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Swarthmore College Dining and Community Commons front entry illuminated from within in the evening, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction
Swarthmore College Dining and Community Commons

A Carbon Neutral Dining Facility

Project Location

Swarthmore, PA


Swarthmore College


71,500 SF


Architecture, engineering, high-performance design, and more

The landmark Sharples Dining Hall has played a significant role in shaping the Swarthmore student experience since 1964. The beloved facility became too small to comfortably house the growing student body and institution leadership wanted a solution that reflects the College’s student life and food service values. Our design team sought perspectives and insights through in-depth .

The process included campus immersion by the planning and design team via student, faculty, staff, and administration interviews; student focus groups; town hall meetings; and campus workshops. The resulting design concept will be a carbon neutral dining facility. The community commons space will have enhanced opportunities for socialization that respects the historic character while elevating student life for future generations. A diverse range of spaces is available for multiple uses – from individual study to small group or large team activities – and integrated technology allows for continuous connectivity throughout the building.

We provided architectural programming, sustainability programming, lighting and low-voltage programming, campus engagement, architecture, interior design, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and high-performance design.


Together, the new dining hall and community commons will serve as a hub of activity and a cornerstone for social gathering on campus. The 800-seat dining hall will offer 10 robust food platforms, including allergy-aware, vegan, and international. Retail dining will be incorporated in the existing facility to activate the community commons and provide late-night dining options. Various sustainable design solutions meet the college’s desire for high energy efficiency, the use of on and off-site renewable energy, zero waste options, biophilic design, and local food sourcing.


Campus Engagement

We conducted extensive, in-depth engagement activities with the campus community – including students, faculty, and staff – on the Swarthmore College campus to develop a framework and goals for the engagement effort. More than 55 meetings at various campus locations with students, faculty, and staff, including open sessions and workshops focused on sustainability, food service, and campus engineering. We also personally conducted 505 individual interviews with students from a cross-section of class years, conducted in-depth workshops, and facilitated focus group discussions. These engagement exercises gave the design team ample opportunity to interact with a large portion of the student body and numerous faculty and staff.

Stone and glass facade on university building with curving roof and overhang illuminated from within in the evening, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

The design team sought the campus community’s perspectives and insights on the campus culture, physical assets, and needs and desires for student life and food services.


Creating Community

Our student and campus engagement revealed students’ need for a place of refuge from the rigors of their academic schedules and a place to socialize without pressure. In addition, a passion for community and academics are defining characteristics of Swarthmore students. Currently, the campus lacks a unified and centralized social space for students; they often socialize in classrooms, libraries, and residence halls.

Long wood table with chairs with tan upholstery in tall ceiling room with large windows. View to sloping roof and overhang, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

Classrooms serve a dual function as both classroom and group collaboration space.

Double height atrium with exposed wood mass timber beams, columns, and ceiling. Grey accents. Dining options along walls, balcony above, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

Swarthmore peers, faculty, and staff form a diverse, thriving community. They seek a place to celebrate diversity.


Reimagined Dining

Students, faculty, and staff seek food service options that are responsive to dietary needs and restrictions, and reflect sustainable practices. With the level of student and faculty diversity at Swarthmore College – over 14% of the student body represent 35 countries outside the U.S. – the dietary range challenges the Swarthmore food service team to augment the menu and canvas regional resources for farm-to-table resources. In addition, an all-electric cook line is impacting menu options. To add to performance challenges, the Swarthmore’s food service team set an aspirational goal for the new menu to consist of 40% plant-based offerings by opening day. Retail dining will be incorporated in the existing facility to activate the community commons and provide late night dining options for students.


Maintaining a Sense of Place

Sharples currently poses major challenges to accessibility and a modern food service operation. Preserving the successful aspects of the building and mending the problematic elements will be critical. Recognizing the value of the arboretum to Swarthmore’s campus and emphasizing connections to nature throughout the new facility will improve health, wellness, and happiness of the campus community.

Exterior flexible seating area partially shaded by mass timber canopy overhang on stone building with large windows, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

Providing useful outdoor gathering space will be a great asset to the campus.

Main dining area with high mass timber wood ceiling with skylight and hanging wood slat details over mixed seating types, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

Sharples is an iconic building on campus with beloved characteristics, such as its heavy timber and stone walls.


Carbon Neutral Dining

Aiming to be a global leader in sustainability, Swarthmore College defined Living Building Challenge standards as the driver of sustainability features in the building. The institution’s sustainable framework aspires for the campus to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. In support of these goals, we have worked with Swarthmore College to design a multi-platform dining venue that uses all electric equipment and on-site renewable energy. After benchmarking the energy use intensity of other dining facilities, the design team found the typical kitchen operates at an average EUI of 500kBtu/SF each year. This project is targeting an EUI of 300 kBtu/SF/yr for the kitchen, and 50 kBtu/SF/yr for non-kitchen functions. Overall, this should average an annual performance of 85 kBtu/SF.

Animated diagram of building with areas labeled and color coded popping up in succession, mass timber architecture, what is mass timber construction

A proposed solar photovoltaics layout for 400kW system.


Elevating Design

CEO and Managing Principal Steven McKay, AIA, RIBA


CEO Steven McKay Shares a Passion for Design with designboom

This exclusive interview reveals McKay’s commitment to employee-ownership, the thrill of the design challenge, and the future of our firm. In the interview, the Swarthmore College Dining and Community Commons is shared as an example of how we are leading with design.

Read More

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