Rochester Institute of Technology – Grace Watson Dining Hall Renovations

Dining Hall Renovation Brings Energy Back to Original Campus Building

LaBella was hired to design major, multi-phase renovations and upgrades to Grace Watson Dining Hall. The dining hall, which has not seen a major renovation since the early 1990s, is the largest on the University’s campus and serves thousands of students daily. The project encompassed a large commercial kitchen, adjacent serving stations, and a gut renovation of the seating area. Improving operational efficiency, enhancing user experience, and upgrading equipment and finishes were primary objectives accomplished in this project.

The kitchen presented a challenging design problem in that the space has a long, narrow footprint. This confined, elongated shape requires specific attention to equipment placement and operating procedures. Our first action was to make observations of the existing space operations, both in terms of layout and personnel movement, as well as student use and paths of travel. This process of investigation revealed common patterns of use, areas of congestion/inefficiency, and insight into daily and weekly operations.

The final kitchen design provided increased openness, allowing improved and safer worker travel though the space. The design also allowed for more staging areas for deliveries and food carts. Site lines were improved, and work efficiency was increased as a result of new equipment and preparation area layouts. New resinous flooring, resilient tile and wall protection, cleanroom ceilings, and lighting fixtures completed the finish upgrades in the kitchen.

The serving areas were enhanced through the renovation and addition of new equipment that allows the owner to expand and diversify their food offerings. The serving area also benefited from new finishes that help give the dining hall a refreshed identity. For example, existing drop ceilings were removed to expose existing structural elements, new wall tile and dimensional signage was added, and new large-scale pendant lighting was specified to provide a brighter, more open feel to the spaces.

The design of seating zones adjacent to the serving area and kitchen included new paths of circulation, and existing seating levels were reshaped to provide opportunities for a variety of seating options. Initial studies found that large tables were often underutilized. As a result, the design called for alternative furniture options such as counter, booth, and modular seating, allowing the space to be more efficiently and comfortably used.

New window treatments and custom lighting, including a combination of linear, pendant, and large circular fixtures, significantly increased the brightness of the space and supplements the architectural and furniture designs. The dining hall’s main entry ramp was highlighted with a dramatic wood-look linear ceiling that undulates down the length of the ramp. This feature amplifies an existing, strong campus axis that guides students from the entry to Grace Watson Hall, through a lobby, and into the dining hall itself, terminating at a new fireplace.

This renovation took the dining hall from a dated, worn state and turned it into a bright, clean, and endlessly functional dining hall space that will serve the University’s population for many years to come.