How the University of Illinois approached its latest residence hall renovation

University of Illinois Dining Hall

Built in 1964, The Illinois Street Residence Hall (ISR) at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., was beginning to show its age. The 750-seat dining hall was dark and cramped—and it smelled bad.

“The kitchen was too small for the population we were serving and there was not enough seating,” says Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for dining services. “Also, in our kitchen we had severe ventilation problems where whoever worked there, their clothes would smell like the food they had prepared.”

In 2011, Aubrey met with her director, who asked if there was anything that she wanted for the school’s dining facilities. “I told him what I wanted was awfully big,” she says, revealing that she asked for the hall to be completely overhauled. The work to make Aubrey’s request a reality is taking place to this day, seven years later. 

While the original plan only included a revamp of the hall’s HVAC system, the team involved later agreed that a full renovation would be a better use of time and funds. “Even if we had the new ventilation, the kitchen would still be too small. It’s kind of like if you got a car and you replaced the engine but the body of the car is still the same,” Aubrey says.

Today, dark hallways and a dirt hole surrounded by chainlink fence stand where much of the building used to be. While the site is currently an eyesore, Aubrey and her team are hoping that in two years, the space will become a new hot spot on campus. Read on for a glimpse at their plans. 

Renderings courtesy of University of Illinois

Getting an upgrade

University of Illinois

On track to be completed in the fall of 2020, the new and improved dining portion of ISR will contain nine all-you-care-to-eat micro-restaurants and seating for 1,385. Students and guests will also be able to visit a Whole Foods-inspired convenience store as well as a tea bar that will be open extended hours and serve a variety of specialty tea drinks such as bubble tea. “This will be our first true micro-restaurant unit,” Aubrey says. “We have a lot more flexibility built in. If we ever needed to renovate, we can renovate just one micro-restaurant and not the whole facility.” 

The team also paid attention when choosing equipment to get pieces that can be modified to suit students’ tastes as they change, Aubrey says. “We’ve got sufficient versatility built in so that we can adapt much more quickly than having the traditional serve line where all your equipment is in the back,” she says.

The foodservice team at the university is always asking for feedback from students to find out what improvements they would like to see in campus dining, which was important as staff developed each of the concepts inside the new building. Staff sourced feedback from their customers by doing student surveys and focus groups, not only with students, but with their more than 1,416 student employees as well. “[The student employees] not only work with us, but they also eat with us and they have a great perspective and wonderful network,” Aubrey says, adding that the communication between staff and students continues today.

“[From the student feedback,] we observed trends and are doing a variety of menu changes as well as different preparations changes,” she says. “We are continuing that dialogue to this day as we continue to solidify and form what it is that we will be serving.”

Renderings courtesy of University of Illinois

Convincing the community

University of Illinois

One of the first steps they took while planning the renovation process was a feasibility study. Aubrey says this study was essential to figuring out the building’s current physical state and what actual renovations needed to take place to make sure the new ISR building could meet their goal.

The team used the money that was intended to fund the building’s original HVAC renovation to both cover the feasibility study and to make small upgrades to IRS throughout 2011 before the study took place. The upgrades included upgrading, but not overhauling, the building’s HVAC unit and replacing the carpet and chairs as well as serving equipment. Aubrey says the upgrades were intended to “buy us time” while waiting for the study to happen, which ended up not being completed until the following year, 2012.

The team then had to petition different groups on campus to sign off on the study. “We had to go to our facilities and services department and petition them and then we had to petition our chancellor’s capital review committee and get their approval,” Aubrey says, adding that the team had to spend a lot of time making their case for why the renovation should take place.

“We ended up doing a lot of reports saying what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it because we had to convince people.”

Renderings courtesy of University of Illinois

Feasibility results

University of Illinois

Once the feasibility study took place, the team was able to review the results and, at that point, make progress on what the new building would look like.

From the study, the team realized that they would need to make several changes to their plans, such as reducing the overall square footage of the building by 50,000 square feet in order to reduce cost and improved sustainability. “The reduced square footage would yield more efficient use of space,” says Aubrey.

It was also from the study that they realized how much work they had ahead of them. “We learned that we would need to take the building down to the shell and rebuild,” she says. “The building systems needed to be replaced to be operated appropriately and to meet current building codes. Lots of work!”

Renderings courtesy of University of Illinois

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