Sharples Renovation Firm Solicits Student Feedback

In recent weeks, another mainstay was added to the motley collection of Sharples presences: a group of architects eager to ask questions about the proposed Sharples renovation project.

The project, approved in May of 2018, will utilize a 2013 $7 million gift (now totalling $9 million) to transform the aging and crowded facility, built in the 1960s to accommodate around 900 students, into a revitalized dining hall and student space.  

Embarking on this endeavour, the college hired integrated architecture engineering and design firm “DLR Group.” One of the early steps in the process of developing a plan for the renovation was to gather student input. Representatives of the group spent their Sharples stay running surveys to gather data from students about their experience with the current dining situation and what they would like to see in a redesigned Sharples.

“As designers our process is deeply rooted in understanding our clients in a very personal
way before pencil ever touches paper. In this regard we seek to understand the impact
of a project from a 360-degree viewpoint,” said Stuart Rothenberger, Principal and Global Higher Education Leader at DLR Group.

To gain the necessary data to achieve this goal, the firm chose to interview students.

“We believe that face-to-face interactions yield the most impactful insight and give a large diverse group of students a platform to voice their opinions and goals in a safe place,” said Rothenberger. “This insight along with feedback from all campus constituents will help the project team and the College define the overarching goals of the project and then prioritize specific program elements to align with those goals.”

Rothenberger stressed that in formulating questions, the firm was careful not ask leading questions. Instead, they sought to ask questions that would elicit meaningful conversations about diversity, social justice, sustainability, community, and food. Students were involved in this process at multiple junctures throughout. Many of the surveys were administered by paid student helpers, an auxiliary force that Rothenberger partly credits with helping the firm reach its goal of collecting data from 500 students.

Taylor Morgan ’19 was one of the students hired to administer surveys in Sharples.

“I got the sense that the firm wanted to make a genuine attempt to capture the ‘spirit of Swarthmore.’” Morgan said. “During the training [for survey administrators] they emphasized they were less interested in quantitative data and more interested in the “why,” so they could craft newly imagined dining offerings to the specific needs of the college … The survey also asked about how students thought about what type of dining or social space they would imagine, what would be ideal. They pitched to us that they would use that data to build and design and craft this new space.”

Morgan did have some criticisms of the process.

“In the training all the [consulting firm] people were white, and only two of them were women,” Morgan said. “I wasn’t surprised because I have had similar experiences with other sub-contracted projects. But it made me realize how homogenous the high-caliber professional consulting world really is, and the harm that could come from creating buildings that aren’t actually tailored to student’s needs because the people taking these data and making decisions with them all look the same and come from the same background.”

Morgan also felt that the discussion should have focused more on accessibility.

“Something that wasn’t asked was how accessible these spaces are,” she said. “There really wasn’t any emphasis on universal design, that all spaces should be accessible to everyone.”

Morgan noted that there was a brief opportunity for the student administrators to give the firm feedback on the survey.

“[It was] five minutes to say if there are any questions we think they should add,” she said.

Morgan suggested to include a question asking what division the student’s major is in, which was included in the revised version of the survey. Even being able to put forth a suggestion that was taken into account, Morgan still felt bothered by the focus on business rather than community at universities.

“A larger issue [is] that universities are becoming more corporatized, functioning more as a business, bringing in outside corporations determining the look of the school and the revenue being generated rather than the community determining it,” Morgan said.

The architects also held several meetings with various student groups, including an “Open Forum for Student Leaders,” and a dinner with Green Advisors and President’s Sustainability Research Fellows.

“The goal [of the dinner] was to try to get opinions on what matters to our specific groups in terms of what we’re looking for in a new dining hall,” said coordinator of Green Advisors Oswaldo Morales Solorzano ’21.

“Basically they gave us an outline that had different sections for how the new dining hall would interact with the community, nature, and campus, and they had points they deemed important and we had to put a marker on points we also thought were important,” Morales Solorzano said.

Morales Solorzano felt that the process was not as collaborative or interactive as it should have been.
“Some of the points were natural foods, no GMOs, other points were community involvement and environmental awareness, and it seemed like they were making us pick between them which were most important, as if they couldn’t all be important,” Morales Solorzano said.
Morales does not oppose the plan itself, but was just left with a feeling of dissatisfaction after the meeting.

“There’s nothing I don’t like, but the way they phrased it made it seem like they wanted us to choose which points were most important, they had all these things they thought students would be interested in but they wanted us to pick just a few.” Morales Solorzano said. “I think it was their way of trying to say they don’t have the money or resources for all of that so they’re just going to implement the things that are most important to students. But they’re all important.”
Though Morales was not completely content with the meeting, he still believes that the project might ultimately go well.

“If the college can successfully let the architects know that we want all the points that they mentioned and more, then I would be optimistic about it.”

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