What Students Want

“In today’s competitive higher education market, creating an environment that is attractive to students is a big recruitment tool,” says Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED-AP, principal with Overland Partners Architects in San Antonio. “Plus, students pay for their environment through tuition, student activity fees, and other charges, so student engagement throughout the design process is critical.”

Here are four brand-new food service projects that demonstrate what can be accomplished when students are involved in the design process, as well as how the space benefits the entire campus community.

Mund Student Center, Lebanon Valley College
Administrators at Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, PA, collaborated with Bethlehem, PA-based Spillman Farmer Architects and Dallas, PA-based Metz Culinary Management (Metz) to renovate the Mund Student Center, which consists of 500-seat Mund Dining Hall and the bookstore.

“We held forums and asked students what they wanted,” says Bill Allman, Metz general manager. “Students were chosen for committees and helped in the decision-making process.” Administrators learned that students wanted a modern, attractive dining space with a variety of fresh food options. The students went as far as deciding the colors that are vibrant and full of energy for the floors, walls, countertops, tables, chairs, and more.

“We transformed our institutional cafeteria into an inviting food court with eight unique dining stations focusing on freshness,” says Allman. “We did this by introduction and production of much of our food at the point of service.”

In terms of meeting the needs of the entire campus population, Allman notes that student engagement is one of the college’s strengths and now the dining program exemplifies this just as much as any department on campus. “Furthermore, the dining program supports our core values by bringing our community together for social exchange,” he says. “We are seeing more and more faculty, staff, and administration dining with us.”

Dining Hall, North Georgia College & State University

Student representation was included when principals from Atlanta-based Lord, Aeck & Sargent met with campus representatives at North Georgia College & State University to get input for the new Dining Hall. Determined by a master planner, the setting is a prominent site, allowing the Dining Hall to become the center of the campus.

“It was important to bring the dining experience up to more competitive standards,” says architect Joe Greco, AIA, LEED-AP. “We worked with Aramark, the on-campus food provider, to develop different fresh food stations.” Specifically, the project includes a modified version of the fresh food concept with the back-of-house supporting a number of “cooked to order” food stations, plus there are separate salad, brick-oven pizza, and Asian grill satellite stations.

The tight site needed to seat 900, plus include a ballroom and president’s dining room. This was accomplished with two levels. “Students enter at the upper level on the roof terrace into one of two dining pavilions,” says Greco. “This pavilion serves café-style food, which is different from the choices found downstairs.” The roof terrace boasts a view of the mountains beyond. Students can take the open stairs to the lower level, which includes a panoramic view of the historic drill field and mountains beyond.

Not surprisingly, the facility benefits the entire campus community, but more importantly, Greco says that it is experiencing a good deal of community use. “It has had a transformative effect on the community as a whole,” he notes. “Alumni and townspeople are gathering there.”

Union South, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Eleven workshops; 32 focus groups, advisory groups, user groups, and committees totaling more than 400 students, faculty, staff, and alumni; and three campus-wide surveys of the entire University population resulted in the design of the Union South building at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“What students wanted was a community gathering spot that had freshly prepared, non-branded food venues,” says Kathleen Seelye, managing partner, Ricca Newmark Design, Denver. “They wanted the program to center around the Madison community and some of the campus’ internal brands. For example, the University has its own brand of ice cream, made on campus and which is very popular.”

As a result, the facility features six “destination” restaurants throughout, offering individual dynamic dining concepts, including recreation, entertainment, leisure, technology, ecology, and even a three-story climbing wall.

When students enter Union South’s main lobby they experience the warmth of a campus living room, filled with bright, soft seating flanked by two massive stone fireplaces. From the lobby, the restaurants lie along an interior streetscape that acts as the building’s circulation spine.

“The University of Wisconsin has two campus centers,” says Seelye. “The other is the longstanding Memorial Union, which serves a different academic neighborhood and has been a community gathering spot for years. Union South is designed to create the same sense of community and serve as a memory builder.”

Union South’s warm environment encourages people throughout the campus community to meet there before proceeding to another venue, such as a sporting event.

Student Activity Center, University of Texas
The Student Activity Center (SAC), at the University of Texas campus in Austin, was designed with extensive student input and design workshops. Regarding food service specifically, students wanted variety, healthy options, and to the extent it was available, local food. The end result is a food court and coffee bar that sit adjacent to an outdoor gathering space.

Rick Archer, FAIA, LEED-AP, principal with San Antonio-based Overland Partners, believes the students were more interested in the dining experience than the food options. “They wanted a place that was open and light-filled,” he says. “They wanted outdoor seating. And they wanted the dining area to facilitate seeing others and being seen by others.” A staircase facilitates that interaction, with a raised dining area looking down on another dining area.

“It was also important to the students that the space be adaptable,” says Archer. “They wanted to be able reconfigure tables and chairs for small breakfast study groups or for individual study.” As a result, students are able to take food everywhere throughout the building, including an indoor amphitheater where they sit on pillows, the roof terrace, and other nooks and crannies.

The Student Activity Center benefits the entire campus community in a number of ways. For example, campus tours now begin there, and the Development staff meets there. “Donors like to see students actively engaged,” says Archer, “and there’s no other place on campus where that happens more than at the Student Activity Center.”

“Many administrators are afraid to engage students in the design process,” says Archer, “because they don’t know what students will say. They feel that, by involving the students, they will relinquish some project control.”

As these four food service projects demonstrate, what administrators truly realize is projects that pay for themselves through student usage and recruitment. They also realize these spaces benefit the entire campus community in ways they could not have imagined.