By Lloyd Alter, Published November 2, 2021, Tree Hugger

For years on Treehugger, we have written in praise of the dumb box, calling for simplicity of form and for logical, straightforward, efficient building plans. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s longtime partner, has thought along these lines as he designed student residences in his spare time.

Munger designed a giant box to house 4,500 students at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) with the assistance of architect of record Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, which says in its company profile that its goal “is to provide meaningful design solutions that effectively respond to the needs of our clients and the inhabitants of our buildings, while respecting the sensitive balance of community and the environment.”

Many are appalled. Some experts point out the impact it’ll have on the quality of life of students and others note the environmental setbacks.

  • Architectural critic Paul Goldberger started the ball rolling after reading an article in the Santa Barbara Independent. That article quoted the resignation letter from Dennis McFadden, a respected architect who has been on the UCSB’s Design Review Committee for 15 years—read it in its entirety here. He writes: “The basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being.”

McFadden is concerned about the population density and the lack of windows in student rooms. He writes:

“An ample body of documented evidence shows that interior environments with access to natural light, air and view 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 this 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.”

Since the Goldberger tweet, everyone has been piling on, including The Washington Post, which published “Two doors, few windows and 4,500 students: Architect quits over billionaire’s mega dorm.”

But there are not just two doors. Like any building, even as big as One World Trade Center in New York with 50,000 occupants, there are main entrances and then there are emergency exits. Looking at the ground floor plan, I count 10 exits from emergency stairs and two main entrances. There might be a lot of jumping to conclusions here, so let’s step back and look at this dispassionately.

Some of Munger’s thinking is not unreasonable. According to a 2019 article in The Wall Street Journal, he is giving each student private rooms (something that is rare in student residences) but not so big or comfortable that they do much more than sleep. Munger believes students would rather have single rooms than bedroom windows, which limit design flexibility and waste space. “When Mr. Munger de­signs buildings, he dis­likes curves, wasted space, shared bed­rooms and bad acoustics,” writes The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reports:

“Munger’s pro­posal in­cludes suites of eight sin­gle bed­rooms along­side large com­mon spa­ces. Most bed­rooms would have ar­ti­fi­cial win­dows pat­terned af­ter the port­holes on Dis­ney cruise ships, with cus­tomized light­ing to mimic day­light.. He says he wants to use ar­chi­tec­ture at schools to coax stu­dents into com­mon spa­ces where they can min­gle and col­lab­o­rate: “The stu­dents will ed­u­cate them­selves and one an­other much bet­ter if we do the hous­ing right.”

Architect James Timberlake, who has designed two buildings for UCSB, tells Treehugger the university has massive housing problems. “It is acknowledged that this campus enclave has serious town gown housing issues and social problems which have resulted in riots, and damage, and they wish to reduce their dependency on the private sector housing stock,” said Timberlake.

But he also writes on Twitter about Munger Hall: “This is an affront to the University and the campus design DNA; not to mention a horrible warehousing of students which could have long lasting psychological affects.”

Timberlake points to a thread by Alfred Twu, a Berkeley politician, architect, and commercial artist, who notes the site is squished between an airport and a hazardous waste collection center.

Twu also notes the plan isn’t very efficient. He pointed out: “Less than half the building is bedroom (blue shaded area). Cube Dorm has 4,536 beds in a 1.68 million square foot building. That’s 370 square feet per bed, about the same as a full size studio apartment.” One could argue this is fine with Munger, who wants to coax the students out into common spaces.

Windows—or the lack thereof—appear to be the biggest problem for most observers. And when you look at the plans in detail, it certainly appears these students are not going to get a lot of natural light in their rooms or out. The floor is broken up into eight houses:

Each house has a great room at one end with windows, tables, and a big kitchen.

However, the eight student rooms are set up around a “bedroom cluster” with a kitchen, a communal study table, two bathrooms—probably not enough by today’s standards—and no windows. It might be like living on a submarine or one of those post-apocalyptic underground bunkers I am fond of showing on Treehugger.

In all of these, we have discussed the importance of natural light. Treehugger’s Russell Maclendon has described the concept of biophilia: how “the mere sight of a tree or a houseplant may seem unlikely to offer any significant benefits, but thanks to a growing body of scientific research, it has become clear the human brain really does care about scenery — and craves greenery.”

We have pointed to studies that talk about the physiological benefits of viewing nature and how viewing nature positively affects recovery from acute mental stress.  And students are under a lot of mental stress.

There is also the issue of circadian rhythms. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, which gave an award to researchers in the field, “a large proportion of our genes are regulated by the biological clock and, consequently, a carefully calibrated circadian rhythm adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day.”

We have written often about how windows are the key to keeping our bodies tuned to circadian rhythms. In the age of LEDs, you can do this with artificial lighting, but many are arguing that windows are better. According to Rachel Fitzgerald and Katherine Stekr of the Illuminating Engineering Society: “We know great daylighting design, likely the best form of circadian lighting promotes healthier workplaces.”

I often quote Helen Sanders, who wrote for The Construction Specifier that “lack of sunlight during the day and too much artificial illumination from screens or electric lighting at night can cause circadian rhythm disruption that, in addition to causing poor sleep, can alter moods and cause depression or long-term health problems.” Or as daylighting designer Debra Burnet notes, “Daylight is a drug and nature is the dispensing physician.” Should we be messing with this, with 4500 students’ brains?

The students do have access to “our town in the sky,” a collection of amenities including a gastro-pub, a gym, a juice bar, and a fitness center which students probably need because there is no attractive stair that they can climb. I wonder what the Fitwel people would have to say about this building.

Our town in the sky even has a landscaped courtyard sort of open to the sky but totally surrounded by building so there are no California breezes.

There are many other issues and concerns that arise when you pack so many people together in such a tight space. Timberlake reminds Treehugger that “no doubt this mass block has high ventilation and air quality challenges in a zone, micro-climate, where reducing energy footprints would make sense.”

Passive House expert Monte Paulson told Treehugger: “We’re doing a Phius building of tiny suites (post-homeless) in Santa Cruz. It’s shocking how mild the climate is. But still needs high ventilation rate, as all dorms & microunits do.” The ventilation and cooling requirements for this building will be huge.

There are other ways of doing this, albeit at lower density. Architect Michael Eliason shows Treehugger the work of DGJ Arkitektur, which did a student residence out of mass timber in Heidelburg. It is obviously a completely different scale, housing only 174 students, but it has four students in private rooms (all with windows) sharing a common area and one bathroom, with access to an exterior corridor, a design feature that Charlie Munger actually likes.

Eliason didn’t actually think that the Munger proposal was serious, telling Treehugger:

“On one level I actually wondered if this was the University trolling the city a bit for not allowing new housing because it was so egregious. ‘See? You wouldn’t build housing so these are the lengths we must go to house our students now.’ There was a really interesting freak out on a German website, that nothing close to this would be anywhere close to legal for human rights issues.”

This is not the first time we have shown giant cube buildings on Treehugger, having previously discussed the Cubic City (in my archives here) a 1929 science fiction story by the Reverend Louis Tucker, who noted that if you don’t need windows, you can pack a lot of people into a very small space. It was all ventilated mechanically and had special lighting. I noted: “Helium tubes. Exactly the same quality and intensity as sunshine.”

I concluded: “There was not a lot to learn from the Reverend Louis Tucker about urban design that we did not know already: that going vertical is very efficient thanks to elevators and that you can pack a lot of people into a smaller amount of land, leaving the rest for parks and recreation and food.” Munger Hall doesn’t even give us that; it is surrounded by an airport and toxic waste.

A hundred years ago, architects knew how to pack a lot of people onto a site: You would build a podium with all of your public shared uses, and then build what I would call an E-shaped form on top of that.

Every room had a window. There wasn’t much of a view, just into another room, and the air quality wasn’t that great when you opened a window. But it was the law at the time.

It was a good law. Mark Vallianatos notes on Twitter that “in August 1923, 4 and 1/2 months before Charles Munger was born, California consolidated its apartment, hotel and dwelling Acts into a state housing act which required windows in most rooms, certainly in every bedroom.”

Some suggest that with our current technology, whether with good ventilation or circadian lighting, perhaps it is time to move on from this and grab the savings in materials, efficiency, and perimeter walls that we would gain. Perhaps Tim McCormick is right, and that we should look at this.

But not with 4,500 young people trapped in a giant cube. This isn’t some kind of Munger Games.

Finally, the last word goes to the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation—it manages the estate of the great architect Paul Rudolph, who was certainly capable of thinking big and understood megastructures.