truck was forced to close down. (Photos by J. Ochshorn, Feb., 2015)

  3. Credit 1.1: Green Cleaning. This credit is a boiler-plate "innovation" that Cornell applies to all its LEED-seeking buildings, based on a university-wide program that reviews "cleaning chemicals, paper products, equipment and custodial protocol" to "protect the health of the Cornell community without harming the environment," "improve air quality by reducing the amount of contaminants in the air through our custodial maintenance processes," and "preserve the infrastructure by extending the life of carpeting, hard floor surfaces and other materials through a variety of cleaning methods."6

  4. Credit 1.4: Exemplary Performance, Heat island Effect, Roof. Milstein Hall's green roof covers about 60 percent of the building's true roof area (including both above-ground and underground spaces), sufficient for one "sustainable site" heat island effect point. This second "exemplary performance" point is awarded, not for the large area of white concrete pavement that covers much of the building's underground spaces, but for covering the entire above-ground roof (100 percent) with vegetation. In other words, underground spaces roofed with reinforced concrete slabs and covered with layers of waterproofing and insulation below grade are not counted as roofs under the LEED guidelines, and are excluded from such calculations. That virtually all of Milstein Hall's roof area reduces "heat island effects" doesn't make the claims of sustainability or innovation any more plausible: heat island impacts are simply not an issue on Cornell's spacious campus; and, in fact, reflecting rather than absorbing solar radiation may actually increase energy consumption in a cold climate.

Credit 2: LEED Accredited Professional. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has created a category of people deemed especially qualified to organize and coordinate the LEED certification process: the so-called LEED accredited professional, or LEED AP. One gets to be a LEEP AP by studying the LEED guidelines, paying a fee, and passing an examination. As long as a "principal participant" of the project team is a LEED AP—and there are many such people involved with the design of Milstein Hall—the project is in compliance with this credit, and gets a point.

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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 Information on Cornell's Transportation Demand Management Program (TDMP) can be found online here (accessed Oct. 27, 2011).

2 Cornell's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for "Paul Milstein Hall and Central Avenue Parking Garage Projects," July, 2008, online here (accessed Oct. 28, 2011). The name "Paul Milstein Hall" was changed to "Milstein Hall" about two years after the DEIS was filed, following the death of Paul Milstein in 2010.

3 Marcus Bandy, "The Jason Salfi Interview: Shredability & Sustainability," Wheelbase, Dec. 8, 2011, online here (accessed January 5, 2012). Thanks to Professor Medina Lasansky, Dept. of Architecture, Cornell University, for sending me the link. Ironically, it is skateboard entrepreneur Jason Salfi (interviewed and photographed for the Wheelbase article) and persona non grata at "sustainable" Milstein Hall, who actually articulates a vision, however idealistic, of a sustainable world: "Humans making stuff for profit only has [sic] seriously wreaked havoc on our communities and planet. I believe business must be responsible for stewarding the planet's finite resources and take care of people, proactively. That is pure logic. What if companies, in the course of doing business, cleaned water, grew forests stronger, did not pollute the air, accumulated no waste, and enriched communities? First, you must have that intention."

4 Project for Public Spaces, "Mobile Food Carts on a Roll," March 3, 2010, online here (accessed July 11, 2012).

5 Information about this student-led project can be found here. Image is here (both accessed July 11, 2012).

6 Information on Cornell's Green Cleaning program can be found online here (accessed Oct. 27, 2011).