Packed Like Sardines 🏫

Dorms are crammed areas, but a viral story about a dorm designed to emphasize open areas—with an unusual architect—has me thinking about my own dorm room days.

A dorm room not unlike the one I lived in when I went to Michigan State. (Matt Radick/Flickr)

Back when I was in college (go Spartans), during my final year, my roommate and I decided to build a loft in our dorm room.

For those not familiar, a loft is essentially a wooden frame used to raise the bed far above the surface so that the room area was available for other things, most notably a bunch of computers (our use case). These setups became popular enough that when the furniture was upgraded, the updated versions actually were designed to allow for beds to be raised in a very similar way to the handmade lofts. 

Out of curiosity recently, I measured out the room size, and it was small (about 160 square feet), but it was very functional. We had a window, and the dorm building, if you were to fly over it, looked like a TIE Fighter—an impressive feat, given that the building was first put into use 14 years before the first Star Wars film.

Sure, it wasn’t amazing, but it was a pretty decent size and I never once felt too crammed in my dorm room.

I have to imagine that Charlie Munger would have thought that we were living with way too much space.

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Munger Hall, which tries to fit a lot of students into not a lot of space.

Munger, a longtime investing partner of Warren Buffett, created a storm of criticism last week after an architect resigned from a role at UC Santa Barbara in protest of Munger’s efforts to create a mega-building that appeared to cram students into windowless rooms that had just (per my calculations, as gleamed from a recent presentation of the materials) just 70 square feet of floor space per student, with much of the room given up to communal areas instead.

In place of all the space was a far larger and more complex dormitory building with an emphasis on amenities, such as a massive rooftop courtyard and a gigantic convenience store.

Munger, suddenly in the hot seat for his design, defended it to Bloomberg.

“Everybody loves light and everybody prefers natural light. But it’s a game of tradeoffs,” Munger told Bloomberg. “If you build a big square building, everything is conveniently near to everybody in the building. If you maximize the light, you get fewer people in the building.”

Fast Company noted that the plan has long been controversial—Munger apparently called the lack of windows the project’s “one huge catch” five years ago. But UC Santa Barbara is trying to make room for a whole lot of students in not a lot of space, so the school had come to embrace the design before the recent flare-up.

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There are literally hundreds of tiny rooms on this drawing.

Now, one could argue that the design of this dorm is not that big a deal. After all, tiny hotels in NYC have gained a degree of popularity in part because people don’t really do much in them besides sleep. And college dorms play something of a similar role—you’re not getting the most out of a college experience if you’re staying in the dorm room all day.

If you do the math, the rooms are only 10 less square feet, per person, than the dorm room I called my home two decades ago. On paper, it doesn’t seem like you’re losing much.

But this feels like a case where someone with a pet interest was given carte blanche because he had a lot of money, and despite Munger’s work building other dorms (including at my sworn enemy, the University of Michigan), it sounds like a professional architect was right to sound the alarm.

Also, if you’re a college student in the dorms, build a loft one year. You won’t regret it … as long as your structure is up to code.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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