Perhaps the most creative part about Ashley Hall's new Dining Commons is that it contains space where students can burn off calories as well as consume them.

The new Commons was designed to be much more than a lunchroom; it also can host receptions, classroom instruction, even recreation.

It also had to blend in with three very different urban contexts —the interior of the private school's five-acre campus, an institutional stretch of Rutledge Avenue and the more residential scale of Vanderhorst Street.

In other words, this new building could have triggered a case of indigestion for the school or the surrounding neighborhood — or both — if not handled right.

Fortunately, the design — by Stubbs Muldrow Herin Architects Inc., with landscape by DesignWorks LC —is as successful as it is varied.

The building is yet another example of a structure painstakingly blended into an urban corner of Charleston, so much so that it would not make sense at any other site than the one it sits on.

Most people probably will notice its grand Rutledge Avenue facade, a temple-sized mass with an arched opening that includes windows for the first and second floors separated by panels with decorative metalwork.

The metalwork's gentle overlapping curves were inspired directly by the iron railings on the upper floor of the McBee House, the nearby historic home where Ashley Hall began, architect Sam Herin says.

While the Rutledge facade makes it clear that this is an institutional building, not a dining hall masquerading as a historic home, the Vanderhorst side is a good bit longer but has a subtler feel. Its four smaller masses and raised planter bed help soften the building as it approaches the historic homes just to the east.

While most people will judge the building by these two facades, they're not where the students will enter the building each day.

“Ashley Hall has an inward focusing campus,” Herin says. “The building very much needed to address the connection to campus.”

So off the school's main athletic space is a small courtyard that leads up to a deep porch in the rear of the building.

Jill Muti, Ashley Hall's head of school, says this space not only helps the building blend into the campus, but it also offers places for the students to eat that are more relaxed and intimate than the noisy, bustling experience of most school cafeterias.

That's because the design not only was driven by urban sensibilities but also by the school's food philosophy — one that calls for more family-style dining and local ingredients.

As nice as it may be to eat on the porch, the building's central dining area is an impressive, two-story barrel-vaulted space lit with dormers

But the building's design also is flexible. The dining hall has a smaller section off Rutledge that can be used for meetings — and there's a similar meeting space directly above on the second floor. While the Rutledge Avenue door is locked during the day for security reasons, it can be unlocked and serve as the main entrance for after-hours events.

The most creative aspect of the building also may be its most hidden: The roof holds a good-sized outdoor play area with plush artificial turf and 3-foot tall recessed wall that screens the activity from the neighbors.

Herin says the grassy space likely cuts the building's cooling costs, though it's unclear by how much.

This is the second major addition to the campus in recent years, and while the library and science building was impressive in its own way, the Dining Commons is even more so because it will be noticed — and appreciated — much more by people outside the school.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.