A consulting architect on UCSB’s Design Review Committee has quit his post in protest over the university’s proposed Munger Hall project, calling the massive, mostly-windowless dormitory plan “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
In his October 25 resignation letter to UCSB Campus Architect Julie Hendricks, Dennis McFadden ― a well-respected Southern California architect with 15 years on the committee ― goes scorched earth on the radical new building concept, which calls for an 11-story, 1.68-million-square-foot structure that would house up to 4,500 students, 94 percent of whom would not have windows in their small, single-occupancy bedrooms.
The idea was conceived by 97-year-old billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the project with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly. Munger maintains the small living quarters would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas, where they could interact and collaborate. He also argues the off-site prefabrication of standardized building elements ― the nine residential levels feature identical floor plans ― would save on construction costs. The entire proposal, which comes as UCSB desperately attempts to add to its overstretched housing stock, is budgeted somewhere in the range of $1.5 billion. Chancellor Henry Yang has hailed it as “inspired and revolutionary.”
McFadden disagreed sharply with what the university has described as “Charlie’s Vision” for the benefits of a “close-knit” living experience. “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,” he wrote. “The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter.”
So far, McFadden continued, the university has not offered any research or data to justify the unprecedented departure from normal student housing standards, historical trends, and basic sustainability principles. “Rather,” he said, “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 explains he felt compelled to step down from the Design Review Committee (DRC) after it became clear during an October 5 presentation that the dorm’s plans were already set in stone. “The design was described as 100% complete, approval was not requested, no vote was taken, and no further submittals are intended or required,” he said. “Yet in the nearly fifteen 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.” This kind of outlandish proposal is exactly why the committee exists, he said.
McFadden draws striking comparisons between Munger Hall and other large structures to illustrate its colossal footprint. Currently, he said, the largest single dormitory in the world is Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, which houses 4,000 students and is composed of multiple wings wrapped around numerous courtyards with over 25 entrances.
“Munger Hall, in comparison, is a single block housing 4,500 students with two entrances,” McFadden said, and would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood on the planet, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It would be able to house Princeton University’s entire undergraduate population, or all five Claremont Colleges. “The project is essentially the student life portion of a mid-sized university campus in a box,” he said.
The project is utterly detached from its physical setting, McFadden goes on, and has no relationship to UCSB’s “spectacular coastal location.” It is also out of place with the scale and texture of the rest of campus, he said, “an alien world parked at the corner of the campus, not an integrally related extension of it.” Even the rooftop courtyard looks inward and “may as well be on the ground in the desert as on the eleventh floor on the coast of California,” he said.
“As a project that pushes economies of scale, prefabrication, and an alternate project delivery process,” McFadden concludes, “Munger Hall offers an answer to the question of how to resolve the housing shortage and growth pressures currently facing the University. 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.”
UCSB spokesperson Andrea Estrada said while the university was grateful for McFadden’s service on the review committee, his comments on the Munger proposal and his resignation won’t stop it from being built. “The Munger Hall project and design is continuing to move forward as planned,” she said in a statement. “We are delighted to be moving forward with this transformational project.”
[UPDATE 11/2/21] In a followup comment to the Santa Barbara Independent on Tuesday, UCSB spokesperson Andrea Estrada said the university recognized that Munger Hall might not be for everyone, stressing that UCSB currently provides housing for 10,000 students living in double- or triple-occupancy rooms. By contrast, Munger Hall will offer each student their own separate, if very small, quarters. That, according to a statement from project architect Van Tilburg, Banvard, and Soderbergh, will provide built-in social distancing as required by COVID. Fresh air, the architect insisted, will be vented into all rooms at twice the rate mandated by existing building codes and will be off-gassed directly to the atmosphere without any transfer to other rooms in the dorm.
As for concerns about lack of direct natural light caused by the lack of windows, all individual rooms would have either conventional or virtual windows. “All virtual windows will have a fully programmed circadian rhythm control system to substantially reflect the lighting levels and color temperature of natural daylight,” according to the statement. All common areas, the statement added, “have significant access to natural light.”
As far as emergency exits, the statement noted, the proposed structure would have 14 additional exits/entrances, in addition to the two major ones. Evacuation scenarios, the statement added, “have been studied at great length through on-going Mass-Motion and Evacuation modeling.”
Greater design attention will be focused on the common areas as a transformational enticement to get students to mingle more “substantially improving the mental and emotional health of the students.” The building contains such amenities as a market, bakery, fitness center, gastropub, game room, grab-and-go room, and demonstration kitchen for those inclined to cook.
Find all of our Munger Dorm stories at independent.com/munger-dorm.
CORRECTION: The building as a whole, not each house, will contain the amenities described in the last sentence of the story.