UCSB ‘windowless’ dorm design dies

Aug. 29, 2023
The University of California has restarted the design process for a controversial student residence that accorded living spaces minimal access to daylight and views.

The University of California is reviewing new dormitory designs after officials scrapped plans to build a 4,500-student dorm on the Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus. The abandonment of the original design comes in response to criticism regarding the population density and lack of windows in sleeping areas.

First revealed in 2021 and billed as a design that encouraged socialization outside of the dorm room, the proposed layout appeared to many as an attempt to maximize students and profit without regard to the general wellbeing of the occupants. Several university students and faculty argued that access to windows and daylight is necessary for mental and emotional health, a sentiment echoed in the resignation letter of UCSB architectural consultant Dennis McFadden, who stepped down from the university’s design review committee in protest.

In his letter, McFadden described the planned building as a “social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal developments of the undergraduates the University serves.” McFadden included internal resident isolation on his list of concerns, noting that “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 the occupants.”

Every floor of the building—save the top floor—was designed to adhere to what a UCSB spokesperson described as “a traditional ‘House System’ that is used by many universities across the country to create a community-within-a-community.” Each floor featured eight houses, with each house containing eight suites, and each suite consisting of two bathrooms, a community area with a kitchenette, and eight single-occupancy (windowless) bedrooms. Windows were located in the common areas of each house: a “convivial” kitchen, laundry room, game room, and great room. The 11th and top floor of the building featured a landscaped, naturally ventilated courtyard nearly an acre in size and covered by a canopy.

The windowless living areas were ostensibly designed to encourage student interaction, as has been argued by Charles Munger, a billionaire and longtime UCSB donor who was to provide the primary funding for the project. But in a 2021 Q&A, UCSB staff revealed the reason for placing bedrooms in the center of the structure, without external windows, writing, “This approach allows for more student bedrooms and amenities on the site.”

Munger, whose connection to UCSB can be traced back to his friendship with Santa Barbara resident and UCSB supporter Glen Mitchel, has offered to donate $200 million toward the project with the stipulation that his design specifications be followed. When asked about the lack of windows, he argued that virtual windows installed in every bedroom would prevent any psychological distress and maintain the circadian rhythm cycles of residents.

Prior to its complete abandonment, the Munger design was altered, reducing the number of floors in response to population density concerns. According to a petition opposing the design, the building would be the largest university dormitory in the world—a title currently held by the U.S. Naval Academy’s Bancroft Hall, which houses 4,400 midshipmen, according to the Naval Academy Business Services Division.

UCSB has since released a request for qualifications asking for bids and designs from architects to build a dorm to the latest specifications: 3,500 new beds, 1,000 fewer than the original Munger project. Moreover, according to a report from the Santa Barbara Independent, Munger has stepped away from the project.

This is not the first student housing project that Munger has been involved with. The vice chairman of the conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway designed and funded a similar dormitory, the Munger Graduate Residences, at the University of Michigan (U-M). The dorm, completed in 2015, is advertised as “transdisciplinary living” designed to house graduate students from various fields. The university’s website describes the dorm as “an environment that asks you to grow.” To access sunlight, residents must travel to a windowed common area.

While on one hand dismissing the idea that windows are necessary, U-M has also attempted to combat the apparent psychological effects of living in such a facility by partnering the residency hall with the university’s psychology department to provide seasonal affective disorder lights. Such lights are designed to deliver mood-boosting effects from high-brightness, full-spectrum light boxes used at prescribed times of day during periods with shorter daylight cycles.

Some of those who have experienced Michigan’s Munger Graduate residence were frustrated with the living situation, with one former resident posting on an external U-M subreddit forum: “I would regularly have dreams about discovering that there really was a window in my room. Most people move out after a year.” Others were upset by the supposed ideological basis of the housing design, with another former resident posting that the dormitory seemed to be designed as an experiment on students.

While the battle over windows in Santa Barbara may be finished, the push for windowless living spaces will likely continue. In March, New York mayor Eric Adams received criticism when he proposed eliminating the requirement that spaces designated as bedrooms should have windows.

"UCSB ‘windowless’ dorm design dies" originally appeared on LEDs Magazine, an Endeavor Business Media partner site.

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About the Author

Hayden Beeson

Hayden Beeson is a writer and editor and worked as an associate editor of Architectural SSL and LEDs Magazine. Before joining Endeavor Business Media, he was the managing editor of several machine reliability publications.