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Billionaire defends windowless dorm rooms for California students 

Billionaire Charles Munger is standing by his concept for a massive California dormitory that's been compared to a prison for students. 

Charles Munger says artificial windows are, in some ways, 'actually better' than the real deal

Berkshire Hathaway vice-chair Charles Munger is defending the controversial design he approved for a student housing complex he's funding in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

This story was originally published on Nov. 2, 2021.

Billionaire Charles Munger is standing by his concept for a massive California dormitory that's been compared to a prison for students. 

Munger is the vice-chair of the multinational conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway. In 2016, he vowed to donate $200 million US to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to build a new student housing project.

There was just one stipulation. The university must accept Munger's approved design, or he'd pull the funding.

That design for Munger Hall was unveiled last month. It proposes an 11-storey, 1.68-million-square-foot building housing 4,500 students, 94 per cent of whom would live in single-occupancy, windowless dorm rooms.

L.A. Times columnist Carolina A. Miranda called it dystopian. Dennis McFadden, a veteran California architect, quit the university's design review committee over the proposed building, calling it "unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being," the Santa Barbara Independent reports.

In an interview with As It Happens host Carol Off, Munger dismissed McFadden's criticisms as "crazy suppositions by an ignorant man." Here is an excerpt from that conversation.

What would you say to [Denis McFadden] if you had the chance?

Well, if he knew more about it, he would have had more correct conclusions.

What else does he have to know, in your view?

The reason this building is the way it is, is because there are enormous advantages in having a lot of undergraduates conveniently near one another and conveniently near everything else they like to be near.

The logical way to do that is to make a building in a big footprint and devote the top floor of it — which is a penthouse floor normally given to rich people, you know, for condos — and give that to the students as their common space, and to put a certain amount of academic space into that gigantic top floor with all the light and air and so forth.

And so it's just that it was so novel, he's never seen that done, and he doesn't like it when it's different from what he's used to.

An example of a private bedroom at Munger Hall, featuring an artificial window with adjustable light. (Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh/UC Santa Barbara )

Well, I think what he is objecting to, and he's not alone in that, is that, as you say, this is a place where a lot of students can live — 4,500 will live in 11 floors, and almost every student would be in a windowless room.

No, that's not true. Every student is in a house and suite system, and the house has lots of windows and a big common living space and dining space and kitchen space and so on. And so they're not living in windowless space.

But their bedrooms … are windowless.

The bedrooms have artificial windows instead of real ones, but they've got perfect ventilation.

What the students hate most of all ... is sharing a bedroom with an unrelated stranger. And in this project, every single student gets his own private sleeping area.- Charles Munger, Berkshire Hathaway 

What's an artificial window?

If you go on a Disney cruise ship and pay $20,000 a week for a fancy stateroom, it uses an artificial window instead of a real one.

And that's what we do in these what he calls "windowless bedrooms." 

When you look at them, the way they're curtained and so forth, you can't tell if they're artificial by looking at them, and they admit the exact spectrum of real sunlight. 

That's a lot to expect of an artificial window, but they do something else that a real-world window can't do it all. 

You can turn a knob and change the sunlight to brighten it up or down. So if you're a romantic, you can tamp it down. If you want more bright light and so forth, you can turn the sunlight up just by twisting a knob.

In many respects, these things are actually better than real windows.

But a window doesn't just give you light; it gives you a view. It lets you see the world.

Obviously, it would be better if every student could have a penthouse with perfect views in all four directions. But we don't do that because we can't get enough students to live conveniently close together.

An illustration of the outside of Munger Hall, controversial proposed student housing complex at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh/UC Santa Barbara )

This building has been criticized [by McFadden in his resignation letter] as a "social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact in the lives and personal developments" of these young people.

Well, he's just pulling that out of the air. Buildings actually exist with no windows at all in Michigan and people are living in them fine.

But there's a whole bunch of social science research that shows that windowless designs, especially when you're in them for long periods of time, can be quite detrimental to your mental health. Did you look at those?

We look at actual buildings. We have built these buildings. The [Munger Graduate Residence Hall] in Michigan has no windows. It works fine. But once you put the artificial window in, it's a huge improvement.

[On] a Disney cruise ship, you know, half the staterooms are below the waterline or on the wrong side of the aisle. They rely on artificial windows instead of real ones.

Come on, you're only there for a short time…. But a student is in the dorm for … sometimes eight or nine months.

What the students hate most of all — as I know; we had eight children — what they really hate is sharing a bedroom with an unrelated stranger. And in this project, every single student gets his own private sleeping area. That's unheard of in undergraduate. That's a huge benefit, and it's one that means a great deal to the students.

This windowless thing is just a bunch of crazy suppositions by an ignorant man.

An example of a 'bedroom cluster' at Munger Hall. Multiple single-occupancy bedrooms surround a shared living and dining space. (Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh/UC Santa Barbara )

You're not an architect, though, are you?

Well, no, but I've been building buildings all my life, and I've hired a lot of the very eminent architects for over 70 years. 

The best buildings, in my opinion, are always created when an intelligent owner is working with an intelligent architect. And that's what's happened here. This is not just my design. This is a design with a lot of inputs from others.

One of your inputs was $200 million [US] to fund the building of this dorm. And is it true that a caveat … was that you were to design it? 

It is true that I wanted to approve it. But there's a lot of things in this design that I didn't create. The design was created collaboratively. 

It was your idea to have the rooms with these fake windows, right?

Yes, absolutely.

And it's true that you would not have given the money if you weren't allowed to make this contribution, right?

If they'd wanted a different kind of a building, I would not have given the money; that's correct.

Did you spend a year in a windowless room as a student?

I came pretty close because I slept on a sleeping porch, which had a lot of beds in it, when I was in a fraternity.

Did you have windows then?

Yeah, there were a few windows.

Don't you think that matters?

Well, everybody would prefer to have real windows if it were feasible. But it's a game of trade-offs, architecture. 

If the university wants to make substantial changes to your design, will you withdraw your money?

The answer to that is, of course, I would. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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