What’s it like to live in a dorm designed by a billionaire? Here’s what Michigan students say

·10 min read

Dormzilla, prison, a social experiment — all of these words have been used to describe UC Santa Barbara’s most recent massive housing proposal, Munger Hall.

The 11-story, 159-foot-tall Munger Hall dormitory was designed by 97-year-old billionaire Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the approximately $1.4 billion project under the condition that his designs would be followed exactly.

The project, which is intended to house 4,500 students and be completed by the fall term in 2025, has spurred a national outcry and drawn criticism for its “jail-like” design and windowless rooms.

Cramming thousands of students into a residence hall where only 6% of the rooms have windows to some seems like a social experiment, but a similar concept has been executed at the University of Michigan with the Munger Graduate Residences.

Munger Graduate Residences opened in 2015 at the University of Michigan, housing up to 630 graduate students in an eight-story 380,000-square-foot building. Munger, a Berkshire Hathaway vice chair who donated $110 million towards the $155 million project, wanted to bring a “transdisciplinary” living experience to graduate students.

The university’s housing website boasts about the building’s amenities — a movie room, indoor bike parking, fitness space, rooftop running track, music practice rooms, furnished apartments with six or seven single-occupancy bedroom suites, each with a private bathroom — but fails to mention that the majority of rooms are windowless and there is no vehicle parking.

Students who wish to live in the Munger residence have to go through an essay-based application process to make sure that they are a right fit for the kind of lifestyle the building is supposed to promise, according to the university.

The Munger Hall residence hall at UCSB would be for undergraduate students, not graduate students, and has shared bathrooms, while the Michigan dormitory is for graduate students and has private bathrooms for the rooms.

With the harsh criticism that UCSB’s proposed Munger Hall has faced from students, community members, and local architects, Noozhawk talked to University of Michigan students who previously lived in Munger Graduate Residences to see just what life was like living in the dorm.

Steven Cutlip, a University of Michigan alum who lived in Munger for five years from 2016 to 2021, said that the residence hall didn’t live up to the transdisciplinary social environment that it promised.

“I had wrong expectations moving in, in terms of the whole multidisciplinary experience, that wasn’t delivered,” Cutlip told Noozhawk.

He said that the building’s management and resident assistants (RAs) seemed to be “kind of checked out” and students would rarely mingle at the events that were planned when he was living there.

“Supposedly, the way they structured it was a design decision to force people to spend more time in the common area; that just didn’t pan out the way they expected,” Cutlip said.

Parisa Soraya only lived in Munger Graduate Residences for one year, from 2015 to 2016, and said that while there were “nice and flashy and beautiful” spaces designed for students to come together, when she lived there, those spaces were usually empty.

“Like if you needed to go somewhere dead quiet to study, you’d go there,” she said. “I don’t think it was everything that they advertised it to be; it felt a little manufactured. It felt like they were just throwing money to make it look like you’d have that experience.”

However, Soraya said that she had an overall positive experience in her year there due to the diversity of students that the building housed.

“I met a bunch of people from all over the world, different cultures, different lifestyles, people I would have never thought to live with,” Soraya told Noozhawk. “When you’re in your own bubble, you kind of just stay in your own bubble, but it was cool to see what others were studying and how they lived.”

Soraya said that she is still really close with the six other people she lived with at Munger.

Dorsa Haji Ghaffari lived in Munger Graduate Residences for three years, and initially moved in because she came from overseas and thought that Munger was a good option as it was right on campus and she didn’t have a car.

She said that she did enjoy the common spaces that the building provided, especially the music room because she loved to practice piano.

Ghaffari said that she moved out because, even though she got along with her six roommates, she didn’t necessarily like living with that many people.

“It didn’t feel like home; it felt like a hotel,” she said. “I wanted a more private and homey environment.”

Cutlip said that his first two years were fairly positive, but when the coronavirus pandemic struck and his friends started to move out, his experience began to change.

“The building was nice and new. I liked having my own space, but I was pretty miserable there during COVID, and I think that it wasn’t good to spend that much time indoors without many windows,” he said.

Cutlip said he would feel constantly tired, had low motivation, and that his circadian rhythm was thrown off because of the lack of sunlight in his room.

He ended up moving his desk out to the living room/common area where there were windows and said he saw a difference in his mood just days after.

Looking back, Cutlip said that he would have moved out of Munger Graduate Residences sooner and only would have lived there for a year or two.

Soraya said that she didn’t spend too much time in her room, so it wasn’t a big problem for her personally, but she noted the effect it had on others.

“It messes with you when you don’t have sunlight, your circadian rhythm,” she said. “If this new structure (UCSB’s Munger Hall) is going to be built the same way, that’s very concerning.”

Ghaffari was placed in a windowless dorm for her first year, but then got a letter from her psychiatrist saying that she had seasonal depression that allowed her to move to a room with a window.

“In general, it was hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, at least having some sunlight definitely helped with that,” Ghaffari said. “I don’t think I ever got used to not having a window. Early morning classes were really challenging. It was pitch dark when I woke up and I’d have to check my phone just to see what time of day it was.”

Cutlip said that students moving into UCSB’s Munger Hall should expect to make the most of it by making friends on their own and going to events outside of the building.

“I would just try not to spend so much time at home, not having much sunlight was really not good for me,” he said.

Hayden Hedman lived in Munger Graduate Residences from 2014 to 2018, and was part of the first class of “fellows” (essentially RAs) to live in the building.

When Hedman first moved in, he didn’t even know that the room didn’t have windows.

“We were given (as fellows) these kinds of tag lines that came up all the way from the designers that this was sort of a transdisciplinary space, and people wouldn’t be in their rooms,” he said.

Not having a window was terrible for Hedman’s physical well-being and mental health, he said.

“Ann Arbor is already one of the cloudiest cities, so you add that on top of a winter where you maybe get less than a few hours of sunlight, and it’s going to be overcast, then all you have is the cracks of light through the walls, and that’s your light,” he said.

He said that the medical waivers allowing people to get one of the few rooms with windows became an abused access issue.

“People who knew about this could get any type of medical diagnosis, and as long as it came from a licensed doctor you could get priority for a window,” he said. “People who actually needed it didn’t have access to that.”

Hedman said that the university seemed to acknowledge the mental health toll that having no windows imposed because they converted part of the game room in the basement to a “do-it-yourself” therapy room with massage chairs, sunlamps and coloring pages.

“There weren’t actual masseuses or therapists. It was clear that that was a byproduct that was festering a mental health concern, and that was the university’s attempt to just throw bones at the problem,” he said.

While some of the students enjoyed the building’s long list of amenities such as the music room or rooftop track, Soraya noted that some seemed wasteful.

In a suite with six or seven students, each person had their own shower and bathroom, and the kitchen had two of nearly every appliance: two microwaves, two refrigerators, two ovens, two couches.

“It made it so you could do your own thing and not get too much in the way of others, but it just seemed so wasteful,” Soraya said. “It seemed like they had endless money to spend, but the building didn’t promote organic growth in any way.”

In terms of the amenities, Hedman described the building as a “classic dentist office.”

“They look great in brochures, but it’s very likely old white deans and buddies of Charles Munger just saying, ‘Oh this looks good!’” he said.

Hedman said the building itself posed a bunch of security issues, and there were multiple times when homeless people would wander in and sleep in the bathrooms or in the downstairs basement.

“It was just so massive, it was very easy for random people in the community to come in and sometimes spend the night,” he told Noozhawk. “The way the rooms are designed is that it gives a lot of privacy, and there’s a lot of darkness — not even in the residential rooms, but also study spaces — so it was really easy for people to just be in there.”

Hedman said there were problems with furniture going missing because everyone was just coming in and going out.

“It was really just dysfunctional in its form,” he said.

There were a few people who would occasionally go around and check IDs of the people in the building, Hedman said, adding that this “essentially encouraged profiling” and gave people the opportunity to go up to people who they didn’t think were residents.

Hedman and Soraya both noted how the essay-based application process for the building created a sense of elitism.

“There was this vetting process, I think originally the goal was trying to make this a harmonious, diverse, interdisciplinary space where everyone gets along,” Hedman said. “Yes, it was highly multicultural, but it was very much the elites from all over the world.

“They were targeting folks who didn’t have communities or networks here because they came from abroad and could just pay for it. It doesn’t really provide an environment for retention or long community.”

Hedman said he experienced deja vu when he heard about UCSB’s Munger Hall.

“When I first heard about the UCSB building, I was like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh (Munger) has got more money to spend I guess,’ but it’s just the same old story.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com . Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk , @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz . Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook .

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