For a century or so, the Chicago Stockyards ranked the world’s most famous livestock-processing centers — a vast stretch of stock pens and packinghouses with rail connections to much of the country — until meat distribution moved to the interstate highway system.

“It was the beginning of the industrialization of food, on a scale that was mind-blowing at the time,” said David Ferguson, interim dean of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). “Then it went away. Today it is a one-mile-square area of Chicago that is not operating at a high level and is looking for its next identity.”

Developing that identity is the challenge facing a partnership that grew from a John R. Emens Distinguished Professorship.

The Emens Distinguished Professorship is awarded each academic year through one of Ball State’s colleges, on a rotating basis. It traditionally goes to a person. This past academic year, in a twist to create new opportunities for students outside of the classroom, the professorship went to SmithGroupJJR, one of the nation’s largest architecture, engineering and planning firms.

Fresh perspectives

“We said, ‘What if we took an entire design firm and appointed them to the Emens Distinguished Professorship and used all of their resources in a variety of ways?’” recalled Ferguson.

The relationship is really a two-way street, said Troy Thompson, ’90, managing partner at SmithGroupJJR and a member of the newly created CAP Executive Advisory Board. “It gives us a chance to collaborate and learn from what’s going on in academia,” he explained. What are the latest trends on the research agenda? What up-and-coming software are students learning? What trends are on the minds of tomorrow’s architects? “We get a lot of fresh perspectives.”

SmithGroupJJR provided expertise to students through traditional lectures, with Thompson delivering the Fall 2017 opener. The firm’s engineers delivered a Spring lecture, bringing a design perspective to the college that doesn’t exist in the normal curriculum. But what really has fired up imaginations is the joint project to develop a new identity for the Chicago Stockyards.

A 1878 lithograph of Chicago Stockyards

A 1878 lithograph of the stockyards includes an identification key listing the names of 37 commercial pack houses, fertilizer factories, slaughterhouses.

A team of students traveled to Chicago in February to get the ball rolling with professionals from the firm and representatives of the Stockyards district.

“The thing we like about the Chicago project is it works for Ball State and us on multiple levels,” Thompson said. There are elements of urban design and planning, architecture, engineering, construction management, historic preservation, interior design, landscape architecture, and more. Depending on the kinds of projects that arise, there could even be opportunities for those outside of CAP, such as business students, to participate in fall design studios focused on projects in the stockyards.

“We get to engage all of the disciplines in CAP,” said Thompson. “It really starts to frame the students’ thinking of integrated design.”

The history of the stockyards has revolved around food, and its future could, too, said Ferguson. Already, the area is home to a sophisticated sustainable food operation known as Plant Chicago. Its concept involves what’s known as a circular economy. “Waste from one process becomes the resource for the next,” Ferguson explains.

That kind of thinking inspires the CAP and SmithGroupJJR team members.

Learning from each other

Steve Himebrook, ’17 MA ’18, was thrilled by the opportunity as a master’s student in urban design. “One big emphasis was looking for economic sustainability and looking at urban agriculture as part of a plan of attack,” and it happens that his undergraduate thesis focused on urban agriculture as a way to build local economies. “This project had a lot of significance for me.”

CAP Students

In meetings with SmithGroupJJR’s team, CAP students began conceptualizing how the old stockyards might be repurposed with a community focus.

Beyond the lectures and the joint project, Ferguson cites the benefits of pursuing applied research together with the firm. “We’re going to pair up some of our faculty with some of their research folks.”

Thompson said the University and the firm have plenty to learn from each other. “In the past, universities had their agenda, and business had its own agenda, and there hasn’t been a way to see how those agendas align and fit together.” The values today are aligning more and more, he said, and this kind of relationship helps facilitate that alignment.

“Ultimately, it’s going to lead to a number of longer-term relationships, either through research projects or elective courses we can teach and support we can give faculty in their current courses,” Thompson predicted. And he said the relationship will be great for the CAP alumni who work in nearly all of SmithGroupJJR’s multiple offices.

“I hope it ultimately leads to a permanent relationship where CAP and SmithGroupJJR are leaders in shaping the future of our professions. And it builds a Ball State network within our firm that encourages alums to remain in touch with BSU.”