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Proposed UCSB "megadorm" draws criticism from local architects and designers; university defends building

Munger Hall would house 4,500 students in one building.
UC Santa Barbara
Munger Hall would house 4,500 students in one building.

UC Santa Barbara has made national headlnes for its proposed “megadorm” designed and partially financed by billionaire investor Charles Munger. The building, called Munger Hall, would house 4,500 students, potentially doubling the university’s student housing stock.

The design is meant to address UCSB’s housing crisis, which has spilled over into neighboring cities. The city of Goleta, for instance, is suing UCSB for failing to provide enough student housing.

Navy Banvard is the principal architect behind the project, and he points directly to the lack of affordable housing in the UCSB area as a reason why Munger Hall should be built.

Banvard told KCBX News there is “significant research that documents the tie between affordable, stable housing and students’ academic success” and that increasing housing density in one building is the way to achieve that.

But Detty Peikert, a Santa Barbara-based architect with RRM Design Group, disagrees. He said one reason he thinks the design is not suitable for students is that some of the rooms in Munger Hall will not have windows. Instead they will have virtual windows and artificial lighting systems.

“It just felt entirely inappropriate in our region in particular and as a solution to housing students. I mean, we wouldn't, and all of our clients that we work with on affordable housing, wouldn’t consider housing poor people or even homeless people in a facility of that nature. So why are we housing students like that?” Peikert said.

A UCSB representative said in a statement to KCBX News that the lighting systems “substantially reflect the lighting levels and color temperature of natural daylight.”

The statement said all rooms, even those without windows, have a “continuous fresh air supply at approximately twice the rate of building and mechanical code minimums” and that “[o]ne could argue that this may be an improvement in air quality as it does not require a student to open the window for fresh air.”

But Peikert said it’s not proven that this kind of building design is healthy for students.

“It sounds like a grand social experiment that has no real research or anything behind it to indicate that this is a good idea. I mean, there's a lot of scientific research on the other hand that shows that having access to light, and to air, and to natural surroundings, landscaping, has a very powerful positive impact on human health and psychology. But there's no research that I'm aware of that packing people into a facility of this kind is going to be beneficial in any way,” Peikert said.

Karen Feeney is the Business Development Manager for a general contractor in Santa Barbara. She also calls herself an advocate for sustainable design.

“As architects and builders, we all have to adhere to standards for designing and building, whether that's the planning standards, whether that's environmental standards, building code and the Coastal Commission. And unfortunately it appears that the University of California is trying to circumvent all that, and it's really unfortunate,” Feeney said.

Navy Banvard said all "aspects of the building are fully compliant with and in many cases exceed current requirements found within the California Building Codes."

Feeney recalled her own experience in student housing, and how she feels Munger Hall would be a completely different experience.

“I just think back to when I was a student and living in a dorm. We had small rooms with a roommate, so we could have a one-on-one interpersonal exchange. And then it was around a cluster of rooms — I think there were six or seven — so that you could have a larger social network, not put in a large space with 4,500 other students. It just seems, to me, structurally, socially not acceptable,” Feeney said.

All bedrooms are single-occupancy, which gives students "the privacy of a single bedroom," according to a web post from UCSB.

UCSB's statement said Charles Munger’s design is meant to encourage collaboration and social interaction between students.

In order to achieve that goal, the bedrooms are made as efficient as possible and shared spaces are enhanced, which “is Mr. Munger’s approach to substantively improving the mental and emotional health of the students.”

Santa Barbara-based architect Matt Beausoleil acknowledges the need for student housing amid an affordable housing crisis in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas such as Goleta and Isla Vista, but said Munger Hall is not the way to address that.

“Housing is important. Student housing is needed. I think everyone realizes that, but it shouldn't be at the expense of student health, student safety, and I think the university needs to take a step back and look at what they have on the table and really kind of look at ways of minimizing this big, massive, bulky building that they're proposing. It's just one big giant block and I think that's what a lot of people — the design professionals in this community — are kind of appalled by,” Beausoleil said.

On the question of student safety and the building’s safety features, Navy Banvard said his firm hired an engineering consultant to perform a mass-motion modeling study to determine the time necessary to completely evacuate the building in a worst-case scenario.

Banvard said the results were “impressive as the modeling determined that all able-bodied occupants would be able to exit the building in less than ten minutes,” and disabled people “will have access to several safe areas of refuge from which first responders can assist them in evacuating the building.”

Banvard also pointed out that the building has several dedicated offices for mental health professionals in case residents needs those services.

Vandhana Balachandran is a Santa Barbara-based designer. She recommends increasing housing density in the area around UCSB through more conventional means, rather than through one building.

“I think we start with changes in policy in terms of increasing density in a responsible way — an integrated master plan, which I think they already exist, but I would say aggressive policy changes to keep up with what's happening in the student community there would be helpful,” Balachandran said.

According to Banvard, Munger Hall will “provide an additional 4,500 beds on a site that is approximately six acres” and that “in order to provide that many beds in a more traditional dormitory approach it would require more than thirty acres of land.”

The UCSB statement said the university is “delighted to be moving forward with this project that directly addresses the campus’s great need for more student housing.”

However, it acknowledged not everyone may want to live in a building like Munger Hall and that the university will offer “another housing option for students who want to live on campus and prefer private bedrooms attached to community areas.”

The statement said "the university currently provides housing for approximately 10,000 students, who live in double- and triple-occupancy rooms" and that "[s]tudents will continue to have their choice among the existing residence halls, campus apartments and off-campus housing options."

Corrected: November 23, 2021 at 1:55 PM PST
A prior version of this story attributed a statement from UCSB directly to a UCSB employee when it should have attributed all quotes to the university's statement. The text and audio have been updated.
Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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