Saving Dining—by Design

AIA Colorado teamed with the State of Colorado and the Colorado Restaurant Association for the Winter Outdoor Design Workshop—delivering hope with a side of hygge for the vulnerable restaurant industry.

Winter is coming, and like the north winds, the pandemic continues its chill on important sectors of our economy.  We all hoped the COVID-19 curve would have flattened by now, but without extraordinary measures to keep establishments open and safe, Colorado’s restaurant and tourism industries risk being flattened instead. To help, Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado Restaurant Association teamed with AIA Colorado and several other AEC partners for the Winter Outdoor Design Workshop to develop outdoor restaurant design concepts, keeping Coloradans safe from the elements—and the virus—while dining in the dead of winter.

Early on in the pandemic, my colleagues and I reached out to our restaurant clients to find out how we could help. Costs aside, they felt permitting would be their biggest hurdle. We are glad to see state and city officials expressing interest in helping ease the path. “The restaurant industry is critical to the economic health of the State of Colorado, and it’s vital to the well-being of our local communities,” said Governor Polis in announcing the Colorado Winter Outdoor Grant program, an emergency assistance fund for Colorado restaurants experiencing financial hardship.

The restaurant industry operates on thin margins even in flush times, so the stay-at-home orders reducing indoor seating to just 25 to 50 percent capacity triggered a quick culling of revenues. Particularly hard hit were locations with little overflow space. Carryout sales—for business models that could take advantage of this market—got a boost when the state began allowing to-go alcohol, starting March 20. By May, restaurants began adding seating areas in public sidewalks and closed streets, as Governor Polis waived many state regulations and urged cities to do the same. Dave Query, founder of the Big Red F Restaurant Group, which operates Jax Fish House, Lola Costal Mexican and other popular concepts, says he’s been able to add extra outdoor seating to about half its restaurants. “Reducing indoor capacity to 50 or 25 percent means we need every outdoor seat we can find,” he said.

Ely Merheb AIA, founder of Boulder-based Verso and charrette participant, found “a silver lining witnessing streets become more people- and business-friendly.” Other groups also recognize the benefit of expanded pedestrian areas, especially onto side streets and parking lanes. Said Rob Toftness of the Denver Bicycle Lobby, who would like to see Denver’s temporary street closures made permanent, “Anytime we use public right-of way for something other than storing a private vehicle, it’s a win for everyone.”

As architects and urban planners, we’re taught early in our educations that a lively pedestrian presence serves to activate downtown streets and boost business. And to keep the party going through winter, we need to keep the customers warm. Cue the Winter Outdoor Design Workshop.

The idea sprung from Colorado Restaurant Association CEO and President Sonia Riggs. She reached out to AIA Colorado, where she formerly served as CEO. “Both organizations started digging into what that might look like,” said Nikolaus Remus, AIA, Advocacy Engagement Director at AIA Colorado. “After our first call, it was obvious we should bring ACEC Colorado on board since viable solutions were likely going to have engineering considerations.” Ultimately, the partnership included AIA Colorado, the State of Colorado, the Colorado Restaurant Association, Colorado Restaurant Foundation, American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado, and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado for a daylong charrette to develop design concepts for outdoor dining. “I think there was a real buzz, an energy during this event to try to create and design amazing environments for our local restaurateurs,” said Scott Prisco, AIA, Denver’s Chief Building Official. “The selection of the team members was very relevant, as well. There were so many creative thinkers with differing perspective to achieve solutions to problems.”

After learning about the outdoor dining charrette while listening to a news conference from Governor Polis, “I reached out to AIA immediately, because I’ve been looking for ways to bring my skills to the table to help people,” said AIA Colorado member Jenny Edwards, of Ricca Design Studios. She along with dozens of other architects, engineers, restaurateurs, contractors, and public health and safety officials teamed via a videoconference to develop easy-to-implement concepts to encourage outdoor winter dining. The inclusion of fire and building officials was intentional, both for up-front input and to publicize an effort to promote faster emergency permitting.

Rob Duran, regional manager for the Blue Agave Grill concepts, joined the charrette after seeing that up to 60 percent of their revenue this year was being generated outdoors. “As data continues to show, outdoor dining is safest, and the diner’s willingness to sit outside through the elements is proving to be an obstacle that restaurants want to tackle.”

After an opening session with introductory remarks by the Governor, the nine teams broke into groups to each address a specific condition, from urban parking lots to mountain resort shopfronts to rooftop patios. Each team presented their rough concepts in a closing session at day’s end, then continued to meet throughout the following week to further develop their ideas. Major themes emerged: open modules with flexible seating vs. fully enclosed four-tops; open airflow to disperse airborne contagions while blocking the wind and keeping heat inside; efficient, yet safe heating under roofing; utility upgrades; heated benches and accessories; attracting diners on both sunny bluebird days and snow-dusted evenings; affordable and scalable modules that would allow customization to site conditions; snow loads; Brrrreckenridge. “Working with a group of amazing volunteers, we determined we could help temper winter’s chill with designs which created an experience that would draw guests despite the colder temperatures.” said Jeff Metheny, AIA, Principal at Studio Atlantis.

The resulting concepts landed in two camps familiar to every backpacker and trekker: tents and huts. Each team addressed these often-contradictory needs in unique ways, giving restaurant owners options that they can adapt to their specific locations. “We wanted to design with some flexibility, having both semi-permanent fixtures like posts and non-permanent units like panels,” said Edwards. “We considered the idea that this could be either disassembled and moved or become a permanent fixture for the park moving forward.” Each team was tasked with a different siting, and her Crinkle Commons concept considered the case of a nearby/adjacent park.

Added Jeff Metheny, whose team addressed urban streets and looked to Colorado’s own history as inspiration, “Using shapes derived from Conestoga wagons, teepees and A-frame shanties, each restaurant can create an upsized experience and much needed seating, all while maintaining safe distances from other diners. We were intentional in designing these structures to be easily and quickly fabricated and installed with the ability to be moved if needed.”

No matter the structure of the shelter, heating remains the key concern. “The primary obstacles for providing heat include available electric service, as well as code issues surrounding propane and gas units,” said Prisco. In response, the teams offered flexible, layered solutions for heating. For example, where gas capacity is available, remote and ducted portable construction heaters could provide the efficiency of gas at a code-compliant distance. With sufficient electric service, radiant electric heaters could be used safely under a roof. Heated walls, benches, or flooring could be added via off-the-shelf products customized to the specific site and structure. And personal heating accessories, from phase-change materials to good old-fashioned blankets provide the final layer. “Our Comfort Wall proposal focuses on maximizing comfort from a seated position, by creating a modular, low-wall system that blocks wind and concentrates heat from ground or under table sources, closest to seated customers,” said Merheb.

One takeaway? Cultural shift will be as important as a built intervention. As no outdoor space will be as cozy as last winter’s crowded tavern, we’ll need to coach our customers to expect a Colorado adventure. Add more hot-toddy cocktails to the menu. Normalize rugged après-ski looks. And naturally, promote a made-for-Colorado slogan: Bring Your Own Blanket.

About the Author

Lauren Dundon

AIA | Associate, Semple Brown | Editorial Committee Member

© AIA Colorado 2022