Birchwood Café Chef helps Architecture students design Steger Wilderness Center Dining Hall

Chef’s critiques and background in restaurant industry influences student James Matthes’ kitchen design.

Earlier this year, third-year Architecture students were asked to help design and build a brand new dining hall for the Steger Wilderness Center, an ecologically-focused building devoted to sustainability education and climate change solution.

Photo of Birchwood Café’s Chef Marshall Paulson critiquing student designs.

Birchwood Café’s Chef Marshall Paulson critiques student designs, shares tips and best practices on kitchen design

The project—led by Architecture Instructor Molly Reichert and Center Founder Will Steger—began in late August, when students spent a week at the Center in Ely, MN. Here students studied the Center, learned of the building requirements set forth by Steger, and camped at the location where the new structure will be built!

Students have since split into several small teams, each working to design a different options of what the dining hall could be. Steger will then use the designs as he seeks funding for the structure.

But creating the schematic design proposals hasn’t been as easy as some of the student’s past design projects. It has required a lot of one-on-one time with the client, new approaches to design, and even critiques from the Birchwood Café’s Chef Marshall Paulson.

Advice from industry experts gives students a taste of life in the industry

As someone who has spent most of his time in a kitchen, Paulson was able to provide students with a unique and necessary perspective to each of their designs. During his presentation, Paulson shared industry tips and best practices on things that might not have immediately come to mind for the students, including sink location, cabinetry space, number of drawers, preferred shelving structures, ideal appliances, kitchen health codes, budgets, and timelines.

Architecture student James Matthes said that the critique was extremely valuable, helping him and his group identify a few areas of improvement that could be made to their design.

“It was really good to have his perspective,” Matthes said. “We bounced ideas off of him, and he was able to pick out a few things that we had missed, especially in regards to the openness of the kitchen to the dining room.”

In addition to help from Paulson, Matthes’ background in the restaurant business has also helped shape his schematic design.

Family business helped shape Architecture student’s design
Initial sketches/designs from Architecture students James Matthes, Aaron McCauley, Guyon Brenna, and Marcos Villalobos.

Initial sketches/designs from Architecture students James Matthes, Aaron McCauley, Guyon Brenna, and Marcos Villalobos.

“My dad owns a restaurant and I worked there for several years,” Matthes explained. “So I’ve been surrounded by kitchens my whole life—it’s kind of in my blood.”

With good Italian food, reasonable prices, and catering capabilities, Matthes’ family restaurant, Marino’s Deli’s, cliental and sales varied greatly. And those experiences have helped Matthes decide what the Center Dining Hall could look like and how to best accommodate a wide-array of customers and kitchen-needs.

“We have a very small restaurant, and we keep our prices fairly cheap so we get a huge mix of people coming in. So, I got that small, day-to-day interaction with people, but we also cater really large events. And that’s kind of what this Dining Hall space has to be flexible with: the people and both small events and big events.”

But one thing Matthes said he and his classmates were not as prepared for was the challenge of making a sustainable kitchen.

“It’s really tough to make a sustainable kitchen,” Matthes said. “You have these big pieces of equipment, and you’re constantly washing things—it’s a waste. But we’re exploring ideas on how to deal with waste and recycling and composting, and Will is interested in adding a root cellar and using an icehouse. And that’s not something we’ve done in past projects, like when we were-designing an apartment complex in downtown Minneapolis. It’s just not something we are used to seeing. So it brings a whole other perspective that should help all of us in the long-run.” 

Studio provides real-world experience

While this studio hasn’t been the student’s first stab at design, Matthes shared that this particular project has been much more real than the projects conducted in year one and two.

The combination of hearing from industry experts, working with a real client, and knowing this is a structure that will actually be built, has forced the teams to approach their designs in a much more practical, real-world way—an approach to education that Dunwoody College prides itself on.

A potential dining hall design for the Steger Wilderness Center created by Architecture students James Matthes,<br /> Aaron McCauley, Guyon Brenna, and Marcos Villalobos.

A potential dining hall design for the Steger Wilderness Center created by Architecture students James Matthes,
Aaron McCauley, Guyon Brenna, and Marcos Villalobos.

“In the past it’s been ‘okay, here is our design. This looks cool, so let’s just go with that,’” Matthes said. “Whereas now [we ask] ‘does this appeal to the client and is it going to fit?’ And so from the get-go that was something we really concentrated on: to make sure that the design worked.

“It’s exhausting every design idea that we’ve had, and it has been stressful, but in the end, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to see a client happy and enjoying what they’re seeing.”

Learn more

The students will present their designs at 9:30 a.m., Friday, Dec. 16, at Dunwoody. Steger and Paulson as well as Founder of Birchwood Café Tracy Singleton and Mechanical Engineer and Alternative Energy Consultant Craig Tarr will be in attendance.

After the presentation, Steger will choose several student designs, or portions of their designs, to move forward with. The final building design will be dependent on funding and community support. The hope is to break ground in 2018.

Learn more about Dunwoody Architecture.