OK, let’s talk about the Squid Game Dorm.
Architecture Twitter has been ablaze this week with news that billionaire Charlie Munger has solved UCSB’s housing crunch with a proposal for a 1.68 million square foot largely windowless dormitory that will house 4096 students and that he, wait for it, designed himself. The campus’ Chancellor called it “inspired and revolutionary.” An architect on the University’s design review committee resigned in protest.
Plans and renderings leaked out, and after the predictable reaction from architects, housing specialists, and ordinary people who like daylight and fresh air, Munger (Warren Buffett’s partner in Berkshire Hathaway) responded with a blistering interview published yesterday in Architectural Record. And it’s…something. Corbusier’s iconic Unite d’Habitation, he said, was the inspiration for the warehouse-like approach. But Corbusier’s building was “too narrow to make the spaces interesting. So the whole thing didn’t work worth sh*t. I’ve fixed that. We took Corbusier’s errors and the errors in university housing and eliminated them one by one.”
It has been pointed out that the Unite, like most housing, was subject to code regulations about light and air. Most cities have requirements that all living spaces have direct access to natural daylight and ventilation–which explains the walls in many apartment conversions that don’t go all the way to the ceiling, “borrowing” light and air from adjacent, windowed spaces. Technically, you could argue that these are outdated. They’re mostly from an era of tenement reform, when cities were finally cracking down on landlords who carved existing buildings into dangerous rat’s warrens of corridors and dark rooms that were fire hazards as well as being genuine public health problems–stale, unmoving air in crowded apartments during an era when tuberculosis was rampant was a recipe for contagion.
Dirty little secret: many state universities are actually exempt from local building codes since municipalities generally can’t override state regulations. Instead, campus buildings are often subject to less stringent state codes. So even if Santa Barbara does have light and air requirements, the University may not have to follow them. There’s still plenty of good research that shows correlations between connections with outside and mental health–of particular concern among college students these days. Munger’s response? “We want to keep the suicide rate low.”
So, that’s OK then.
Still, some have wondered, isn’t this a firetrap? Those long corridors, and, according to initial press reports, only two entrance doors? Well, eyeballing the plans, it looks like this would be code-legal. The two general principles of life safety are providing two exits from significantly occupied spaces (often portion of a building occupied by more than fifty people) and having exits or protected fire stairs no more than 300 feet from any space (in a building with sprinklers–much less in one without). Munger’s plan divides the floors into eight “houses” of eight suites, each with eight rooms (I have a suspicion there’s some amateur numerology at work here, but that’s for another post…). Each suite can exit in two directions through the long E/W corridors, which feed into the common rooms on the exterior and the “Main Building Corridor” in the center. Fire stairs in both locations lead to exit doors that open directly outside.
Code legal? Quite possibly. But there’s meeting the code, and then there’s good life safety design. Panicking humans are notoriously bad at finding exits, even clearly-marked, logically-placed ones. In general, we try to spread fire stairs out so that they’re at the extreme corners of a building so that once you’ve blindly run as far as you can, you’re taken care of. The stairs in the center corridor do that, but the ones on the exterior leave large open spaces in the common room that you can imagine filling up with confused, panicking students. But, OK, let’s give Munger that one. If he can sleep at night knowing that the fire exiting strategy meets minimum standards, great.
What I haven’t seen any analysis on, though, is the other big circulation oncern in multi-story buildings. This “monster” would have 4,096 bedrooms/occupants. All of them would be college students, getting up and going to class at more or less the same time every morning. How do eight floors of students, all rushing to class, get out of the building?
Hotel design has a well-known standard for elevator provisions–one cab for every 75-80 rooms. That’s for a building full of people on vacation, getting up at various times during the day, or a very gentle “peak load.” The number of cabs is the driving factor in wait and trip time. What slows elevators down are trips with multiple stops, since the time it takes for doors to open, passengers to embark or disembark, and doors to close is fixed, and usually more than the travel time from floor to floor. More cabs mean more single trips, which means more efficient operations in terms of wait time. What’s an acceptable wait time? Studies have shown that for Americans, 45 seconds is intolerably long to wait for an elevator.
That provision is confirmed by a rabbit hole I went down doing the latest skyscraper research. The social failure of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes was often blamed, at least in part, on their incredibly sparse elevator provisioning. Originally designed with three shafts for each tower of 450 bedrooms, that was cut at the last minute to just two, which led to wait times of up to five minutes–when both were actually working. Residents heading out–often with cash on them to go shopping–became easy targets for muggers and, eventually, gangs. That ratio, of 225 bedrooms to one elevator, was nearly three times that of typical Lake Shore Drive apartment towers, which had a hotel-like 80-85 bedrooms for every cab.
Munger Hall? Well, the plan above shows 12 elevators, which makes for a bedroom/cab ratio of 341:1, more than 50% greater than the failed Taylor Homes and suggesting wait times of 7-1/2 minutes under normal circumstances. Add the morning class rush and that could be even higher.
The punch line? Munger proposes a full-fledged shopping center on the dorm’s top floor–Costco and all. Retail populations are typically spread out during the day, but they’d add to that already unprecedented elevator load. Worse, if you look closely you can see that two of those twelve elevators are actually larger–the only freight elevators in the complex. I’m not clear on how trucks would unload their palettes of 5-gallon Costco mayonnaise barrels into those, but having to haul a full shopping center’s worth of freight up a single pair of what look like Class-A elevators would take a good couple of hours. Multiply that by a full complement of stores and those two would be in use all day during the week, leaving students and customers to just the ten regular passenger elevators.
There’s a good reason that we put retail and entertainment facilities on ground floors–it takes a lot of elevator capacity to move crowds and freight up in the air. Munger may well be correct in his opinion that “architects don’t know sh*t,” but at least a few of us have been in that meeting with an elevator consultant where the physics of vertical transportation and the impatient emotional DNA that underlies the typical American passenger collide…