Cafeteria Tables

Athens is a small city on the banks of the Hocking River in Southeast Ohio that is nationally known for being the home of Ohio University. About eight miles from Ohio University is Athens High School, which has gained recognition of its own for the excellence of a major renovation project.

The 33-year-old high school has gained a new identity with the construction of a 10,800-sq.-ft. addition that went into service during the last school year. The renovation features a new 7,100-sq.-ft. cafeteria and food-serving area which adjoins a new atrium-style student commons. The cafeteria is designed and furnished to create an inviting food court -- an environment accepted so enthusiastically by the students that they wrote essays and even a poem about the furnishings!

The students’ enthusiasm for their cafeteria reflects the objectives of the project architect, Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., of Dublin, Ohio, and the associate architect, RVC Architects Inc., of Athens. Their mission was to give the school a new overall feeling and identity that builds community pride, while improving food service capability and adding instructional space (the renovation also involved new classrooms, laboratory remodeling, improvements in auditorium and athletic facilities, and building equipment upgrades).

Adding Space Is Design Challenge

Adding space was a primary design challenge, according to Everett Musser, Fanning/Howey owner-in-charge. The existing structure used almost all of the building pad space allotted on the hilltop site. Rather than expand outward, architects needed to creatively divide existing open areas within the building. An unused exterior courtyard became the new cafeteria; the former cafeteria became the food-serving area plus some of the new classrooms; a former serving area and conference room became the student commons.

The new cafeteria provides seating for 400 diners, up from 250 in the former facility. The increased seating allows the school to feed its 1,100 students in three shifts and close a separate lounge previously provided for seniors. The added capacity helps the school to feed its student body within an 11:10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. time frame. It also helps the school to continue to keep its growing enrollment on campus during the lunch period. And, the efficiency of a new kitchen/food serving operation eliminates the reliance on vendor-supplied hot food.

The new cafeteria is popular among students because of it’s open design and the round or oval tables, rather than conventional rectangular models. The cafeteria is furnished with oval tables that are placed in alignment with accent diamonds on the tile floor. The oval tables in offset alignment create an informal food court setting — much more visually appealing and inviting than the institutional appearance of rectangular tables in perfect rows.

Tables Encourage Conversation

The oval tables tend to encourage conversation and improve communication while reducing noise. With the students seated in a circular pattern, everyone at a table can participate in conversation without raising their voices. The former rectangular tables forced students to shout to be heard from one end of a table to the other.

When I invited students to critique the new cafeteria, every essay writer emphasized the furnishings’ role in facilitating student interaction and creating a quieter atmosphere. One student credited the tables with fostering“a greater sense of community;” others cited the cafeteria’s“more relaxing environment” and “more calm, intellectually stimulating” atmosphere.” Another writer said that he had made new friends and gained an algebra tutor as a result of the conversational capability.

Each Table Accommodates 10 Students

The cafeteria is furnished with 40 oval-shaped folding tables designed by BioFit Engineered Products. Each has 10 attached round seats. The table surface measures approximately six feet in diameter (61 in. by 72 in.) and easily accommodates 10 standard cafeteria trays. The result is more open space because fewer tables are needed (most other tables available seat eight, which would have required 10 more tables.)

Despite their size, the folding tables are easy for one custodian to set up, move and take down. One custodian can quickly roll the tables aside after lunch to clean and buff the floor. The old rectangular tables required handling by two custodians.

School Colors Are Part of Design

The green colors of the tabletops and gold attached one-piece plastic seats reflect Athens High School colors (green and gold). The architect also employs the “school green” in the border of the cafeteria’s white tile floor, the floor’s accent diamonds and multicolor spatter paint on interior walls.

The food court design and furnishings are enhanced by the cafeteria’s openness, use of natural light and visual link to the outdoors. The cafeteria features a curved window wall, 70 ft. wide by 12 ft. high, that brings a view of surrounding woodlands into dining space.

The school’s new identity has won praise from visiting educators, the school’s faculty and staff, parents and the community, and, probably most importantly, from the students themselves. As stated simply but effectively in one student’s essay, Athens High School is a place “in which one enjoys spending time.”

MIKE MEEK Meek is principal of Athens High School in Athens, Ohio.