Today’s big question

Is ‘dormzilla’ the solution to California’s housing crisis?

In the blueprint for new student digs Munger Hall, almost all the 4,500 residents sleep in windowless cells

“What does it take to make architecture go viral?” The answer, said Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, is a blueprint for a vast, 11-storey student dormitory in which almost all the 4,500 residents sleep in windowless cells.

That’s what the University of California, Santa Barbara, is about to build to help solve its student housing shortage. It’s the brainchild of Charles Munger, a 97-year-old billionaire with no architectural training, who is donating $200m to the university on the condition that it uses his design. Rooms will have LED screens to mimic sunlight – an idea inspired by the virtual portholes on Disney cruise ships – and air piped in.

Critics point out that natural light and fresh air are so psychologically vital that they’re even staples of basic jail design. Their objections have been ignored by university leaders and by Munger, who told an interviewer: “I expect these buildings to sprout up all over America.”

Munger Hall – dubbed “Dormzilla” by critics – will look and feel like “a self-storage warehouse”, said Henry Grabar on Slate (New York), but UC Santa Barbara will take it because it’s in “desperate, desperate need of new housing”.

In idyllic Santa Barbara, as in much of California, property is incredibly expensive, with average house prices exceeding $1m. Local zoning laws ban or severely restrict new apartment construction. As a result, students have been bunking in hotels and even sleeping in their cars. It might be better for students to have no windows than to spend nights at the Marriott or on the back seat of a Hyundai.

For student housing, “Dormzilla is fine”, said M. Nolan Gray on Bloomberg (New York). The spartan single rooms are designed only for sleeping, and Munger’s design provides ample, airy communal spaces for study, dining and recreation, “to coax students out of their rooms and into the community”.

“Perhaps it’s utopian of me,” said Aaron Gordon on Vice (New York), but I think we can solve housing shortages without stuffing students into windowless cells. Architects and engineers are armed with a mass of research that suggests Munger’s design is “both unhealthy and unsafe”. Imagine a fire or a blackout in a darkened building with 4,500 students trying to flee through two main exits. Once again, we’re seeing proof that “in order to solve one crisis, we are often all too willing to create others”

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