Architecture is as much about creating an environment as it is about manufacturing a building or space, says MIT architecture graduate student Scott Francisco, who took the lead in conceptualizing the new Steam CafÃ© on the fourth floor of Building 7.
The Steam CafÃ© is located in the School of Architecture and Planning in the space formerly occupied by the Dome CafÃ©, which closed at the end of the fall term. The cafÃ© has done well since opening on Feb. 14, said Rich Berlin, director of campus dining. "Business has basically doubled," over that of the old cafÃ©, he said.
The cafÃ© offers students both nutritious food choices and the opportunity to impact the menu through online feedback and recipe submissions.
The new cafÃ© is a collaborative effort among students in the Culture Lab, which is a research group in the School of Architecture and Planning, working with MIT's Office of Campus Dining and Sodexho Corporation, which runs most of the campus dining facilities.
Since arriving at MIT in the fall of 2003, Francisco had noted a less than ideal grab-and-go food culture on campus. "Often people would feel disconnected from their choices," he said.
Working with Culture Lab, Francisco joined forces with Nick Senske, another graduate student in architecture. Together, they wanted to create a space on campus that encouraged seated, relaxed and social eating.
The idea fit squarely into Campus Dining's planned redesign for the Dome. "It was just not meeting the community's needs," said Berlin about the Dome CafÃ©. "Scott's work and the goals of the Culture Lab to encourage community and healthier eating are exactly what our campus needs. The Steam CafÃ© is perfectly aligned with our broader goals for Campus Dining."
Each day offers a new menu based on brown rice and an alternate grain, such as white or wild rice. To accompany the rice, the cafÃ© offers well-seasoned, ethnic, vegetarian and meat hot entrÃ©es. Additionally, there are soups, salads, sandwiches and a variety of healthy and low-calorie beverages. Much of the produce is organic.
A key part of the design is affordability. A small cup of rice is only $.50 and a small cup of the vegetarian hot entrÃ©e is $3. All of the pricing, except for the coffee, is done in $.25 increments so that students receive back only whole bills and quarters, which are always highly prized for use in laundry and vending machines.
Senske, who has been studying Open Source, a design model based on community collaboration and participation, brought his technological research to the project, and developed a basic web infrastructure to facilitate community feedback and recipe submissions which will form the core of the menu.
"We want to tap into the diversity that is already at MIT," Francisco said, adding that he would like to see family recipes from around the globe become menu items.
Most of the interior of the cafÃ© was created from recycled wood and reused equipment, but it does boast brand new rice warmers. Working with a relatively small budget--$25,000 for the interior and $25,000 for the exterior--Francisco and a crew of other volunteers worked in the hobby shop sawing and sanding to make new countertops from the old tables of Walker Memorial that had been relegated to storage.
The exterior of the cafÃ© features large, Baltic birch seating blocks pushed next to taller tables cut from the same wood. Diners sit back to back, sharing blocks, in an overall atmosphere of collegiality.
With the leftover seating from the Dome, the cafÃ© can seat close to 100 people, said Francisco, who hopes that patrons will utilize the seating to make connections and build community. "The idea was to see how design can impact culture," he said. "We are fighting against just grabbing a slice of pizza and leaving to sit at your computer alone."
Ultimately, Francisco said he would like to see MIT students who are well-rounded in their pursuits. "The question of food should be part of their lives in whatever field they find themselves," he said.
Since opening, the space has been filled each day. Steam CafÃ© is open Monday through Friday. It serves a healthy, balanced breakfast beginning at 8 a.m. and switches to lunch at 11 a.m. Hot entrees are served until 3 p.m., and unlike the old Dome, which closed at 3 o'clock each day, Steam will continue selling snacks, sandwiches and coffee until 6 p.m., as long as there is community demand.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 2, 2005 (download PDF).