Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Food For Thought

dining facilities

In the last 10 years, schools across the country have flipped their classrooms. They have reimagined media centers. They have brought science labs into the next generation. But has this education revolution reached the cafeteria? The answer, often, is no.

In a time when academic expectations are growing and budgets are shrinking, it is crucial to make every environment a learning environment. By bringing new educational opportunities to your dining spaces, you will reach greater heights of efficiency and achievement.

Think Big

Whether you are renovating a cafeteria or planning for new construction, it is important to be aspirational. How will you create dining spaces that provide students with new learning opportunities? What will students rave about when the project is done? How will your cafeteria support student activities before, during and after school? Questions like these will ground your project in a solid conceptual foundation, no matter what the size or scope.

When designing a new construction project, look for ways to enhance the impact of the cafeteria on the overall school. For new construction projects, consider locating the cafeteria in the heart of the building. Also take a close look at adjacencies. Connect your cafeteria to other popular program spaces and you will open up an entirely new realm of possibilities. For smaller renovation projects, focus on low-cost and high-impact strategies to attract students back to the cafeteria. When clients talk about why their students aren’t participating in school lunch programs, low-quality spaces are usually at the top of the list. Identify experiences that are lacking in your current building, such as collaboration space and technology studios. Integrate those opportunities into your existing cafeteria, and the students will follow.

dining commons

Heart of the Building. The Dining Commons at the new Columbia City High School will serve as a student cafeteria, student lounge and community space for after school events.

Flip Your Cafeteria

Traditional cafeterias focus on dining. Your modern cafeteria should be flipped to focus on education. Instead of a dining space where students can also learn, create a learning space where students also eat. This approach means integrating multiple educational tools and dining options. Ideally, students will have a menu of opportunities and experiences from which to choose.

Some examples of various spaces include:

  • Café: A mix of traditional cafeteria-style seating, lounge seating and high-top tables with stools, all supported by a la carte or grab and go food options.
  • Media Hearth: Living room-style seating combined with audio and video presentation tools to support large group instruction and presentations.
  • Media Huddle Space: Booth seating with integrated presentation technology to allow students to collaborate on projects.
  • Media Presentation Venue: Area with media:scape or other similar system that is specifically-designed to support group presentations.
  • Gathering Stair: Stairs that serve a dual purpose as a circulation pathway and amphitheater seating, often serving groups of 70 or more.
  • Living Room: Open space with a variety of furniture options that support individual, small group or large group research.
  • Small Group Room: Glass-enclosed conference room with integrated technology to support private group meetings.

The design of a flipped cafeteria is often accompanied by a new approach to food service. A la carte serving works especially well in an open and flexible environment.

dining spaces used for studying and collaboration

Learning-Centered Spaces. Dining spaces with multiple ways to learn, including individual study and technology-enhanced collaboration, will attract students to the Learning Café at Middletown High School.

Make It Yours

Like any other design solution, a flexible cafeteria should serve your specific educational goals and community needs. For example, at the new Columbia City High School in Columbia City, Ind., the central dining commons will be the heart of the building, and will act as everything from a dining hall to a student commons to surge space for after-school events. At Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio, renovations are creating a Learning Café to combine the cafeteria and media center into one dynamic space. At Fishers High School and Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind., flexible cafeterias create a new kind of learning environment for students in the district’s College & Career Academies.

The new spaces in Fishers are a great example of the cultural and behavioral changes that result from a different approach to dining facilities. Matt Kegley, principal of Hamilton Southeastern High School, says, “The space has a college atmosphere feel, something echoed by many college and university reps who visit our school.” Jason Urban, principal at Fishers High School, says, “Students feel that more is expected of them. They feel more grown up in these spaces.”

So before you flip that classroom or reimagine that media center, take a good look at your cafeteria. You might just find opportunities worth sinking your teeth into.


Have big goals and a small budget? Here’s where to put your money.

  • Upgrade Finishes: Use finish improvements, paint and digital wall graphics to improve the curb appeal and to create a strong sense of identity and branding.
  • Invest in Furniture: Create multiple ways for students to dine and socialize through contemporary and multi-faceted seating options.
  • Get Connected: Add Wi-Fi to draw students and teachers to the space.
  • Foster Collaboration: Add seating configurations to allow for project-based collaboration. Stations with technology mirroring are a popular draw for students.
  • Power Up: With the increase in personal devices, make sure there are plenty of charging opportunities. Students will take advantage of a quick charge while they are fueling up themselves.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

Charles “Chuck” Tyler, AIA, LEED-AP is a principal and project executive in the Indianapolis, Ind. office of Fanning Howey.

John Gladden, AIA, is a principal and project designer in the Dublin, Ohio office of Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.