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Town Flattened by Tornado Now Reaps the Wind

Greensburg, Kan., rebuilds as America’s greenest community

October 20, 2009 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

University of Kansas
  One year after a tornado flattened Greenburg, Kan., the community welcomed its new 5.4.7 Arts Center, designed by University of Kansas students to generate more power than it uses.
GREENSBURG, Kan.—Even if it were only one of a kind, Mike Este’s brand-new, energy-efficient, wind-powered, water conserving, environmentally sensitive John Deere dealership would attract considerable attention in this tiny, Great Plains town.

After all, Kansas consistently ranks among the top 10 in U.S. oil and natural gas production and routinely elects lawmakers to Congress that oppose measures to conserve energy and protect the environment.

But Mr. Estes’ 28,500-square-foot, $3 million BTI Greensburg dealership, which in July earned a U.S. Green Building Council “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” certification, is just one of a dozen LEED-certified buildings and homes that have sprung up here since a tornado flatted the community several years ago.

The new Deere dealership—the old one was blown away along with 45 combines and 30 tractors, in a loss valued at $23 million—uses skylights and electrical systems that cut energy use by half, plumbing fixtures that save almost 40,000 gallons of water a year, and two wind turbines out back that generate part of the dealership’s electricity.

“We had the chance to start over,” said Mr. Estes, explaining his company’s decision to build so many resource-saving features into a brand new building. “What do you do when you start with a clean slate? You want to build it better. Right?”

So that is what his company did, and it earned BTI a LEED platinum rating—the green organization’s highest certification.

While many of the nation’s biggest cities don’t have a single platinum development, BTI was not even the first building in Greensburg to earn that distinction. That goes to the 1,670-square-foot Arts Center, at the center of town, designed, built, and opened a year ago by graduate students of the University of Kansas School of Architecture. The center is also powered by windmills, plus a bank of solar photovoltaic panels, and heated and cooled by a state-of-the-art geothermal system.

The same approach now guides a much larger effort—the $100 million project to rebuild homes, retail stores, offices, and public buildings in this sun-washed, wind-whipped agricultural community of 900 residents. In every case, the approach is prompted by the town’s big catastrophe, the monstrous tornado that, in May 2007, turned Greenberg’s homes and buildings to rubble and killed 11 people.

After the storm, as federal and state officials assessed the damage and estimated reconstruction costs, business and civic leaders huddled with residents to come up with a reconstruction plan that went well beyond restoring what the community had lost. The most important thing, city leaders recalled in recent interviews, was to build a sense of economic dynamism that would generate new businesses and jobs, and convince Greensburg’s talented young people not to leave. Before the tornado, according to census and city records, the median age of Greensburg’s residents was increasing and not a single new home had been built in a decade.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, those first gatherings produced a surprising civic consensus in a community where “green roofs,” the “heat island effect,” and “r-values” were foreign concepts. As Dea Corns, a realtor who manages the Greensburg State Bank with her husband, Thomas, recalls, “We decided to put the ‘green’ in Greensburg.”

These days the technical language of the green building world are in everyday use as Greensburg sets out to achieve the distinction that then-Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius described in a news conference two years ago.

"We have an opportunity of having the greenest town in rural America,” said Ms. Sibelius, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Taking the Tour
Though there are, as yet, no nationally recognized criteria for ranking a community’s green virtues, it’s hard to imagine how Greensburg wouldn’t be a leader. Last year, local officials approved a redevelopment plan drawn up by the Kansas City, Missouri-based architectural firm BNIM that called for Greensburg to be a “truly sustainable community that balances the economic, ecological, and social impacts of development,” and “a laboratory for research on sustainable design and community development.”

Greensburg also approved an ordinance that required all municipal buildings larger than 4,000 square feet be built to LEED-platinum standards, the first community in the United States to do so.

Along with BTI’s John Deere dealership, the new community rising from the wheat and soybean fields of south central Kansas look like this:

There’s the city’s 10,000 square-foot, $3.4 million, LEED platinum Business Incubator, which opened on Main Street in April. Financing for the office building, which offers temporary space at low rents for 10 small businesses, was provided by Frito-Lay, the federal Department of Agriculture, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The 4,700-square-foot, $2.9 million City Hall, designed to achieve LEED platinum designation, the first city hall in the country that could earn that award, has opened at the center of town.

A block away, the 18,800-square foot Kiowa County Courthouse, built in 1914, is being renovated at a cost of $5 million. The reconstruction includes highly insulated walls, geothermal pumps for heating and cooling, high performance lighting and controls, and other environmental and clean energy features that qualify for LEED gold designation.

Along U.S. 54, the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, a 15-bed, 48,500 square-foot, $25 million medical facility, is under construction and scheduled to open next year. According to Kiowa County, the new hospital is seeking to become the first LEED platinum critical access facility in the country. The building incorporates natural light, high-performance insulating glass, light-sensing dimmers, motion sensors, on-site wind turbine generators, a bio-swale filtration system to process all laundry waste water, low-flow showers and lavatories, and a rainwater capture system to flush toilets.

The building, in fact, is so energy-efficient that it will not need fuel oil boilers to provide redundancy to the heating and cooling systems, dramatically reducing costs.

Next to the hospital on U.S. 54 is Dillons Kwik Stop, a 8,000 square-foot retail food store that opened in February. It has skylights, energy-efficient coolers, and refrigerated cases equipped with motion sensors that light up only when customers approach.

Across town, the new, 120,000 square foot, $50 million Greensburg K-12 school is scheduled to open next year. Designed for LEED-platinum designation, the school anticipates the population growth that the greening project hopes to achieve. It uses skylights for natural lighting, geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling, and room for 375 students, nearly double the current 200-student enrollment.

“People saw that a terrible tragedy could be made into something valuable and durable and better,” said Daniel Wallach, founder and executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit organization that has provided technical assistance and organizational support for the reconstruction. “They said look what we can do when we think about this in a new way.”

Big Savings
Not everybody has been so enthusiastic. Some home and business owners, particularly in the months after the tornado, criticized the clean energy redevelopment plan principally because they believed construction costs would be too high and construction permits would be issued too slowly.

Those criticisms, though, turned out to be misplaced, said Steve Hewitt, Greensburg’s city administrator.

“On the whole, the clean energy plan has worked very well,” Mr. Hewitt said.

Mr. Estes and other business owners who’ve added energy-saving designs and equipment report that the initial higher installation costs have been more than offset by significantly lower operating costs. Mr. Estes said he is saving the equivalent of $25,000 to $30,000 annually in energy and water costs compared to his old building.

Greensburg’s green showcase also includes a 32-unit, 40,000-square foot, $4 million, LEED-certified town home complex, and 200 new homes to replace those that were destroyed. Most were built with energy efficiency, water conservation, and other environmental values in mind. Greensburg GreenTown is sponsoring a project to build a chain of “eco-homes” for education and to spur tourism, the first of which, the concrete “Silo Eco-Home” with a green roof was just completed. Eleven more are planned.

The National Renewable Energy Lab, a unit of the federal Department of Energy that advised the city in green development, tested 100 of Greensburg’s recently built homes and found that, on average, they consumed roughly 40 percent less energy than those they replaced.

Greensburg also is one of the first in the nation to light its streets with LED lamps, which focus their beams on the ground and make it possible to see the stars. The new lamps also save 70 percent in energy and maintenance costs over the old sodium vapor lights, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 tons per year, say city leaders.

And Greensburg is planning to generate all of its electricity from the wind. Outside of town, Iowa-based John Deere Renewable Energy is planning to break ground on a 12.5-megawatt wind farm that consists of 10 turbines capable of supplying electricity to 4,000 homes.

All of this activity has attracted the attention of two presidents. President Bush twice visited Greensburg and, in February, Mayor Bob Dixson sat beside First Lady Michelle Obama when, during his first address to Congress, President Obama cited the community “as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community, how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay.”

Mike Estes, who is recognized here as one of the influential business leaders who advocated for the new green redevelopment strategy, is so enthusiastic that he embraced a new clean energy business plan that responds directly to the city’s goal of generating new jobs.

BTI is now the national distributor of Canadian-built Endurance Wind Power turbines, capable of powering homes and businesses. He’s building a new office next door to the Deere dealership where six to eight employees will work earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year, a handsome wage in this part of Kansas.

“Two years ago the whole town needed to be rebuilt,” said Mr. Estes. “And we needed industry. We are learning that green makes sense.”

Keith Schneider founded the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995. He now directs communications for the Climate Action Network, in Washington, D.C. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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