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Billionaire’s Controversial Student Housing Project Underscores Affordability Debate

If the name “Charlie Munger” doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps his business partner’s will. Warren Buffet, one of the world’s most famous investors and at one point the world’s richest man, has described Munger as his closest partner and right-hand man. At 97, Munger is still the active vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. He, like his partner Buffet, is quirky. He enjoys a daily breakfast of Coke and Utz Potato Stix, reading Mark Twain, and designing windowless college dorms. 

Munger has a passion for philanthropy. He has donated to several universities in the past, some on the provision that the universities strictly adhere to his architectural blueprints. In 2013 he gave a whopping $110 million to fund a new residence hall for his alma mater, the University of Michigan. The original architect for that building accommodated 300 students. Munger’s redesign allotted for 600 single bedrooms—mostly windowless. In 2014, he posed the same stipulations to the University of California Santa Barbara when he donated $200 million (after already giving $65 million to UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) to put towards the construction of undergraduate housing. This conditional philanthropy didn’t cause controversy until October 24th of this year, when Dennis McFadden, an architect who consulted on the university’s design committee, resigned in disgust over the project.

‘Radical departure’

McFadden, who had sat on the committee for 15 years, was “disturbed” by Munger’s design, which packs 4500 students into a single-block 11-story building, with only two entrances. The dormitory’s nine identical residential floors would be organized into eight “houses,” with eight “suites,” with eight narrow bedrooms that are completely devoid of sunlight and airflow. In a biting letter to the UCSB Design Review Committee co-chairs for Munger Hall, McFadden held no restraint in voicing his opinion:

“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 well-being of occupants. The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter: The building offers communal living spaces for multiple groups of 64 students, but at the cost of any connection to the exterior. The 8-person living units are sealed environments with no exterior windows in the shared space or in 94% of the bedrooms; the spaces are wholly dependent on artificial light and mechanical ventilation. The design team offered no research to justify the radical departure from student housing standards, historical trends, evidence-based design principles, and basic sustainability principles. Rather, 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 that the university serves.” 

The $1.5 billion project, of which Munger is contributing $200 million, will proceed despite McFadden’s letter. Munger, who in the past has said to the Washington Post that he approaches building design with “extreme rationalism,” defended his concept. According to Tyler Harden of the Santa Barbara Independent, Munger “maintains the small living quarters would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas,” where there would be windows installed, “where [the students] could interact and collaborate.” Though Munger has had no formal architectural training, he is confident that university students would rather have individual rooms to cocoon themselves in than natural light or fresh air. Furthermore, Munger incorporated artificial windows that students could adjust the brightness to mimic daylight into each room. 

Andrea Estrada, a spokesperson for the university, said to the New York Times that the project, dubbed Munger Hall, would move forward as planned and that the university develops housing with the goal of “providing affordable, on-campus housing that minimizes energy consumption.” Estrada might be right about energy minimization—but not for the reason she thinks. Detractors worry that future Munger Hall residents will have to endure wayward circadian rhythms and an arrant lack of serotonin from sunlight deprivation, which could have adverse effects on their ability to study. Regardless, Munger Hall is expected to open sometime in 2025, pending review from the California Coastal Commission.

With 1.68 million square feet, Charlie Munger’s building would be the largest student dormitory in the world. (Credit: UCSB)

Making room for more

But why is UCSB moving forward with a design that, as McFadden puts it, is “an experiment in size and density with no precedent in student housing at that scale?” It might have something to do with the fact that “University of California Students Contend with Housing Shortage” is a phrase that has dotted headlines in the past. In 2001 the University of California Irvine was unable to provide campus housing for almost half of the students who applied for it. In 2011 the University of California Merced students found that renting rooms in foreclosed mansions was less expensive than on-campus housing. In 2018 the director of housing at the University of California Santa Cruz sent an email pleading for faculty and staff to offer “a room in your home to a student.” 

Several University of California campuses have also been embroiled in legal battles over the disproportionate increase in enrollment caps to available on-campus housing. One example of many involves “Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods,” a group currently engaged in legal efforts to hold UC Berkeley accountable for increasing enrollment caps without adequate on-campus housing, thereby “forcing” university students into the Berkeley community. 

Munger insists again and again that his design was the only one that “made sense.” In an in-depth interview with Architectural Record, Munger explained that he and his fellow designers took the coveted penthouse space and “gave it to the students.” Where nine floors are composed of narrow living quarters, two floors of the building are dedicated to amenities and recreational spaces. 

Close quartered co-living

Perhaps Munger, in his own way, was trying to copy elements of co-living, a trend of creating communal residential layouts for multiple roommates, into his vision. Munger did say that he wanted to encourage students out of their rooms and into the common areas where they could interact in a communal setting, which is the same intention behind co-living. Since co-living is increasing in popularity in the U.S., one reason being the housing crisis, perhaps Munger’s objectives don’t stray far out of line. Studies have shown that residents who cohabitate in a cohousing setting enjoy health benefits like lower blood pressure and a strengthened immune system, so there could be an argument that those health benefits would outweigh the risks that McFadden had outlined earlier. Could that have been Munger’s goal all along? “It’s about the happiness of the students,” Munger said, offering a shred of optimism…before adding “we want to keep the suicide rate low.”

It’s clear that Munger doesn’t design with aesthetics in mind, but his Tetris style begs the question: in what situation would a design like this be the “best answer?” For any institution to think that rapidly building a giant block that “equals a population density of 221,000 students per square mile, qualifying it as the eighth-densest neighborhood in the world” is a good idea must be desperate. 
Skyrocketing prices of the housing in and around campus continue to plague the California University system. Munger Hall isn’t just the brainchild of a delusional billionaire, it’s an unfortunate result of what happens when you have limited resources for a problem as big as the affordable housing crisis in California.

When we weigh our options for creating more and more economical housing, we have to consider the give and the take; if we can construct spaces that allow people to do more with less, we can make room for those that might not be able to afford to live there otherwise. But, there has to be a limit to this pragmatism. What does it say about the affordable housing crisis that one of the “best” solutions on the table is living in a place that might be detrimental to your health? We all have to make sacrifices to provide for others, but it shouldn’t come at all costs. There is certainly something to be learned from Munger’s design, although I don’t think many of us would enjoy being forced to live in anyplace as close to as cramped.

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