Great Falls Architectural Firm Leads Commons Renovation

As featured in the Great Falls Tribune, September 13, 2015.

Long gone is the traditional chow hall with its limited choices, rigid dining hours, and the institutional feel. Montana State University’s Miller Dining Hall, now Miller Dining Commons, in Bozeman, was transformed into a foodie’s heaven with aesthetics, choices, and fresh-display cooking that rivals the most modern college campuses. This 720-seat dining hall, now open to the public and students alike, prepares approximately 7,000 meals each day.

Montana State University commissioned Nelson Architects of Great Falls for the $14-million modernization of the 1970s cafeteria building which included a major seismic structural retrofit.

“When you have an owner, like MSU, with a strong vision to transform the world of cafeteria dining, it gives us the opportunity to pull out the design stops and really exceed their expectations,” says Dale Nelson, Principal of Nelson Architects.

Visitors to the newly designed Hall are greeted by a variety of exhibition-cooking venues including: Toscana (wood-fired pizza and pasta); Froth & Foam (espresso bar), Tamari Grill (Mongolian grill), Indulge (bakery), Crossroads & Chop’t (vegan and gluten free fare), Route 406 (Montana made products), Blaze (smoker and rotisseries), Grazers (home-style cooking), and Picante (Mexican fare).

The individual look and feel of each venue started with the architectural design. For example, Toscana is accented in deep Italian reds with rustic stone and timber accents. The Tamari Grill with its bold orange pergola was inspired by Asian bamboo huts. Faceted-shaped floor tiles add to the dynamic feel of the space while accenting each venue with color. MSU added the final touch with appropriately designed and colored staff uniforms.

Re-designing a dining hall is more than just improving aesthetics. Market research indicates that quality dining is a great recruitment and retention tool.

The project’s collaborative design team which included: Bozeman-based Morrison-Maierle Inc., a multi-discipline engineering firm; Maryland-based Porter Khouw Consulting, a foodservice planning and design firm; Seattle-based Mesher Shing McNutt, provided conceptual interior design; and Bozeman-based Prime Incorporated, a signage and graphic design firm.

“Miller Dining Commons is the flagship dining venue on the MSU campus – and that’s what we wanted to see,” said Albin Khouw, senior vice president of Porter Khouw Consulting.

Khouw stated exhibition cooking is the new trend – food prepared in full view of the customer. This enabled the design team to reduce the kitchen by about 70 percent. “Today’s students have sophisticated palettes, so it was important to create a place that felt more like a restaurant, with all the enticing smells and choices.”

“We had quite a contingent of very talented Great Falls-area based general and subcontractor companies who worked on this project,” said Ryan Smith, Principal of Nelson Architects.

Swank Enterprises based in Valier, Montana, served as the General Contractor for the project adding several Great Falls-based subcontractors to their team including Moderne Cabinet, McGurran Painting, TC Glass, Just-Rite Acoustics, and The Tile Man, Don Willekes.

One of the biggest challenges MSU and the design team faced was how to continue to feed the students while construction was taking place. The Nelson Architects design team worked with the University Food Services to strategically plan the phasing of the renovation work to keep students fed during construction. When possible, they segregated portions of the dining room to accommodate contractors and hungry students. There were times when students were eating in the hallways and adjacent lounge spaces. MSU also brought in mobile food trailers to meet student dining needs.

“Technically speaking, it was a very challenging renovation project,” said Travis Lake, Project Manager for Swank Enterprises. “But Nelson Architects and Morrison-Maierle were very responsive to our needs and questions. They worked very hard to make sure all our questions were answered in a timely fashion which kept the construction moving smoothly.”

The project is seeking LEED Certification, a recognized standard for measuring building sustainability. The design featured ‘controlled daylight’ which provides passive solar heat in the winter and reduced electrical demand for lighting during operating hours. The design also opened up the ceilings in the central core of the commons to allow hot air to rise and be released via automatically opening windows creating a night purge, reducing the amount of air conditioning needed during the summer months.