Fueling Student Athletes Through Dining Facility Design

In the first of this two-part series on innovation and lessons in the design of Student Athletic Performance Centers, Keith Storms, Rob Reis and Matthew Lee outline why a new slate of facilities that better support the needs of student athletes are emerging. The designers identify two important elements of the Virginia Tech Student Athletic Performance Center: central location and designing for flexibility and community.

Over the past decade a new wave of college and university facilities have opened around the country to better serve student athletes and the unique challenges they face, from Virginia Tech to University of Alabama to Georgia Tech, University of Nebraska, and Texas A + M (just to name a few).

These new spaces are designed to meet the evolving challenges that student athletes are facing – increasing demands and pressure on their time, performance, and energy, requiring them to manage gruelling schedules year-round. Between balancing classes and coursework, training, practice and traveling for games, these student athletes are often working seven days and up to 80 hours a week between sports and academic commitments.

Addressing mental health and nutritional challenges among student athletes

Even before the added stresses of the pandemic, rising burnout and mental health issues among college athletes were already reaching crisis levels. There is now increasing recognition and public dialogue around the mental health challenges these demands are leading to for many student athletes, with growing rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. According to leading researchers, student athletes are experiencing stress at significantly higher levels than non-athlete students – and are also less likely to seek out supportive health resources than their peers.

These stressors are having knock-on negative physical health impacts on student athletes, particularly related to eating, food and nutrition. The combination of demanding schedules and managing stress leaves them little downtime for relaxation or to adequately plan and sit down for meals. And the stress-nutrition feedback cycle can lead to unhealthy consumption choices – all of this in addition to many students entering college with existing poor nutrition habits and an over reliance on processed food.

Universities are now reflecting on how much we demand of our student athletes and asking themselves how we can take better care of them in return. As a result, more and more student athletic departments are adopting a more holistic approach to health and well-being. A growing number of schools and programs are integrating expertise and support staff, education and programming around nutrition and hydration, psychology and mental health, and academic support.

Nutrition in particular has become a greater focus, with these schools recognizing the connection between food choices, well-being and performance. And they are investing in facilities that can support these efforts, with a strong focus on the link between architecture and design and nutrition and well-being for student athletes.

Creating an innovative new facility designed to improve student athlete nutrition for Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s new 25,000-square-foot Student Athletic Performance Center (SAPC), which opened in 2020, is an important case study in best practice of innovative nutrition-based student dining facilities. The University's athletics department wanted to create a pinnacle facility of its kind that would spatially communicate Virginia Tech’s values and culture of athletics and provide a sophisticated nutrition program.

Hanbury worked closely with a team of athletic nutritionists, food service specialists, and operations experts to design a space that would meet the unique needs of both students and staff. The completed design realizes Virginia Tech’s vision by creating a transformational and legible space triple the size of the former facility. The new center includes a full-service kitchen that allows for the preparation of meals for student-athletes and an expanded dining space. Balconies on the outer edge of the center overlook the Steve Johnson Practice Fields. The concept of science-based nutrition supplementing physical well-being and positively influencing performance drove a range of strategic decisions – location, layout, menu, service style, seating strategies, and even the dynamics and character of the space.

Location, location, location

One of the most valuable features of the new SAPC is its central location within Virginia Tech’s athletics precinct.

After reviewing multiple site opportunities as part of the feasibility planning for the project, Hanbury designers and the Virginia Tech team ultimately chose to place the facility in the heart of the athletic complex. The Hanbury design solution expands upward and outward the uppermost level of the Jamerson Athletic Center, capitalizing on the commanding views of the athletics precinct with a panorama featuring Lane Stadium and the Beamer-Lawson Practice Facility.

The design transforms an out-of-date utilitarian dining space into a dynamic multi-function dining center overlooking the athletics campus. The central location though necessitated the architects to navigate a complex renovation process that required removing the roof of the building while keeping the lower floors occupied.

Existing, Roof Removal, Expansion

Locating the new SAPC at the top of the existing Jamerson Building eliminates the need for a new site and preserves ground floor area in a crowded precinct where open space is a premium. And it brings new life to formerly underutilized space and repurposes infrastructure by apportioning existing footings, foundation walls, and utilities and services to a new use, conserving energy and material resources, and lowering embodied energy. By giving students a warm and welcoming multi-use space directly adjacent to academic, training and practice facilities, the athletics department is able to ensure that proper nutrition and eating becomes a convenient and integrated part of the student-athlete’s day rather than an added stressor.

Designing for flexibility and community

The new SAPC is designed for flexibility. The center creates a new community living room for Virginia Tech Athletics and is expansive enough to meet the nutrition needs and provide regular meals for over 500 students from around the country and the world across all 22 of Virginia Tech's varsity sports. The new space allows for greater co-mingling and camaraderie between teams, framed around the belief that eating a meal together is one of the most powerful ways to build community.

Outside of day-to-day student athletics use, the serveries are shaped to define a single large space for dining. Whereas the old space only accommodated small groups of athletes for a limited number of meals during the week, the new SAPC is designed for optimum flexibility—even the booths are mobile—allowing for multiple seating types and configurations at a variety of scales. The SAPC accommodates events ranging from team-building pre-game meals to special programs, gatherings, and donor fundraising events, while catering to alumni, the University and the surrounding community.

Perhaps most importantly though, this highly flexible, adaptable, and technologically advanced dining facility elevates Virginia Tech athletics while directly providing athletes with improved nutrition, and a sense of camaraderie and well-being.

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