No Windows? No Problem

John Hill
3. November 2021
Rendering of the proposed dormitory. (All images via "Scoping Hearing on Munger Hall" presentation document)

Despite nationwide criticism over the lack of windows in most bedrooms, the University of California, Santa Barbara is apparently moving forward with plans for a 4,500-bed, 11-story dormitory partially funded and designed by 97-year-old billionaire Charles Munger.

The proposed Munger Residence Hall at UC Santa Barbara gained attention when Dennis McFadden, an architect who had served on UCSB's Design Review Committee for fifteen years, quit his job in protest over the 1.68-million-square-foot building. In an article in the Santa Barbara Independent on October 28, McFadden calls the design of the dormitory "a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves." The architect mentions the extreme density of the project, the limited number of entrances to the building, and the design's ignorance of its "spectacular coastal location," but the most obvious issue is the lack of windows for more than 90% of the approximately 4,500 single-occupancy dorm rooms. Some drawings clearly illustrate the controversy:

Typical floor plan showing eight "houses" flanking a central corridor.
Each "house" is then organized into eight "bedroom clusters" arranged along a corridor that leads to a "great room."
Each "bedroom cluster" has eight single-room dorm rooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and a dining area.

With most of the windows given over to the common areas, the so-called "great rooms," the windowless dorm rooms would have what are called "virtual windows." In a November 2nd statement replying to the Independent (at the bottom of the same article), the university asserts the fake windows "will have a fully programmed circadian rhythm control system to substantially reflect the lighting levels and color temperature of natural daylight."

The design by Munger, vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s firm Berkshire Hathaway, loads the floors below and above the nine levels of dorms with a gastro pub, fitness centers, a gaming room, reading rooms, demonstration kitchen, and a landscape courtyard, among other common spaces. The small rooms, per the Independent, "would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas, where they could interact and collaborate," so goes Munger's argument for a widespread lack of windows.

Incredulously, this is not the first time a dormitory funded by Munger was built to specifications that included windowless single-person bedrooms. The Munger Graduate Residences at the University of Michigan was built with clusters of seven windowless dorm rooms around living spaces with windows. In a video tour of his dorm room, one student at the dormitory describes the difficulty in getting used to the lack of windows; he bought an alarm clock that simulates the sunrise so he could get out of bed.

Munger is donating $200 million toward a building that would cost UCSB around $1.5 billion. Although the architects responsible for implementing Munger's "vision," Van Tilburg, Banvard, and Soderbergh, told the Independent that fresh air "will be vented into all rooms at twice the rate mandated by existing building codes and will be off-gassed directly to the atmosphere without any transfer to other rooms in the dorm," the legality of bedrooms without views of nature, daylight, and natural ventilation boggles the mind. 

Yet, in this case it is legal. Per an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, McFadden explains how the California Building Standards Code "allows building owners to apply for 'Alternate Method of Compliance,' which in this case means using mechanical ventilation and electric lighting as a substitute for windows." This also means that, McFadden further explains, each UC campus "is essentially its own building department. The campus can, with approval from the UC Board of Regents, make its own determination," one that UCSB appears willing to make, given the severe shortage of student housing on its campus.

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