Vanderbilt team gets context, closer look for Sterling Ranch sustainability projects

A team of 30 Vanderbilt University students and professors from across the disciplines spent a series of information-packed, 14-hour days in suburban Denver to understand better how their work will lead to smart, sustainable cities.

They returned from that winter break trip with the context of research already underway – projects that are the result of a unique partnership between Vanderbilt and the developers of Sterling Ranch, a next-generation planned community being built from the ground up just south of Denver. Adjacent to Colorado’s Front Range and two state parks, the 5-square-mile, $4.3 billion development will be a model of sustainability, offering a test bed for both School of Engineering undergraduates’ Senior Design projects and PhD students and professors’ advanced research.

The topics are varied. One team of engineering fourth-years is figuring out how adding $50,000 in upgrades to a floor plan today could make a house net-zero for decades. Another is devising a monitoring system that allows homeowners to know how much water they’re using at a glance. A third, determining which roof configurations will result in optimum solar power collection.

From left, engineering undergraduates Ben Cook, Hugh van Heesewijk and Virinchi Juttukonda on a tour of NREL. (Heidi Hall, Vanderbilt University)

Alongside the engineers, a smaller team from Peabody College of education and human development is working to envision next-gen schools for Sterling Ranch – which will have 31,000 residents at its completion in 20 years. An environmental sciences major from Arts & Sciences is studying water quality, and a sociology major is examining how sustainable design and human behavior intersect.

Sterling Ranch is the creation of Colorado entrepreneurs Harold and Diane Smethills and their son, Brock, a Vanderbilt engineering alumnus working as the project’s COO. Brock Smethills (BE’13) envisioned the partnership more than a year ago.

“While visiting, students learned everything it takes to make a sustainable community,” he said. “We started at a macro level, looking at water and energy community-wide. We talked about municipal financing, which is how every government finances projects.

“It’s a holistic approach toward sustainable development. The engineering is important, but also important are all these external factors that most engineering students never see.”

To get the context that results in the best design, the teams absorbed everything about forces impacting Sterling Ranch, the region’s history, economic development and demographics. They heard from Douglas County leaders about transportation and other infrastructure triumphs and concerns, about the educational landscape and emergency response issues.

They also heard from Sterling Ranch’s homebuilders and professional engineers already on the project — those dealing with rainwater harvesting and other water sustainability efforts, technology for smart homes and solar power. They toured research space at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Siemens, Lockheed Martin and Xcel Energy. The Peabody team toured STEM School Academy, a charter school whose leaders want to put a second location in Sterling Ranch.

From left, Brock Smethills, Sterling Ranch COO; Professor David Kosson; and Harold Smethills, Sterling Ranch president and CEO, listen to presentations by Douglas County officials. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Siemens was a favorite stop for students, who enjoyed live presentations about Sterling Ranch technology in a special room set up just to showcase it. They saw the electronic brains of homes that can be set to start a clothes dryer when energy prices drop or switch all screens in the house to an Amber Alert or severe weather warning.

“It was exciting the way they’re figuring out what technology to use and what people will use,” said Leah Dundon, a former environmental lawyer who is now a PhD student in civil engineering. “This whole trip has been about seeing a visionary process unfolding that hasn’t happened in the U.S. before – determining a new way people are going to live and work in an environmentally friendly place.”

For others, getting to see Sterling Ranch rising from the prairie grasses was the most exciting. The water treatment plant is nearly finished, and heavy equipment is on site carving out infrastructure for the first plat of the development – Providence Village, with 655 single-family detached homes, 144 single-family homes and open parcels for a school, commercial office space and retail.

Some of the students’ design work will be included in model homes, where they can stay during future visits and experience the results first-hand.

Hugh van Heesewijk (EE’16) said seeing Sterling Ranch in person made all the maps and housing plans he’d reviewed more relevant.

“On top of that, listening to the Smethills and seeing what they’re hoping to get out of this community was really interesting – seeing their passion and seeing the future of sustainable energy in America was really a great takeaway,” he said.

The grant’s principal investigators are David Kosson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering, and Claire Smrekar, associate professor of leadership, policy and organization at Peabody College.

Kosson said the key to this sort of transinstitutional work is undergrads, graduate students and faculty across disciplines focusing together on a real system of national importance.

“The interpersonal dynamic was tremendous – we all learned from each other – practicing professionals, students and faculty that would not normally have such in-depth, personal interactions,” he said.

The Sterling Ranch team from Vanderbilt University on a golf course adjacent to the planned community. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

The Sterling Ranch Team

Faculty: Professor David Kosson, Civil & Environmental Engineering; Associate Professor Claire Smrekar, Peabody College; Professor John Ayers, Earth & Environmental Science; Assistant Professor Hiba Baroud, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Professor of the Practice Ralph Bruce, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science; Professor Xenofon Koutsoukos, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science; Associate Professor of the Practice Lori Troxel, Civil & Environmental Engineering; Professor Mark Abkowitz, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Graduate students: Kristin Baese and Eve Rifkin, EdD students, Peabody College; and Leah Dundon and Leslie Gillespie-Marthaler, PhD students, Environmental Engineering

Undergraduates: Kate Chaikovsky (Sociology’17), Ben Cook (CE’16), Haley Hyde (CEE’16), Virinchi Juttukonda (CE’16), Jin-Mi Matsunaga (CEE’16), Madison McCoy (CEE’16), Nicole McVey (CEE’16), Amy Pickens (CE’16), Shanna Rucker (CEE’16), Deanna Schauben (ME’16), Anica Sunshine (Earth & Environmental Sciences ’17), Kate Tarne (Elementary Education ’17), Hugh van Heesewijk (EE’16), Jacob Verdin (ME’16), Azeem Yunus (CEE’16)


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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