Build a dorm where 94% of the bedrooms have no windows in order to encourage more activity in common areas

The construction of college dorms not not typically attract national attention but an unusual plan at the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara and the architect who quit in protest did make the news:

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Billionaire Charlie Munger is bankrolling the design of a massive dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The $1.5 billion project comes with a major catch — 94% of the dorm’s single occupancy rooms are in the interior of the building, and have no windows.

A consulting architect on the university’s Design Review Committee quit in protest of the project, in a resignation letter obtained by CNN Business and reported by the Santa Barbara Independent…

Munger, the 97-year-old vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, donated $200 million to UCSB to fund the dorms, with the caveat that his designs are followed. He wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students…

The rooms do have artificial windows, however, which Munger said resemble the Disney cruise ship’s artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

The debate between Munger and the architect seems to come down to differing opinions on what the optimal residential experience is. Munger hopes that no windows would help students leave their rooms. The architect wants students to have access to natural light. Architecture often has ideas about how people in spaces should operate based on the physical surroundings. As my sociologist colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith, religious buildings are also built with specific experiences and behaviors in mind.

Three other factors connected to larger trends are interesting here:

  1. From what I have read, the demand for single-person rooms has increased at colleges. This provides students more private space. But, this may limit sociability and it could increase costs for everyone because more space is needed.
  2. I wonder what role smartphones play in all of this. Even with a window, smartphone use is pretty pervasive. Even with smartphone use, natural light and seeing the outside world has benefits.
  3. People with money and influence sometimes want to translate that status into physical buildings. If you have big money, you can help plan a significant building or attach your name to it. It would be interesting to see how long Munger’s name would continue to be attached to this particular building.

See an earlier post on spending a lot of time in windowless rooms.

Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.

Most of the American built environment is not designed

Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in Welcome to Your World that despite what we know about the importance of the built environment, few American environments are designed:

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Most of what we see from our windows or in our surroundings has been constructed, but it was not really designed in any but a rudimentary sense of the word. In the United States, 85 percent of new construction – whether it is a new bridge, an urban park, a housing development, or a school addition – is realized at the hands of construction firms collaborating with real estate developers or other private clients. Many of these buildings bypass designers (a catchall term for professionals involved in designing the built environment, including architects, landscape architects, interior architects, urban designers, city planners, civil engineers, and other sorts of civil servants) completely, or employ them only cursorily, to review and stamp their approval on drawings… (xxi)

Why is this the case?

In the United States and in most other parts of the world today, many people believe that engaging a highly trained design professional is an unnecessary expense. True, wealthy individuals and corporations with plenty of assets do buy design to add beauty or prestige, and public and private institutions aspiring to serve as cultural stewards hire trained, informed professionals for complex structures such as skyscrapers. But this is not the norm.

The reason aside from financial considerations is that most projects in the built environment are commissioned on the basis of and judged by two complementary standards. Safety first: building codes and legislation and inspectors enforce standards that ensure that our bridges and buildings and parks and cityscapes will withstand gravity and wind, will weather the vicissitudes of climate and the ravages of time, and that their smaller features, such as electrical systems and stairways ,will not shock or trip people up. Function next: people expect projects to serve an institution’s or private individual’s daily needs both effectively and efficiently, which often means with as little expenditure of resources – space, time, money – as possible. (xxii)

In other words, design and beauty and their effects on people and their interactions are not considered as much as they should be. An emphasis on safety, initial cost, and function shortchanges what the built environment could offer in the long run. Thus, Americans often get uninspiring buildings and places.

This reminds me of three similar arguments:

  1. James Howard Kunstler makes a similar argument about the American suburbs. Why would people care about such places that offer so little in terms of the built environment?
  2. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that public buildings and spaces could offer much to enhance community life if they were built with design and people in mind. For example, schools and libraries could be true gathering places that bring people together.
  3. Architect Sarah Susanka argues Americans do not need bigger homes but rather homes that are designed for them and that will enhance their life. Instead, the homes that Americans get – not designed by architects – are lifeless boxes.

Given the social forces at work leading to this, it would take substantial effort to have Americans value and employ better built environments.

Rare McMansion mention on HGTV

For a network focused on single-family homes, the term McMansion is rarely uttered on HGTV. Here is one example I ran into a few weeks back on My Lottery Dream Home:

On the top left of the image, you can faintly see some of the narration over the image: “Willow Park Way that almost looked like a McMansion.”

Almost a McMansion. The exterior here has some interesting features that might place it in McMansion territory: multiple roof lines, interesting window placement, a large house, in a sprawling Texas community.

Even as the couple did not select this home at the end, it is interesting the term was applied to this home and not the others which also could have been viewed as McMansions. Present a large suburban home with a front meant to impress yet some questionable architectural choices and McMansions may just come to mind.

Why the term McMansion is not used much on HGTV is probably very straight forward: it is not a positive term and does not connote the kind of quality of home the network would like to depict. Whether the McMansion is too large, a teardown, aesthetically unappealing, or connected to sprawl or excessive consumption, few people would likely loudly say they like such a home or live in such a dwelling.

At the same time, this episode was set in suburban Texas where housing tastes are different than in more sophisticated markets. In my comparison of the use of the word McMansion in the New York and Dallas regions, there was more openness in Dallas to such homes and what they represent. Surely, some McMansion dwellers and afficionados watch HGTV and they might be in markets where McMansions are not so disliked.

I will keep checking for more mentions of McMansions on HGTV. As I do, I am much more likely to hear terms like mid-century modern or country farmhouse much more than the term McMansion.

What is the acceptable amount of neighborhood or community change for current residents?

A look at possible ways to provide more housing in Los Angeles runs into a problem common to many communities in the United States: how much change is allowed?

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What’s missing? The low-rise, multifamily housing that the city banned in the 1970s and ’80s. Which is why Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. “There’s a narrative in L.A., as in many cities, that neighborhoods are changing too fast; but in reality, L.A. is changing less rapidly than at any point in its history,” Hawthorne told me. A former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times (and for this magazine), he plans to use these designs to win hearts and minds in the community forums where upzoning goes to die.

The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space. In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.

Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.

There are multiple layers of issues present in these three paragraphs. Here are a few of the issues as I see them:

  1. There is a continuum of change within a neighborhood ranging from frozen in time for decades to immediate massive change in a relatively short amount of time (perhaps in urban renewal style after World War Two). All communities change to some degree but this is affected by time, demographics, and other factors. I wonder how effective it is, as above, to note the relative lack of change to people in a neighborhood who might perceive it differently. I cannot quantify it but I would guess there are plenty of people who move into a location and expect it not to change (or only change in ways that they approve).
  2. The change in character, often equated with adding anything different to single-family homes of the same kind, is hard to combat. Perhaps more people see the need for more housing but how many want it on their block or immediate area as opposed to somewhere else in the city?
  3. I agree that design can help ameliorate these issues. It might be worthwhile to build one of these options with no one’s knowledge and then see who notices. There are ways to construct affordable or even subsidized housing in ways that do raise the attention of nearby residents who might otherwise oppose any efforts to have cheaper housing.
  4. How much would local politicians push for these changes as opposed to representing the existing residential interests? This could matter less if local politicians are at-large representatives but this would also raise the ire of particular neighborhoods.
  5. Neighborhoods with more resources – higher-income residents , people with more connections to politicians and community groups – may be able to slow down or delay possible change more than others. And if the new housing might bring in people not like them, the race/class/”others” issues could be more at play than any actual debate about housing options.

How much change in a neighborhood or character change is desirable? It could vary from community to community and depend on numerous factors.

The Robert ruins in Gallery 218

The Art Institute of Chicago recently featured on social media a painting by Hubert Robert:

Among the many worthwhile works on the second floor of the Art Institute are these four works in one room. I have always enjoyed them. Building off yesterday’s post about how today’s buildings could become tomorrow’s fossils, these paintings romanticize ruins from past civilizations. Imagine walking through such structures. There may have been centuries when people could wander through such ruins in Rome, Greece, Egypt, and more. Today, such a site would be hard to find as many ruins are swarming with tourists.

What always impressed me about these paintings was the scale of the buildings. As the social media post notes, the people at the bottom are very small. The buildings are massive and impressive. They connote great civilization and activity. Imagine this building above with a full vaulted ceiling and full of people. The buildings have lived on even as the individual leaders and residents changed.

The Diderot quote above is an interesting one. These buildings are falling apart and time will conquer them. At some point, the pillars will fall, the arches will be no more, and the scene will look very different. But, rulers and leaders construct such buildings in the first place so that the structures outlive them. They will not last forever, but even as ruins or remains in the ground they can still attest to a past era.

Starchitect Jahn’s buildings in the Chicago suburbs

World famous architect Helmut Jahn died over the weekend. He built iconic buildings in major global cities and several notable buildings in the western suburbs of Chicago.

A native of Germany, Jahn won international recognition and awards for projects around the globe, including United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport, the former Citigroup Center (the main entrance to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center) in Chicago, and the Sony Center in Berlin.

Besides MetroWest in Naperville, his suburban work includes the Oakbrook Terrace Tower in Oakbrook Terrace.

Here are images of the two buildings referenced:

Both buildings are interesting structures to see in their suburban settings. They would not be out of place in a major city. They are full of steel and glass. They have sharp angles. They can be seen from a distance and are of a height beyond most suburban buildings.

But, they also stick out. They are right next to major highways. They are not surrounded by other tall buildings; the size of the Oakbrook Terrace Tower is particularly notable. Instead, they are surrounded by parking lots and smaller suburban office parks. They are in the suburbs but they are not of the suburbs; few residents would want these structures anywhere near their single-family homes.

In other words, a starchitect can build in the suburbs. In many parts of the United States, they are growing and a majority of Americans live in suburban settings. Interesting buildings help add to the status of certain suburbs as job centers. Yet, the interesting buildings by a famous architect can only go so far in sprawling settings: they do not really fit in even as they provide something different to view at 70 miles per hour.

Spending significant time in windowless rooms

As the days lengthen and the sun and warmer weather is more common at this time of year, I recently thought about the time I have spent in windowless rooms. Three instances came to mind:

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-I worked for years at WETN, the radio station at Wheaton College, which was located in the middle of the basement of the Billy Graham Center. Outside of the ends of the basement which open into parking lots, there are no windows in any of the rooms along this long basement. Going into the studios for hours at a time, putting on headphones, and working with audio software left little time for thinking about natural light. However, when I would emerge from the building, the contrast was jarring, whether I had entered on a winter afternoon and came out for dinner at 5 PM and it was dark or entered on a sunny Sunday morning and came out five hours later. (The studios had large windows between them but this just offered a view of a hallway with florescent lights.)

-For a trip to London, we ended up booking several hotel nights in a windowless room. This cost us less than a room with windows – we could have paid more for this luxury – and we had limited options for hotels due to a busy time of the year. On one hand, we were not planning to spend much time in a hotel while on vacation. How much time do people stare out the window while on vacation in a city? On the other hand, it was strange to return to and wake up in a windowless place.

-During college, I lived in our basement when at home for summer and breaks. I had a little natural light from two window wells but not much and I was often gone during the day at work. I think I noticed the temperature difference more than the lack of light; the cool setting was much appreciated during the summer. Of course, I could go upstairs when needed to get light.

Perhaps this is not actually that much time in windowless spaces. Many offices or dwellings likely have rooms with no windows. I have been in such spaces for temporary situations and my current dwelling and office have plenty of windows.

I can see how many people find natural light necessary. Should it be required in all dwellings? While I can survive in spaces without it, it makes a big difference to have natural light. I would prefer to have natural light than use artificial light, particularly the whiter institutional light.

Reconsidering the need for faculty offices after COVID-19

With more faculty and college instructors working from off-campus during COVID-19, does this mean faculty offices can be done away with in the future?

Many campus planners have long advocated for fewer traditional, individual, closed-door offices, and more shared workspaces for faculty and staff members, like what many private companies have. The idea is that open, common work rooms will foster collaboration and make instructors more visible and less intimidating to students. A few phone rooms, meeting rooms, and lockers could serve for whenever somebody needed quiet, privacy, and somewhere to store belongings.

Having fewer private offices could also save on heating and electricity costs. On average, 19 percent of campuses’ indoor square footage is dedicated to offices, according to a 2007 survey (the latest available) of 276 institutions that are members of the Society for College and University Planning. (Only housing, at 20 percent, commands a larger area.) Using that much space more efficiently could make a big difference to a college’s bottom line.

Especially if faculty and staff members will continue to work from home more often, leaving their desks unoccupied some days of the week, colleges could save by having people who come in on different days share the same private office. As Paul Dale, president of Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz. put it, it’s a way of fitting “30 pounds of potatoes in a 20-pound bag.”

Faculty members accustomed to their own offices can be loath to give them up, however. Private faculty-office space is a marker of accomplishment and prestige, said Luanne Greene, president of Ayers Saint Gross. Sometimes it’s even written into tenure contracts. But with the pandemic-driven increase in working from home, Greene and her team have seen a shift.

These arguments mirror those from corporate world where the open office emerged in recent decades: efficiencies in how space is used plus possibilities for collaboration and quick interactions. Yet, open offices are not embraced by all workers.

From my own studies of spaces plus my experiences as a faculty member, here are at least a few reasons why offices are valuable:

  1. A sense of space that is yours. College classrooms are often impersonal, spaces meant to be used by instructors from a variety of disciplines. They contain the tools necessary for teaching and learning – projectors, computers, whiteboards, desks or tables plus seating, etc. – but they often have little character. In contrast, offices are spaces where instructors can customize their surroundings to fit their personality and their needs for work (conversations, study, writing, etc.).
  2. A permanent place to store books and other materials. An open work space has little room for this and the assumption may be that we are living in a paperless world. This is not true for many scholars.
  3. A place of solitude that is conducive to the kind of creativity and study that scholars need to do. Putting on headphones in a busy area or working from home may not be able to approximate the way that an office can provide the solitary setting that is often needed.

Of course, not all college instructors might see this the same way. But, as the article notes, faculty would have concerns. And the solution presented at the end of this section – smaller individual offices with more space that could shared by all – is an intriguing compromise for settings and instructors where that collaborative space would be valued.

What the architecture of City Hall communicates

A new book titled City Hall looks at the design of city hall across American communities:

“Our democratic heritage goes back to ancient Greece, and so it stands to reason that when America was born, so to speak, in the late 18th century, municipal buildings referred to the Greco-Roman architecture, with the pillars and pediments and cornices,” he says. But as the country matured, different forms of architecture began to emerge. “Then it becomes, ‘Do we still embrace the neoclassical style architecture, or do we start embracing our own time?’” he adds. (That argument more recently played out at the federal level, when former President Donald Trump tried to make neoclassical architecture the default style for all national buildings in his controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” effort.)…

In many of these examples, governments used their city halls to express civic pride, and to be “at the forefront of progressive building technologies and changing architectural styles,” architectural historian Thomas Mellins writes at the beginning of Drooker’s book…

Regardless of the architecture, there is a recognition among mayors and architects that municipal buildings are ultimately places for the people, and that the designs need to convey a message of approachability. In San Jose’s new city hall, which opened in 2005, Richard Meier’s postmodern design made extensive use of glass, making a statement about government transparency as well as energy efficiency. The building’s unusual three-part structure emphasized that theme: There’s the rotunda and the city council chamber, and in between them at the heart of the complex is an open plaza that then-mayor Ron Gonzales and his administration wanted toserve as the “people’s living room.”

Public or civic buildings present a unique opportunity to highlight particular values and create public space to be used and enjoyed. This can be done in a variety of architectural styles or forms, affected by trends in architecture, regional differences, the size of the community, the resources available, and more.

This reminds me of James Howard Kunstler’s critique of Boston’s City Hall, a building designed by noted architect I. M. Pei. Kunstler argues that the space is not inviting and not a worthy public space. The Brutalist architecture does not necessarily invoke warm fuzzies about local government.

In contrast, many suburban communities opt for modest city halls in either more traditional styles or simpler postwar forms. Many suburbanites like the idea of smaller local governments and the suburban structures can highlight tradition and/or efficiency.

West Chicago City Hall depicted on Google Street View.

Part of the approachability of these a city hall or civic building involves how well they fit with the surrounding landscape. A Brutalist building could be more approachable with lush greenery around it. A plain suburban city hall could be more inviting if it did not sit behind a large parking lot. More broadly, American communities would benefit from inviting public spaces that are connected to civic buildings.