Construction of a new student commons building at Sacred Heart University -- a 46,000-square-foot structure linking the upper and lower sections of the school's Fairfield campus -- got under way Thursday.

Ceremonially, anyway.

SHU officials and others gathered on the construction site for a ground-breaking ceremony for the $17 million building. Construction is scheduled to be finished in early 2012, according to the university.

The project, approved by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission last February, will house a variety of student services, including a full-service kitchen with a dining hall that can seat up to 250 people, as well as a smaller dining area for 50.

The SHU bookstore will move to the commons, and it will also be home to the computer services center known as the "IT Factory."

Other features include lounges, as well as presentation and conference rooms.

The V-shaped building will be set into the hillside on the drive to the William H. Pitt Health and Recreation Center, and its design incorporates sustainability and energy-efficiency features, according to SHU.

The firm of Sasaki Architects of Watertown, Mass., planned and designed the new student commons in collaboration with the university. The firm, which won an international design competition for the Olympics in Beijing, also designed university's Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which opened last September.