Windowless, billionaire-designed UC Santa Barbara mega dorm terrifies the Internet

A billionaire donor’s design for a mega-college that would pack UC Santa Barbara students into virtually windowless rooms has sparked widespread criticism and prompted the resignation of a consulting architect.

The proposed building, named Munger Hall after donor Charlie Munger, would house 4,500 students in a 1.68 million-square-foot complex with just two entrances. The project is expected to cost DKK 1.5 billion.

Living space in the building will be divided into apartments with eight single rooms, of which 94 percent would not have windows.

The plan eventually led architect Dennis McFadden to resign from UC Santa Barbara’s design committee, where he has sat for nearly 15 years.

In a letter of resignation on October 24 to the committee that leaked on the image-sharing site Imgur, McFadden described the project as a “social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on students’ lives and personal development.”

“The basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unsupportive from my perspective as an architect, parent and human being,” McFadden wrote.

McFadden also raised concerns in the letter about the lack of committee input in the project and Munger’s influence on the building design.

An interior representation of the common space of the proposed Munger Hall dwelling.Courtesy UC Santa Barbara

Munger, 97, donated $ 200 million to the project in 2016, prescribing that he would only fund the home if it was built to his design.

He told the UC Board of Regents in 2016 that instead of windows, dormitories would have artificial “window” screens like the portholes on Disney cruise ships, where “starfish come in and flash for your kids.”

The building will also include recreational areas, a full-service restaurant and, according to a report from the California Environmental Quality Act, a space for storing 570 surfboards.

Munger dismissed criticism of the amount of influence billionaires have on projects like the mega-college, telling MarketWatch that he “would rather be a billionaire and not be loved by everyone than not have any money.”

Despite the backlash, UC Santa Barbara intends to proceed with the planned construction.

University spokeswoman Andrea Estrada described Munger Hall in a statement as “transforming cohabiting student housing.”

“It is designed to build community, encourage peer-to-peer interaction, foster engagement and relationship building, foster an environment of learning and support, and provide the resources and facilities necessary to support a 24/7 on-campus living experience,” Estrada said.

However, McFadden is in doubt about the efficiency of the building. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, he wrote that the building “seeks to create social experiences” by placing common areas around the building’s perimeter that would receive natural light.

He described each apartment as a “sealed” environment and likened it to “living in a caretaker’s closet buried in the middle of an Ikea department store with the nearest window somewhere back at the entrance.”

Estrada dismissed concerns that the lack of ventilation would jeopardize Covid safety in the building, stating that “there is no recirculation of air between student rooms” as each bedroom will be “provided with continuous fresh air supply.” The exhaust air is vented directly outside.

“One could argue that this could be an improvement in air quality, as it does not require a student to open the window to fresh air,” she said.

Social media users were appalled by the plans. Some compared the possible living conditions with guard houses in the dystopian Netflix thriller “Squid Game”, which is also without windows.

Others compared the claustrophobic plan for the dorm rooms to prison cells.

Estrada addressed critical assessments of the project as “fault characterizations,” noting that the building’s evacuation plans comply with fire and building law requirements. The mix of single rooms and common rooms is designed to give students a balance between privacy and social opportunities, she said.

“He has been developing these ideas for many years and in other studio apartments,” Estrada said.

Munger, which does not have an architectural license, has previously designed and funded the Munger Graduate Residence Hall at the University of Michigan, which houses more than 600 students. Like the proposed Munger Hall, each apartment with six to seven single rooms is missing windows.

CNN reported that students are addicted to artificial sunlight lamps. Graduate student Luiza Macedo told CNN she did not see the sun for an entire week as she had a Covid scare.

An alumni from the University of Michigan wrote in UC Santa Barbara subreddit and told about their experience in the windowless dormitory and warned future students about how much they struggled to wake up without natural light.

Estrada said the “benefits” of Munger’s approach to studio housing are “legion.”

“Mr. Munger enjoys outlining his ideas, and our ongoing responsibility is to interpret and articulate them in drawings,” Estrada continued in the statement. “This design stems from Mr. Munger’s research and iterative processes to devise a transformative approach to studio housing.”

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