Rocky Mountain Hi-Tech
Vanderbilt researchers are helping build a futuristic, sustainable city in Colorado that will double as a living lab
Bouncing along a red-dirt road peppered with a few terrifying embankments, a Vanderbilt delegation arrives at an empty hilltop meadow carpeted with prairie grass and cordoned off by a barbed-wire fence. Other than a few bored cows, the only cue indicating the destination is a lone sign reading “Sterling Ranch: Where Quality of Life Begins.”
Situated 20 miles southwest of Denver, and nestled between two state parks that offer stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, Sterling Ranch doesn’t look like much now. But during the next 20 years, the five-square-mile, $4.3 billion planned community will take shape as a futuristic city. Houses will leave smaller ecological footprints and will be outfitted with smart water and energy-management systems. Local schools will offer the latest advances in curriculum and classroom design. And in the end, Vanderbilt students and faculty will have helped design and implement all of it.
At least that’s the vision of Brock Smethills, BE’13, and his father, Harold Smethills, a former Coors executive who is now chairman of the Sterling Ranch Development Co. It’s also the reason why Philippe Fauchet, dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, along with faculty members David Kosson, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering, and Claire Smrekar, associate professor of leadership, policy and organizations at Peabody College, found themselves exploring a bare patch of land in suburban Denver and attending several days’ worth of intense meetings during the summer.
“This is a singular opportunity,” Kosson says, adding that he and his Vanderbilt colleagues know of no other schools that have done something like this. “A place for research that’s of this magnitude and this cutting edge is completely in line with Vanderbilt’s ideals of immersion learning and vertical integration.”
The Smethills family has been working to develop Sterling Ranch for more than a decade. Along the way they led a five-year effort in the Colorado legislature to allow for rainwater harvesting in the drought-prone state and fended off a lawsuit filed by neighbors claiming the development hadn’t lined up enough water rights to make it viable. It was only last fall, just before winter break, that Vanderbilt became involved.
After spending months working on the many facets of Sterling Ranch—ranging from energy infrastructure to education initiatives—Brock Smethills, who had deferred a graduate-school acceptance at Georgetown University to help his father with Sterling Ranch, soon thought of his alma mater. He is now the development company’s chief operating officer.
A partnership with Vanderbilt seemed like a natural fit, says Brock. “Vanderbilt does a great job of constantly thinking outside the box and teaching its graduates to do the same.”
He called Dean Fauchet to pitch the idea of Vanderbilt’s involvement with the project, which in turn launched a round-robin of phone calls with Kosson, an expert in energy and water systems; Smrekar, who is widely recognized for her research on school choice; as well as Doug Adams, the Daniel F. Flowers Professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering. Within a few days a larger group on campus was sitting around a table hashing out a plan for how Vanderbilt could tap into the unique research opportunities offered by helping to build a model city from scratch.
Kosson said he immediately recognized Sterling Ranch as a chance to win one of 17 new grants through the university’s Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPs) initiative—funding offered by Vanderbilt to encourage research and teaching collaboration among schools. (See sidebar below.) He and Smrekar worked with several engineering professors and John Ayers, professor of earth and environmental sciences in the College of Arts and Science, to identify the wide range of potential opportunities Sterling Ranch presented for faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students.
“I’ve done a lot of research, and this is an exciting pivot for me. It’s moving from research to application in a way that’s productive for a community,” Smrekar says. “The students will be doing real field research in real time with a real partner—and the work has real potential to change the way we think.”
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
The association with Vanderbilt also made sense for Sterling Ranch. Corporate partners, including Siemens and IBM, already had designed the development’s initial water and power systems, plus an array of other state-of-the-art technologies to integrate homeowners into their communities by giving them more control over everything from home security to connected city streetlights. During the next few years, Vanderbilt teams will apply innovative research to analyze and build upon that commercial technology.
“We became a huge fan of Vanderbilt though Brock’s experience,” says Harold Smethills, whose older son, Ross, is attending Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. “The quality of thinking, the attention to the students, the approach to the future of engineering—we were just so impressed.”
One set of Vanderbilt-led projects will include creating the next generation of cyber-physical systems that integrate software to monitor and manage water quality and usage. Another set of projects will explore a flexible energy grid that can transition seamlessly from rooftop solar power to other electricity sources without causing blackouts. Undergraduates will work on a model sustainable home to be used as a prototype for the homebuilders who have been approved to work in Sterling Ranch. Once it’s built, the house will then serve as a learning lab on the property.
Education also will play a major role in Vanderbilt’s partnership with Sterling Ranch. Working with local school officials in Douglas County, already one of Colorado’s highest-performing districts, Smrekar says she hopes to explore several ideas about the future of education. Those include an education innovation zone that merges community interests and local assets—for example, exploring outdoor education using city parks or partnering with local tech firms.
Smrekar wants to rethink the way space, time and structures converge in education. Perhaps that happens on a campus of learning labs that include traditional, charter and private school options. Or maybe it comes through coursework that engages high school design teams in workplace-anchored projects like aerospace engineering and environmental science.
In fact, some of Vanderbilt’s education and engineering work has begun already. Smrekar procured housing for five Peabody undergraduates who will travel with her in January to Douglas County, where they will begin mapping local educational resources: nearby colleges and universities, potential corporate partners, and museums and parks that could be used for outdoor learning. They also will start surveying local parents about their preferences in academic offerings, such as STEM or the arts, as well as attitudes about school choice. Once some of those initiatives have launched, Smrekar envisions Peabody graduate students tracking their progress and figuring out ways to adapt the lessons to other school districts.
Two Vanderbilt engineering interns, junior Carlton Jester and senior Alec Macklis, spent this past summer exploring Sterling Ranch’s technology benefits. Another 15 engineering students will make the trek in January with their Peabody classmates.
“David Kosson and I are thinking deeply about how to merge our disciplines and areas of study and research to produce an integrated approach in developing a new learning, living campus,” Smrekar says.
THE BUILDING BEGINS
Construction on the first section of Sterling Ranch began in June. Called Providence Village, it includes 655 single-family detached homes, 144 single-family townhomes, and open parcels for a school, commercial office space and retail. There’s already a waiting list of eager buyers, as demand has been stoked by the region’s burgeoning technology and health care industries.
“My parents started working on Sterling Ranch when I was 13,” says Brock Smethills, now 24. “The vision has changed somewhat, but there was always that overarching idea of being good stewards of the land.”
Between an adolescence spent sitting through public hearings about land and water use and his classes at Vanderbilt, Brock honed an uncanny ability to recall minute details effortlessly on a range of issues. He also displays a calm efficiency that serves as a counterweight to his father’s entrepreneurial zeal as he’s barraged with hundreds of incoming calls, text messages and emails each day.
Perhaps most important, Brock remains clear that the goal of Sterling Ranch is not to build some “crunchy” utopia, where residents forgo creature comforts, but rather to develop and test technology features that enable a comfortable consumer lifestyle in a vastly more sustainable way.
“Part of the challenge is all this technology not getting in the way of improving the quality of people’s lives,” says Kosson.
From a research perspective he adds: “You also need a mindset to think outside your discipline, seeking out the best people with expertise that relates to the challenge you are trying to solve. This is so applicable to Sterling Ranch because building a community is an inherently multidisciplinary job.”
Heidi Hall is a content strategist and social media manager in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering.
17 Cross-Disciplinary Initiatives Win Funding
Seventeen cross-disciplinary projects involving 153 faculty members from all Vanderbilt colleges and schools have been selected for the initial set of awards from the new Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPs) initiative. The projects represent a broad and diverse range of research and teaching.
Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos launched the $50 million TIPs program in November 2014 to provide support during the next five years for cross-disciplinary research and collaboration. The 17 projects were selected from 64 formal proposals received.
TIPs are cross-college initiatives involving partnerships that interweave diverse perspectives, features, methods and information to foster creativity in both discovery and learning. Proposals for the next round of TIPs awards are now being considered.
The inaugural programs are:
- Advanced Neuroimaging at Vanderbilt | College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- The Vanderbilt Pre3 Initiative (Preventing Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes and Prematurity) | School of Medicine, Peabody College, School of Engineering
- A Trans-Institutional Big Data Architecture at Vanderbilt | College of Arts and Science, Jean and Alexander Heard Library System, Peabody College, School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- Program for Bioeffector Discovery | College of Arts and Science, School of Medicine
- Vanderbilt Institute for Obesity and Metabolism | College of Arts and Science, Law School, Peabody College, Owen Graduate School of Management, School of Medicine
- ViSE: Bringing Engineers and Surgeons Together | School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- The Science of Music Research: Creating a Program for Music, Mind and Society | Blair School of Music, College of Arts and Science, Peabody College, School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- NetsBlox: Digital Learning Technology for Computer Science Education | College of Arts and Science, Peabody College, School of Engineering
- Trans-Institutional Collaborative to Improve Chronic Disease in Children and Their Families in Underserved Settings | Peabody College, School of Medicine
- A Multidisciplinary Approach to Assessing Health Care in Brazil | College of Arts and Science, Owen Graduate School of Management, School of Medicine
- Sterling Ranch: Sustainability and Education Research Center | College of Arts and Science, Peabody College, School of Engineering
- Ethics of Health and Human Flourishing | College of Arts and Science, Dean of Students, Peabody College, School of Medicine
- Learning Institute for Health Solutions in the U.S. South | College of Arts and Science, Divinity School, School of Medicine, School of Nursing
- Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Probes | College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- Wisdom Working Group | College of Arts and Science, Law School, Peabody College, School of Engineering, School of Medicine
- Private Governance Approaches to Climate Change | College of Arts and Science, Owen Graduate School of Management, Law School
- The Laboratories for Innovation in Global Health Technologies (LIGHT) | College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering, School of Medicine