Life inside a windowless dorm designed by billionaire Charlie Munger

When the broader public learned last fall that billionaire Charlie Munger had designed a windowless dorm building for more than 4,500 students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the response was a mix of shock and horror.

In October, a consulting architect from the university’s design review committee resigned in protest, calling the design inhumane and spurring a widespread backlash. The Los Angeles Times called it Dormzilla. One architect equated it to a prison. An open letter written by the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles chapter said it “will create harmful and unhealthy living conditions for its residents.”

[Photo: University of Michigan]

But Munger’s design has already been realized at another school, the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor; it’s a $155 million housing complex with space for 630 students. Named the Munger Graduate Residences In honor of his $110 million contribution to the project, the building was developed specifically to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, with students from a variety of programs living in shared suites of up to seven private rooms. In all but a few of these bedrooms there are no windows.

A concept rendering for a room at the UCSB facility [Image: courtesy UCSB]

The proposal for UC Santa Barbara is of an entirely different scale, and with less of an ideological goal. If built, it will be a 1.68-million-square-foot megadorm, which houses seven times as many students as the University of Michigan complex. Despite the outcry from the architectural community, the project is still working its way forward; Munger’s $200 million donation to the university is contingent on the structure being built to his windowless specifications. Two key decisions in the coming months could set Munger’s vision on a nearly irreversible track to construction.

Before the building gets the green light, former residents at the Munger Graduate Residences at the University of Michigan share their thoughts on what it’s like to live in a place without windows.

“I guess I just got used to it”

Esi Hutchful was one of the first students to live in the Munger Graduate Residences when it opened in August 2015. Her decision to apply to Munger was mostly one of convenience. To pursue a master’s degree in public policy, she was relocating from New York, and not particularly excited about house hunting on Craigslist from a distance. It also helped that Munger was only about a five-minute walk from the school where most of her classes would be. “I was just trying to get housing, and it was pretty centrally located,” she says.

When her application was approved and she had to decide whether to accept, Hutchful hadn’t actually been inside the building. When she had visited the school previously, it was still under construction. What she knew about the interior was from promotional photos, a brochure, and a video tour posted online. “It was very, very nice, at least in the pictures and the video,” she says.

But after moving in, the challenge of living without windows quickly became apparent. “It did register, mostly because whether daytime or nighttime, if you were in your specific bedroom, you had to have your lights on,” she says. “I guess I just got used to it.”

Aside from wasting energy on lights in the daytime, Hutchful says her room worked out for what she needed. She ended up spending more of her time in the common space of her suite, and forged friendships with suitemates from radically different programmes, like statistics and engineering—an interdisciplinary mixing that is one of the building’s main goals. She says she wouldn’t necessarily warn someone against living there, but acknowledges it’s probably not ideal for everybody.

“If you’re someone who definitely needs natural light then I wouldn’t recommend it for you,” she says.

After years of cramped living with roommates in New York, Hutchful says Munger offered one major benefit: a private bathroom. “Yeah, there were no windows but I had my own shower and I was not going to give that up,” she says.

Correlation and causation

Cortney Sanders lived in the building in 2017, and she says its many amenities far outweighed the lack of windows in the bedrooms. There’s a large gym on the top floor, music practice rooms, a 3D-printing room, and, most important, ample study spaces flooded with natural light. Sanders says these spaces, and the building’s interdisciplinary intentions, made the windowless room a minor downside.

“The way that the room was made was to force people to leave their room, and that’s exactly what I did,” Sanders says.

Other former residents have complained about the lack of natural light affecting their sleep and leading to affective disorder. Sanders isn’t so sure. “You have to be careful about correlation and causation. You’re in grad school. Your sleep schedule is probably not going to be as good as somebody who’s not in grad school,” she says.

The Texas native says she did experience the depressive symptoms of seasonal affective disorder while living in the building, but doesn’t blame the space. “I had that because it was cold outside,” she says. “This was Michigan. A majority of your semester both in the winter and spring it’s snowing outside, freezing cold.”

She says Munger residents who complain about the lack of windows are ignoring the building’s other benefits. “If you really hate your room, you don’t have to be in there,” she says.

“My one year without windows”

Emma Smith lived in the Munger Graduate Residences from 2018 to 2020 while pursuing an MBA. An international student from Ghana, she says the transition from sunny tropics to “gloomy Michigan” was not smooth, and her windowless room didn’t help.

“I was adjusting to a new country, adjusting to a new place, adjusting to a new everything. That made adjusting to a room without windows tough,” she says, calling it “my one year without windows.”

The year was a bit like a sentence. “It feels like you’re living in a prison,” she says. “You turn off your lights, it’s pitch black, and you don’t have any natural light to wake you up.”

In the beginning, Smith says, she’d sleep right through her alarm, sometimes by hours. Sleep issues and depression crept up on her. She heard from other residents about a lamp that emitted vitamin D, almost like the natural light of the sun. She bought one. It didn’t really help.

All of this, however, didn’t dissuade her from applying to live in the building during her second year at the university. But before applying, she got a doctor’s note and applied specifically for one of the few rooms in the building with an actual window. She got lucky, and spent the 2019-20 school year—COVID-19 included—in a room with a window. “That made my experience significantly better. Considerably,” she says. Way Better. Way better.”

Smith says life in the building wasn’t so bad overall, especially considering all of its amenities and its close proximity to her classes. “Aside from the window issue, there are a lot of things that make Munger a fantastic place to live,” she says.

Smith is still living in Ann Arbor today. Her current residence has much more natural light, and, she says, “It’s beautiful.”

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