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Eight former University of California campus architects from Berkeley to San Diego have banded together to express their “extreme concern and opposition” to UCSB’s Munger Hall proposal. In a November 17 letter to the college system’s president, Michael Drake, and its board of regents, the group says the massive dormitory project ― which would warehouse 4,500 undergraduates in small, windowless bedrooms ― could have severe psychological effects on its occupants. “We ask that you take a step back and embrace the values of a humane environment, one that fosters health, safety, and welfare, instead of one that may forever harm generations of young students,” they wrote. Simply put, the project “is a disaster in the making,” they said.

The architects took special exception with the proposal’s price tag ― estimated in the range of $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion ― and noted the per-bed cost would top $330,000, making it the most expensive residential project in UC history that would inevitably drive up UCSB housing prices. By contrast, they explained, UC Santa Barbara’s San Joaquin Villages student apartment complex built in 2017 cost just $166,000 per bed. The group acknowledged UCSB’s chronic housing shortage, “but this social petri dish, so foreign to the character of the Santa Barbara campus, is not the answer,” they said. And the effects wouldn’t be limited to UCSB, they predicted. “A failed investment of this size is bound to ripple throughout the University system.”

Moreover, the architects continued, the 1.68-million-square-foot building’s lighting and ventilation systems would require a huge amount of energy to operate and would be “in direct conflict with the UC system’s Carbon Neutrality goal.” Finally, they said, “the current COVID-19 pandemic calls into question the wisdom of residential buildings relying entirely on mechanical ventilation.” 

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Munger Hall’s lead architect and partial funder, Berkshire Hathaway vice president Charlie Munger, has dismissed the near-universal criticism lobbed at his design by architects across the country. He was recently quoted as saying, “No two architects ever agree on anything.” “Ironically,” the letter concludes, “Mr. Munger’s proposal for the Santa Barbara campus has demonstrated just the opposite: America’s architectural community is speaking out loudly against it.”

UCSB issued a statement in response to the letter, calling the criticism of per-bed cost “misleading.” “The design is not complete, so the final number for construction has yet to be determined,” the university said. “In terms of floor area, Munger Hall is quite different from a typical residence hall in that it provides substantially more common areas, amenities and even spaces for academic use, which ultimately translates to cost.” When the final numbers are calculated, Munger Hall’s cost per bed will be competitive with other residence halls, “if not a bit less,” it said. “Ultimately, the goal for the project is to provide students a better housing experience at a lower monthly cost than they would find in Isla Vista.”

In terms of lighting and ventilation energy demands, the university said, its project team is working closely with the dormitory’s “architect of record” ― VTBS ― to ensure the project is “held to the highest standards possible, often above and beyond Building Code requirements.” The school said it “appreciates and understands” the concerns raised by the former campus architects but ultimately feels “Munger Hall was uniquely designed to help UC Santa Barbara meet the demand for safe, affordable, on-campus housing that students desire while also fulfilling the University’s obligation to support previous enrollment increases that were mandated by the California legislature and governor.”

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