Billionaire-turned-amateur-architect Charlie Munger seems to have no qualms about building a mostly windowless mega-dorm for thousands of students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“This is not some crazy idea,” the 97-year-old Berkshire Hathaway investor insisted to The Washington Post after a firestorm erupted this week over his eyebrow-raising design.
Plans for the 11-story, 1.68 million-square-foot project attracted fierce criticism after the Santa Barbara Independent and student-run Daily Nexus newspaper reported that a consulting architect had quit in protest.
The dorm, named Munger Hall, would house 4,500 students in a building with just two entrances, and 94 percent of the rooms would have no windows. Instead, students would be jammed into single-person rooms on pre-fabricated floors with “virtual windows that simulate daylight.”
The design, Munger insists, would save on costs and coax students out into communal areas.
The billionaire donated $200 million to the $1.5 billion project on the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly. In fact, a university presentation on the design dubbed it “Charlie’s Vision.”
Top Los Angeles architect Dennis McFadden, a member of the school’s design review committee for 15 years, quit over what he described as an “outlandish” proposal that ignored basic standards and was approved without proper input.
“An ample body of documented evidence shows that interior environments with access to natural light, air, and views to nature improve both the physical and mental wellbeing of occupants,” he wrote in a letter, obtained by the Santa Barbara Independent. “The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter.”
He called the plan “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
Carla Yanni, an architectural history professor at Rutgers University, told the Post that “the arrogance of the proposal is breathtaking.”
But Munger has only doubled down, saying in an interview with Bloomberg that accessibility to fresh air and nature were simply “tradeoffs.”
“Everybody loves light and everybody prefers natural light. But it’s a game of tradeoffs,” Munger said. “If you build a big square building, everything is conveniently near to everybody in the building. If you maximize the light, you get fewer people in the building.”
The project still seems to have the full backing of the university, who told the Post that it remained excited for the “transformational” project that will help address the school’s critical housing shortage—even if it wasn’t what students had in mind.
“We are grateful for Mr. McFadden’s contributions and insights during his tenure as an advisory consultant,” spokesperson Andrea Estrada told the Post. “We believe that it is a valuable part of our process to consider multiple design perspectives, which is why we ask several external consultants to assist with our project reviews.”
In his resignation letter, McFadden compared the sheer size of the project to some of the world’s densest cities, claiming the mega-dorm would qualify as the eighth densest. He told the Post that other members of the review committee shared his concerns, but he felt they were simply ignored.
Even still, Munger, who characterizes himself as a disrupter in architecture world, seemed unfazed.
“On any big project, you can’t get any two architects to agree on anything,” he told the Post. “There’s always going to be some criticism.”