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Architect slams UC Santa Barbara mega-dorm as ‘social, psychological experiment,’ quits in protest

An exterior rendering of the proposed Munger Hall for UC Santa Barbara.
An exterior rendering of the proposed Munger Hall at UC Santa Barbara shows an 11-story cream-colored structure of warehouse proportions. Designed and funded by billionaire Charlie Munger, it would house more than 4,500 students, 94% of whom would not have access to windows from the residential areas.
(Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh)

A longtime consulting architect at UC Santa Barbara has quit in protest over a massive proposed dormitory he slammed as a “social and psychological experiment.”

The $1.5-billion project, dubbed Munger Hall, is the brainchild of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, who donated $200 million toward the plan in 2016.

The dorm could house more than 4,500 students, a huge relief on a campus that ran so short of housing this fall it temporarily put up students in hotels.

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But the plusses are not enough to merit the support of Dennis McFadden, a Los Angeles architect and a member of UC Santa Barbara’s design review committee for more than a decade.

“In the nearly fifteen years I served as a consulting architect to the DRC, no project was brought before the committee that is larger, more transformational and potentially more destructive to the campus as a place than Munger Hall,” McFadden wrote in an Oct. 24 letter to the committee co-chairs.

The 11-story, 1.68-million-square-foot building would include rooms occupied by up to eight students, many in interior spaces. About 94% of the units would not have windows, with no access to sunlight or fresh air.

McFadden called the rooms “sealed environments” that lack natural light, air and views of nature, all of which have been shown to “improve both the physical and mental well-being of occupants,” he said.

“The Munger Hall design ... seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter,” he told the design review committee.

Charlie Munger’s ‘dormzilla’ features windowless units. Architect Dennis McFadden quit UCSB’s design committee over the “social and psychological experiment.”

Officials at UC Santa Barbara have a different point of view. Chancellor Henry Yang previously hailed the proposed housing as “inspired and revolutionary,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

“We are delighted to be moving forward with this transformational project that directly addresses the campus’ great need for more student housing,” Andrea Estrada, the director of news and media relations for UCSB, wrote in an email.

“We are grateful for Mr. McFadden’s contributions and insights during his tenure as an advisory consultant. 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.”

But McFadden argued to the design committee that the project — which will not allow any deviation in Munger’s vision — was “described as 100% complete, approval was not requested, no vote was taken and no further submittals are intended or required.”

I quit UCSB’s design review committee because this project, housing 4,500 students in windowless rooms, ignores their physical and emotional well-being as well as environmental sustainability.

Planners say the project would aim for at least a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED ) “Gold” certification, with an all-electric heating and hot water design, the Independent reported in July.

But the immense nature of the project flouts basic sustainability principles, McFadden said. In the event of a power outage, the entire building — which has only two main entrances — would have to be evacuated because of its reliance on artificial lighting and mechanical ventilation.

“It is ... an alien and destructive presence out of tune and out of scale with the rest of the campus,” McFadden wrote in an Op-Ed in The Times, arguing for university leaders to quash the Munger Hall proposal.

The building, he told the design review committee in announcing his resignation, would have an “unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves.”


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