Bruner/Cott & Associates reimagines the University of Georgia’s student dining experience with Bolton Dining Commons.
By Brian Libby
All photos ©Richard Mandelkorn
Today’s college and university dining halls are far from the banal cafeterias of yesteryear, serving bland and unhealthy food on plastic trays in windowless spaces. Just as schools compete to attract students by providing the best academic offerings, the coziest dorms, or the winningest sports teams, so too do these institutions increasingly seek competitive advantage by investing in restaurant-quality on-campus dining options, with a variety of fresh food served in inviting spaces where students want to linger.
Enter the new Bolton Dining Commons at the University of Georgia (UGA), a $24-million dining hall by Bruner/Cott & Associates of Cambridge, Mass. (veteran of numerous award-winning college dining facilities), in association with Atlanta’s Smith Dalia Architects (with past experience at UGA). Replacing a worn-out facility on its prime site near the heart of the campus, the new 64,000-square-foot building is now the school’s largest dining commons, serving more than 10,000 meals a day.
The facility includes more than 12 serving areas on two floors with spacious dining areas inside and out (plus approximately 4,000 square feet of offices and administrative space). It offers a variety of menu items from comfort food to international cuisine, with numerous vegetarian and allergen-free options, with small-batch cooking on display to promote freshness and healthy food practices. The building also includes a private, 200-seat dining space available to both university and student groups. Anticipating such daily demands, Bruner/Cott partnered with Smith Dalia to produce a cutting-edge design focused on four key design emphases: context, materials, space, and sustainability.
Traditional yet contemporary
Bolton is located at the confluence of UGA’s three campus districts—its historic northern portion, its newer business campus to the west, and the central hub of campus. Facing the high-traffic corner of Lumpkin & Baxter Streets, which connects a primary parking area to the west with the main campus pedestrian walkway to the east (leading to the University of Georgia Bookstore and Sanford Stadium), its 70-foot entrance rotunda provides an easily identifiable icon that pays homage to the traditional campus. “In many ways, we wanted a signature architectural element to tell people, ‘You’re still on campus, you’re still here,’ says campus architect Daniel Sniff. “But at the same time, with the lantern look of the entrance and the openness, there were some contemporary signatures to it. We have a philosophy that says respect your neighbors contextually, and don’t say, ‘Look at me.’”
Bruner/Cott envisioned the building as a symbol of openness, full of transparency and natural light, meant to strike an appropriate balance between the institutional grandness of its surroundings while seeking its own more casual identity. Fitting within a more than century-long tradition of existing campus buildings, its materials, scale, and proportions sought to be compatible with UGA’s architectural language—big and monumental enough to stand out in the small valley of its site, yet not so large as to overwhelm it—while also differentiating itself as something architecturally new and of its time.
Though framed with steel and concrete, the building rises on the exterior from a granite base with brick walls and cast stone cornices. “We started with the brick, because that’s the background material that a lot of old and new buildings are constructed with within Georgia,” says Bruner/Cott principal-in-charge Bob Simmons. “We felt it could feel a bit more modern with a granite base and a bit more casual and relaxed—something we really wanted.” Simmons believes granite, though distinguished, has a less formal and institutional feel than limestone. The design also incorporates granite on the interior as a veneer on the building’s steel columns, “to give it a feeling of hearth and home,” he adds. “Granite is often used as fireplace cladding, and we wanted to have an expression of the stone on the inside of the building as well as to give it a bit of warmth and color.” The look of the granite is a result of how it is laid out, the architect explains: “It’s not clean, rectangular blocks. It’s just small pieces, large pieces, just put together like you would in a fireplace and a site wall.”
Originally, Sniff explains, UGA’s buildings were built largely with granite, given the presence of the Elberton granite quarry near the university’s Athens campus. But in the 1930s during the Great Depression, several campus buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps were constructed with limestone, a more classic institutional material. “We look at this west portion of campus where Bolton is at as a sort of new campus. We were looking to differentiate, but at the same time use materials to harken back to our older buildings. It was setting a new tone for campus,” Sniff says. “We wanted to re-introduce more granite, and this project gave us the opportunity to do that.”
Attention to budget also was a factor in the selection of granite. “When UGA originally approached us on this project, they actually said, ‘We want the public to see this building as the state of Georgia spending their tax dollars wisely and spending the education system’s dollars wisely,’” Simmons explains. “They’d been criticized for some buildings that appear too grand or opulent on campus. By introducing the granite, which has the feel of a hearth more than a campus edifice, if you will, and bringing in wood for the roof as well, we feel it relaxed the aesthetic and made it more welcoming, and made it more of a comfortable campus life setting in which student life could take place.”
The building’s roof structure incorporates extensive timber decking to feel “softened and less institutional,” Simmons says. “We extended that to the eaves outside, which was a big step culturally for the Georgia vocabulary that the university embraced. At night, the whole building glows from the warmth of that wood. It’s not too grandiose and instructional to hang out in.” The timber, a combination of southern yellow pine and cedar, is FSC-certified.
Sniff likens the combined feel of the exposed timbers, the granite, and the brick fireplaces inside Bolton to a classic Adirondack lodge. He believes the design approach and materials selection for the facility strikes the right balance between old and new. “We use materials like brick, and we have a traditional base, middle, and cap that we require buildings to have. There’s a continuity, a thread that holds the campus fabric together. We think that’s one of the things that people come to campus for,” he says. “Yet there’s plenty of room for innovation and flexibility that can occur in the architecture. The architects did a great job of striking that balance. Watching the exterior, you have certain expectations. But when you come inside, it’s very much of its day.”
Although Bolton looks and feels impressively stately outside and warm inside, thanks to its material palette, a key feature of the building is its openness and transparency. “The client saw the facility not just as a dining hall, but as a space to hang out in and a way to bring about quality of student life that was lacking at the old dining hall: a place to see and be seen,” Simmons explains. The hall’s interior is centered on a large atrium, allowing diners and servers on two floors to see each other and interact. The food service also is on display at the front of the house where diners can see their food being prepared. Service is split into a series of stations made distinct with different interior materials and signage signaling the type of meals served.
The sense of openness also extends to copious natural light and to the views outside, provided by large window openings in the dining rooms. “We wanted to make sure that one’s experience in the building allowed 360-degree views,” Sniff says.
“Theoretically, in the seating areas, you could shut off the lights during the day,” Simmons says. “We tried to keep a pretty high level of daylighting coming in. On the creek side, we did a bit more modern expression: high windows and a roof that slopes from high to low, which helps funnel daylight into the building. On the other side, clerestory windows wrap the space for not only daylighting, but [also for the] views. We used these large overhangs to keep out the glare, and we used ceramic frit on the Tanyard Creek-side glass to allow us not to have operable shades and to cut the amount of sunlight while keeping views out into the trees. A piece of glass appears to be transparent and you can see out, but it’s actually throwing 50 percent of the heat and light to keep cooling loads down.”
A series of additional terraces provide the chance for outdoor dining during Georgia’s warm months, including a 45-degree version overlooking Tanyard Creek. A decade-long initiative to uncover and restore the creek to its natural form after generations under asphalt is currently underway. “A part of the creek has a concrete sea wall and riff-raff, so they’re looking to restore that to a more natural setting, as well as another creek that enters Tanyard Creek near our location,” says Smith Dalia Principal David Wallace. The terrace, a large curtain wall, an additional entrance, and pedestrian bridge connection anticipate the conclusion of the project.
Sniff feels the building’s design serves its primary and secondary goals well—student life beyond mealtimes alone takes place here, and it’s also a place people want to linger. “We know that students do study here quite a bit,” he says. “There are many different areas to study. There’s up in the rotunda, and up in the milkshake bar. It’s a cozy, comfortable place for students to meet and hang out.”
Reaching beyond aesthetics and functionality alone, Bolton’s design, construction, and ongoing operations are embodiments of today’s leading-edge sustainable thinking as well, expertise for which Bruner/Cott is well known. The building was conceived to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating program specifications, at or near its Gold level, but the client declined to pursue certification.
Bolton’s primary structural and roof materials, steel and wood, are renewable resources. Measures such as low-e glass coatings and extensive overhangs combine with a tight thermal envelope, LED lighting, and robust insulation to make Bolton about 30 percent more energy-efficient than a conventionally designed building. The kitchen itself, often a use venue consuming large amounts of energy, also was made energy-efficient thanks to low-flow hoods that allowed reduced mechanical unit sizes, and also employs water-reducing plumbing. The construction sourced a majority of materials locally.
The most distinctive among Bolton’s sustainable features may be how the dining hall treats its food scraps. A pulp extractor removes water from food waste and grinds the material into reusable compost for use in campus landscaping, thereby reducing waste by 90 percent.
Voting with their feet
Bolton Dining Commons has proven to be more than an enjoyable place for students to gather and eat. It’s also a calling card for the University of Georgia.
“I keep telling people our mission is to serve the students. They’re our clients, and the surveys show an overwhelming love of the place,” says Sniff. “We have an all-volunteer food service operation at UGA. If you’re a student, you’re not required to buy it. So in many ways, we have to sell this product, this food plan, to students and their parents. Students love it; parents love it. We’ve seen a decrease in our other food service outlets; this is their first choice. They’ll come across campus. The athletic association wants to send their athletes to eat here. That’s a totally different dining experience. You’re not just going into the same old dining hall.”