When a billionaire donor and architecture enthusiast approached the University of California Santa Barbara with a proposal to address the school’s student housing shortage — and offered a cool $200 million to kick off the project — administrators hailed the design as revolutionary.

The idea? A $1.5 billion, 11-story dormitory concept named after the donor, Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charles Munger, that could house 4,500 students within its interior. Under the plan, roughly 200 of these residents would live in rooms that have windows to the outside. 

But since then, the building plans have driven one of the university’s longtime consulting architects to resign in protest over what he’s calling a “social and psychological experiment,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported last week. 

“Munger Hall offers an answer to the question of how to resolve the housing shortage and growth pressures currently facing the University,” Dennis McFadden wrote in his resignation letter. “As a design solution and a campus building, however, the project will long outlive the circumstances of its origin and will impact the life of the campus and the lives of its students for multiple generations.”

Chancellor Henry Yang had previously called the design “inspired and revolutionary,” and the university remains committed to the project.

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

The university employs multiple external architect consultants to review its projects, Estrada told the paper. She said the university is grateful for McFadden’s input before his resignation.

McFadden said that the architectural plans for Munger Hall were set in stone from the start. The design committee was not given meaningful input into the plans, which were described to the team as “100% complete,” he wrote.

The billionaire Munger, who has a longstanding interest in architecture, donated the $200 million toward the housing project on the condition that the university follow his blueprints, with no changes, the newspaper reports.

This isn’t Munger’s first foray into the architecture of higher education. For years, the investor has offered universities and other institutions large sums of money to build new facilities — provided he has say over the design, according to a 2019 report in The Wall Street Journal.

“Architects don’t love me,” Munger told the Journal at the time. “Either I change architects, or he does it my way.”

Not only would the plans offer living spaces for thousands of students, but would save money on construction costs by prefabricating large numbers of building elements off-site. Each residential floor used an identical floor plan, lending itself further to prefabrication.

But the building’s large number of small, windowless rooms concerned some close to the process, McFadden said.

“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,” McFadden wrote in his resignation letter. “The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter.”

The building would also seek an all-electric heating and water setup that earns a LEED Gold certification. But with the building’s unusual reliance on artificial lighting and mechanical ventilation, McFadden said the design could force the university to evacuate thousands of residents through two exits each time the building loses power.

Email Daniel Houston

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