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Two doors, few windows and 4,500 students: Architect quits over billionaire’s mega dorm

An exterior drawing of Munger Hall at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The 11-story, 1.68-million-square-foot structure to house up to 4,500 students has faced criticism from a member of the university's design review committee, who resigned in protest Monday. (University of California at Santa Barbara)

Billionaire investor Charlie Munger doesn’t mind some shade.

Munger, vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to universities and high schools to build school facilities he designed himself. But the amateur architect’s latest idea for a mostly windowless mega-dorm to be built on the University of California at Santa Barbara campus faced objection this week when a university architectural consultant quit, calling the plan “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”

Dennis McFadden, a Los Angeles architect and member of the university’s design review committee of 15 years, wrote in his resignation letter that he was “disturbed” by the 11-story, 1.68 million-square-foot building with just two entrances. The massive dorm would house 4,500 students, 94 percent of whom would not have windows in their compact single-occupancy bedrooms. McFadden called the dorm the “wrong answer” to the need for more housing ― raising the question of how much authority wealthy donors have when it comes to planning the buildings their names are etched on.

“As the ‘vision’ of a single donor, the building is a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves,” McFadden wrote in the letter, first reported by student-run newspaper the Daily Nexus and community outlet the Santa Barbara Independent.

Munger, who has no formal architecture training, says he’s unfazed by McFadden’s objections, telling The Washington Post that “this is not some crazy idea.” He said his plan has been in the works for years and compared virtual windows that would simulate sunlight in the dorm rooms to those in Disney cruise staterooms.

The $1.5 billion project, of which Munger is contributing $200 million, will proceed despite McFadden’s letter, a university spokeswoman said.

“We are delighted to be moving forward with this transformational project that directly addresses the campus’s great need for more student housing,” Andrea Estrada wrote in a statement to The Post.

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

Munger, the 97-year-old business partner of Warren Buffett, has previously called conventional architecture “massively stupid,” earning him little favor among professionals.

“Architects don’t love me,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2019. “Either I change architects, or he does it my way.”

Munger said he approaches designing buildings as he would investing: with extreme rationalism.

After years of hearing family members complain about sharing bedrooms in communal college dorms, Munger realized it was possible to give people their own sleeping space by sacrificing the rooms’ natural light.

“I was bound by the conventions when I realized how stupid it was,” he said. “Naturally, I was sort of ashamed taking so long to reach such an obvious conclusion.”

On Friday, following backlash over the design, Munger told The Post that his buildings have been successful on campuses including Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“On any big project, you can’t get any two architects to agree on anything,” he said. “There’s always going to be some criticism.”

The University of Michigan facility was also designed to increase density by largely eschewing windows. In 2013, he donated $110 million to build a dorm for graduate students, a building originally set for 300 residents that he conceived as a space for 600.

“I was just there last month and the students are absolutely in orbit,” he said. “They love the place, and the university loves having it.”

Munger rejected McFadden’s claim that the plan had little input, saying he has spent years on the project with architectural firms.

“I’m not anti-architecture,” he said. “I just love it in a different way.”

His idea has earned the praise of school officials.

UC-Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang called Munger’s design “inspired and revolutionary.”

But McFadden opposed the suggestion, resigning following the presentation of the plan at an Oct. 5 design review committee meeting.

PowerPoint slides of the plan, called “Charlie’s Vision,” tout study spaces, dining options, a theater and other amenities.

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During the meeting, Navy Banvard, the architect for Munger Hall, told the committee members that the bedrooms will have “virtual windows that simulate daylight,” the Daily Nexus reported.

McFadden wrote that “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.”

“The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter,” he added.

Some builders have cut out windows with the goal of enhancing workplace productivity or heightening security, but architects who favor the light they provide argue windows are necessary for sustainability and comfort.

McFadden also raised concerns that the building would look “out of place” in its surroundings on the waterfront campus and reach an unprecedented density. The dorm would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood on the planet, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh, according to McFadden.

“The project is essentially the student life portion of a mid-sized university campus in a box,” he wrote.

McFadden told The Post that others on the committee raised the same concerns during the meeting. He said he wasn’t sure how his resignation letter appeared on the Internet and declined to answer other questions about the review process for the dorm’s plan. In his letter, he wrote that it was apparent the expert committee was viewed as a “mere formality” and that approval or input was not required for the design “described as 100% complete.”

“Yet in the 15 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,” he wrote. “This is the very project the committee exists to consider.”

Carla Yanni, an architectural history professor at Rutgers University, emphasized the importance of consulting students, architects and student services staff to design a dorm that considers the residents’ needs and surroundings. She described how her university has built full-scale models of housing for students to test before construction begins.

Dorms should be planned in a way that encourages students to mingle and collaborate, said Yanni, the author of “Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.”

But, she said, this manifestation of that idea doesn’t acknowledge the spate of social science research explaining the consequences of such a windowless design.

“The arrogance of the proposal is breathtaking,” Yanni said.

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