Partnership with sustainable Sterling Ranch offers research from the ground up

At the Sterling Ranch groundbreaking were, from left: Clark Murray (BS ’13), Scott Trench (BS ’13), Professor Lori Troxel, Carlton Jester (BE ’17), Alexander Macklis (BE ’16), and Brock Smethills (BE ‘13).

A Vanderbilt University alumnus and his family broke ground this month on a 21st century development that will provide a training site and test bed for School of Engineering students and professors.

Sterling Ranch, a 12,000-home planned community south of Denver, includes its own commercial space, retail stores and schools. Its design is centered on sustainability and next-generation telecommunications, a focus that’s creating internships and capstone projects for engineering undergraduates plus research opportunities for professors and their teams.

The partnership, which includes corporations Mortenson Construction, Siemens and IBM, started with Brock Smethills (BE’13) discussing his idea with David Kosson,  Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering, and Doug Adams, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and holder of the Daniel F. Flowers Chair. They brought in a number of other professors across all departments to advance the concept.

Smethills said he’s excited the university saw as many opportunities for partnership as he did.

“Vanderbilt does a great job of constantly thinking outside the box and teaching its graduates to do the same,” said Smethills, COO of Sterling Ranch Development Company. “This is a 20- to 25-year build out. We won’t get everything perfect the first time, but we’ll have the university to help us learn as we go.”

A map of Sterling Ranch.

Kosson immediately recognized Sterling Ranch as an opportunity for one of Vanderbilt’s new Trans-Institutional Program grants, offered to encourage collaboration among schools within the university. Kosson worked with Peaboby College of Education’s Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education, and faculty across the School of Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and won one of 17 TIP grants awarded this year.

In addition to funding engineering internships and research, the grant opened doors for undergraduate and graduate students in education to work with the Douglas County School District in developing an advanced blueprint for education. Students from the College of Arts & Science’s sustainability science class will use Sterling Ranch as a semester-long case study.

“You have to have a mindset to think outside of your own discipline when pulling teams together,” Kosson said. “Basically, you must seek out the best people with expertise that relates to the challenge you are trying to solve — and societal problems are inherently multidisciplinary. Vanderbilt is unique in that this approach is strongly encouraged.”

Sterling Ranch’s designers convinced the state legislature to change laws surrounding rainwater collection, Smethills said, which is vital for sustainability in the water-scarce West. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a significant new law at the groundbreaking ceremony on June 6.

“We changed Colorado water law to allow rainwater harvesting because it is environmentally sustainable, saves our residents millions of dollars in water rights acquisition and is the right thing to do for our state,” Smethills said.

A number of Vanderbilt professors, including Kosson, will work on characterizing current water availability, projecting future use and monitoring quantity and quality. Among other new projects for sustainability are:

  • Allowing students to design a house that is net-zero for energy usage and close to net-zero for water usage and can be replicated by Sterling Ranch’s homebuilders.
  • Using the Internet of Things to monitor water, wastewater and energy use inside each home and then allowing a Siemens system to adjust for optimal levels as set by homeowners.
  • Building all homes with solar panels unless the buyer opts out.
  • Protecting environmental quality through use of sustainable building materials.
  • Converting sludge from the wastewater treatment plant into methane gas for energy.

“It’s exciting for students and faculty to be involved in designing a city from scratch,” School of Engineering Dean Philippe Fauchet said. “This is such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’ll be a part of it from its start.”

Other School of Engineering faculty involved in the project are: Lori Troxel, Ralph Bruce, Sanjiv Gokhale, Gabor Karsai, Xenofon Koutsoukos, Eugene LeBoeuf, Shihong Lin and Cynthia Paschal.

Click here to watch a TV news report about the Sterling Ranch groundbreaking.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering