Munger Hall planning entailed discreet warehouse, covert furniture exchanges, years of secrecy

High-ranking campus executives and two companies worked to make the dorm a reality, stressing confidentiality along the way

Inside the mock-up. Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

May 25, 2023 at 2:00 pm

Brian Graham, UC Santa Barbara’s director of Residential Operations, needed help with retrieving “San Joaquin style” bedroom furniture from a university-owned warehouse at 389 South Los Carneros Rd.

In an email dated Oct. 19, 2018, he asked UCSB Materials and Logistics Manager Bradley Gray to facilitate the return of the furniture to its original location, drop off four twin XL mattresses at the warehouse and to keep the entire exchange “confidential.”

The secret Graham sought to protect was the warehouse’s true purpose: a billionaire-bankrolled testbed for the massive, largely windowless student dormitory UCSB plans to build in concert with its namesake donor, Charles Munger.

The project was met with an onslaught of public and private backlash surrounding its design and remains unpopular with most students. Both before and after its announcement, the goings-on behind Munger Hall have largely been shrouded in secrecy, even as the project garnered national attention.

The Nexus uncovered the location of the warehouse in 2022, but recently obtained hundreds of pages of documents and internal communications via the California Public Records Act yielded the clearest picture yet of the inner workings of the Munger Hall project team.

The documents reveal which campus leaders lend their involvement to the project, the relationship between UCSB and private companies aiding in the secretive work and a more transparent timeline of events.

The series of emails between Graham and Gray in the fall of 2018 are the earliest provided, showing that UCSB covertly tested various housing designs at the warehouse even at a time when the involvement of Munger and his team were minimal.

That changed in the summer of 2019; business discussions between the campus and Munger reached a breakthrough, leading the billionaire to give the go-ahead to his engineers and designers to undertake development work on the project, UCSB’s Budget and Planning Executive Director Martin Shumaker announced in a June 3, 2019, email.

“The project is not yet approved and still is very confidential, but it is a promising sign,” Shumaker said in the email.

While Shumaker and a few others sit on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Housing, most members are not a part of the Munger Hall mock-up undertaking, nor are they CC’d on any of the surrounding discussions, per the hundreds of emails the Nexus reviewed.

The executive director is part of a small band of people who have been directly involved in the project, along with around 20 other high-ranking campus directors, vice chancellors, analysts and directors across various campus departments, the documents show.

Two private companies are also deeply involved in the project: LIGHTGLASS — a company that specializes in creating lighting fixtures and artificial windows — and Prudential Lighting Products SoCal (PLP) — a sales agency for lighting and furnishing companies whose relationship with the campus predates operations at the mock-up warehouse.

PLP is central in maintaining the functioning of the mock-up’s artificial windows that are created by LIGHTGLASS, with PLP’s Controls Services and Sales Manager Nicholas Vernes making trips to the mock-up to ensure their functionality.

When the mock-up’s virtual windows ran into trouble regarding its circadian sequence in fall 2022, the disruption so concerned PLP’s David Relyea that it kept him up at night, he wrote in an email dated Nov. 17, 2022.

Vernes spent days prepping a fix to the window’s programming, installing an on-site repair on Nov. 21. By December, the artificial window was once again “performing flawlessly,” UCSB Design, Facilities & Safety Services Project Manager Ulysses McKeown said in a Dec. 2 email. He emphasized that “having a functional virtual window is a high priority for us.”

A week later, PLP and LIGHTGLASS employees, alongside members of the project team, attended a special luncheon at the mock-up, with LIGHTGLASS’s owner flying in from Philadelphia for the Dec. 9 event.

The yearslong collaboration between the two companies and UCSB has gone unreported until now. The mock-up itself — housed in the warehouse bought by UCSB in 2013 to facilitate the construction of now-scrapped traditional housing — remained secret for years before the Nexus uncovered its existence in 2021 and its location in 2022.

In an Aug. 1, 2022, email, Design, Facilities & Safety Services Project Analyst Cameron Guiliano-Puzi informed colleagues of “break-ins” at the mock-up, supplying details in an attachment that was not accessible in the documents obtained by the Nexus.

“Interesting,” Gene Lucas wrote in a followup email. “Looks like they were just snooping around.”

Lucas — who retired as UCSB’s Executive Vice Chancellor in 2013 — returned to the campus to continually assist in the development of the mock-up, although his official role is unclear. UCSB only lists him as a professor emeritus.

While the warehouse is now home to a slew of modern amenities, it was originally a product of General Electric subsidiary Delco Electronics, which first assembled the warehouse in the ’60s to house a different secretive undertaking: assisting in the development of the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Inside the 850-foot-long warehouse, a hypervelocity light gas gun launched small mock-nuclear warheads at three miles per second, simulating the conditions real warheads may face when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Delco also bulldozed much of the surrounding area to install terrain meant to simulate the surface of the Moon as it developed and tested the rovers that eventually launched with the Apollo missions.

Today, the warehouse — separated from the main campus by a fish and wildlife preserve — is home to full scale hallways, a dining area, a windowless bedroom and an artificial balcony. Central to the planning is Munger’s architecture firm of choice, Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, which had extensive input in the mock-up’s layout and furnishings.

After around five years of development, much of what is built is believed to be outdated as the project team awaits word of what changes are to be made to the dorm’s design.

Staff, some student groups and UCSB Public Affairs & Communications interns toured the mock-up before the campus opened it to general student tours.

Prior to the campus’s unveiling of the mock-up to the public, project team members lengthily discussed what survey questions they would pose to visitors to gauge approval, the emails obtained by the Nexus show. They also debated on whether or not to even survey attendees for fear that opponents of the dorm would engage in foul play to further their cause.

UCSB Space Planning and Management Director Andy Satomi, in a March 2, 2o22, email to Lucas, said that surveys were being considered but that there was “concern about these being gamed by the opposition.”

Surveys ultimately administered to attendees showed their favorability of the dorm rose after seeing it in person, but artificial windows remained their No. 1 gripe, with over 70% disapproval. In the latest batch of responses dated Aug. 2022, most survey respondents raised concerns about the windowless nature of Munger Hall.

“I reject Munger Hall sheerly for the inhumane density of the building, and the many implications that come alongside that,” one survey respondent wrote. “While I am all for dense housing, full access to sunlight, space, fresh air, and a safe means to escape the building are essential, and no amount of genuinely great amenities will change that.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the May 25, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Mark Alfred
Mark Alfred (he/him) was the University News Editor for the 2022-23 school year.