Billionaire Charlie Munger criticized over massive UCSB dorm plan

October 30, 2021
Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger answers a question in Omaha, Neb., Monday, May 2, 2016.
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Dormzilla. A death trap. An experiment. These are some of the labels being levied on Munger Hall, a planned dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The massive 11-story, 1.68 million-square-foot building, which billionaire investor Charlie Munger has pledged $200 million toward, would house more than 4,500 students in a structure with few windows and two entrances.

As a vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, Munger is well-respected for his business acumen.

But he’s getting some pushback on his prowess as an amateur architect. Munger is not an architect himself, but he worked with architects on the UCSB project, he told The New York Times

Los Angeles architect Dennis McFadden, a consultant to the university for 15 years, resigned on Oct. 5 over the project, calling the building “destructive” and “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being,” in a letter to the university’s design review committee.

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Students would live in 8-person living units that “are sealed environments with no exterior windows in the shared space or in 94% of the bedrooms,” McFadden wrote. “The spaces are wholly dependent on artificial light and mechanical ventilation.”

The $1.5 billion project “is a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of” students, he said in the letter.

Describing the planned building as a “deathtrap,” news site Gizmodo imagined students living “like rats. It’s unclear how accessible any emergency exits are or how robust the ventilation system is.”

Munger compares the dormitory design to that of cruise ships, “our version of ship architecture on land,” with efficient use of space and all needed amenities, according to a project update on the university’s website.

The building’s first floor will have classrooms and a lobby entrance. Also included: a fitness center, cafe, market, music practice space and lecture hall. The top floor will have a courtyard with a translucent roof.

Most bedrooms lacked windows in another dormitory Munger supported with a $110 million donation to the University of Michigan. Students would rather have single rooms than bedroom windows, Munger told The Wall Street Journal two years ago.

“I’m not a bit surprised that someone looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” Munger told The New York Times on Friday. “What’s going on here is that it’s going to work better than any other practical alternative.”

Bedrooms will have “virtual windows that simulate daylight,” said Navy Banvard, the architect on the project, said during the Oct. 5 meeting, reported the Daily Nexus, the university’s newspaper.

The Munger Hall project, expected to be complete in 2025, will move forward, UCSB spokesperson Andrea Estrada told the Santa Barbara Independent, which has referred to the building as “mega-dorm” and “dormzilla.” 

“We are delighted to be moving forward with this transformational project,” Estrada said in the statement. 

McFadden has not been alone in his opposition to the project, despite the university’s need for more student housing. There has been additional opposition voiced about the Munger Hall project, according to a transcript of a July 2021 public hearing. One parent described the building as a warehouse for students.

“I am against this project due to its height and also the fact there are no windows to allow fresh air in for students,” said UCSB student Michael McConnell. “Young people do not alway smell good. Fresh air is UNBELIEVABLY important for college students.”

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.





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