Sustainable Architecture and the Power of Community: Rebuilding Greensburg, Kansas

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"The Greening of Oz" by Robert Fraga is a powerful tale of how a small town used the power of community to rebuild after a tornado. Greensburg, Kan., is an ongoing example of how sustainable architecture and renewable energy can positively transform an otherwise devastating experience into a hopeful, new beginning.

Sustainable architecture is not the first phrase that comes to mind when you think about how to rebuild after a tornado. But for Greensburg, Kan., their tornado recovery plan has occurred side-by-side with LEED platinum public buildings, renewable energy, water saving and other environmental initiatives. This excerpt is adapted from various sections of Robert Fraga’s The Greening of Oz (Wasteland Press, 2012).

In early May, 2007, a killer wind wiped out a small town in south central Kansas. The name of the town: Greensburg. The wind which blew it off the map was the biggest tornado to touch down in this country since the adoption three months earlier of the so-called Enhanced Fujita Scale.

Why write a book about what happened in Greensburg? Towns, after all, get hit by tornadoes every year. There is even a part of the Midwest called Tornado Alley. Greensburg lies smack dab in the middle of it. It’s the way the town chose to rebuild that makes it unique. These are still early days. Only five years have elapsed since the tornado; but the Greensburg experiment — and it is an experiment — needs to be followed, not just by its own tornado-prone region of the country, but by the country as a whole. And followed attentively.

This village, sequestered on the Great Plains of America, may help point the way to the future, the way human beings can survive not only increasingly violent natural disasters — a result of global climate change — but the depletion of oil and gas reserves, a growing scarcity of all but sustainable materials, and pollution so pervasive that it is poisoning our environment.

Choosing Sustainable Architecture: Power of Community

What was it that Greensburg, Kan., decided to do? On December 17, 2007, the City Council mandated that all public buildings with a footprint exceeding 4,000 square feet be built to meet LEED platinum certification. It encouraged residents, reconstructing their homes and businesses, to do likewise. 

In an interview in The Signal on May 9, 2007, Mayor Lonnie McCollum chose to put a brave face on things. “We have the opportunity for a brand new town,” he said. Photographed wearing a white T-shirt and his signature baseball cap with its panoply of American-flag stars, McCollum acknowledged that the town was not going to come back overnight. “But in five years, there will be a huge improvement.”

On Friday, May 11, 2007, exactly one week after the tornado, there was a town meeting in Davis Park. Five hundred residents of Greensburg attended. According to The Signal, it “could have passed for a frontier revival meeting in its opening minutes.” Neighbors who had not seen one another for a week fell into each other’s arms and wept for joy. The crowd heard McCollum and Hewitt offer words of encouragement to those whose lives had been shattered by the tornado. Volunteers were thunderously applauded. The City Administrator paid tribute to McCollum. “The mayor is going to start construction next week on his brand new energy-efficient house in Greensburg.” The announcement brought the crowd to its feet.

“We’re going to rebuild this town, and we’re going to do it right,” said McCollum.

Tornado Recovery Plan: Focus on LEED Platinum and Renewable Energy

 “This LTCR Plan is a guide for Greensburg and Kiowa County to use in their recovery efforts following the May 4, 2007, tornado,” the report said.

The plan set the tone for much that happened over the next 18 months. It dwelt, for example, on the importance of alternative energy sources: “Greensburg is located in the High Plains of central-western Kansas where both wind and solar energy stand out as potentially viable sources of renewable energy.”

The plan raised what was to be a crucial issue for the town: aiming for LEED platinum certification. It stated that “designing and constructing public facilities to meet the most stringent environmental and energy-efficient standards will increase the sustainability and add unique elements to Greensburg and Kiowa County.”

Running in parallel to Daniel Wallach’s own thinking, the plan observed that “a concentration of LEED platinum buildings in one community could provide a tourist attraction, especially for those interested in. . . the rebuilding process.”

The first part of the master plan “emerged directly from the community and is representative of both the planning team’s recommendations and the input from many stakeholder groups.” It dwelt at some length on questions of energy use and generation, citing the need to reduce carbon emissions and to promote energy independence as “arguably the most important issues facing our society.” Wind energy was specifically mentioned as one way to power Greensburg 100 percent from renewable sources.

The plan called for a “walkable community founded around a civic core,” with guidelines for “sustainable site and building design.” Buildings should be “healthy, efficient, safe, beautiful structures” which should last for 100 years. Architectural design was to be sensitive to regional influences and to use local materials.

The third issue to be addressed in the plan was the need to treat water as a precious resource. It was observed that the Ogallala Aquifer was being exhausted “at a rate ten times the rate of natural recharge.” The city will implement sustainable infrastructure solutions for both storm water and waste water. These systems will ensure that all of Greensburg’s aquifer withdrawals are recharged with clean water and that site runoff and waste water discharges will be as pure as the rain that falls in Greensburg.

The last issue to be addressed in the first part of the master plan was that of economic development. Only after sufficient progress had been made to come up with sustainable clean energy, city-wide efficiency, and good urban design, would or should a strategy to recruit  businesses be attempted.

For the three years following the tornado, Greensburg never completely dropped off the media’s radar screen. Its decision to achieve LEED certification for the reconstruction of its public buildings is one of the reasons it continued to bask in the environmental spotlight. A LEED resolution, drafted in cooperation with BNIM’s Steve Hardy, was adopted by the City Council at its December 17, 2007, meeting. It was a breathtakingly bold measure which called for construction of City Hall, the business incubator, and a tourism center at the Big Well to meet LEED’s platinum certification.

All buildings with a footprint exceeding 4,000 square feet would need:

1) to reduce energy use 42 percent over building code requirements, and

2) to utilize renewable energy sources like wind. Undeniably, Greensburg had an abundant supply of that commodity. “The city is sitting on an excellent wind site,” Steve Hardy said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to capture that resource, maybe [with] an industrial wind farm near town or small turbines throughout town.” Lynn Billman reckoned that the wind in this part of Kansas was “a constant wind. . .[possibly] 16 mph at 50 meters above ground. That [kind of] moderate-strength wind is your best economic source for wind power.”

Looking Back: Greensburg Tornado Recovery Today

Was it worth it? Going green? Well, . . .yeah, said Gary Goodman, for the sake of future generations. Mayor Bob Dixson agreed. And going green had given Greensburg “a brand,” what Steve Hewitt called “a marketing dream.” People were still talking about Greensburg, nearly five years after the tornado, observed Hewitt as he looked back over the five years he had spent in Greensburg as that city’s administrator. We were true pioneers, he said. The Greensburg story was unique. Bob Dixson said that it had given the town an identity.

When asked about the lessons to be learned by other communities tempted to follow Greensburg’s example, interviewees offered a variety of opinions which ranged from the general to the very specific. By sharing what it went through, Greensburg could save towns like Joplin a year in planning and executing their recovery. That was Gary Goodman’s estimate. John Janssen thought that even if the Greensburg experience was not 100 percent transferable, there were conceptual lessons to be learned here. He agreed that educating city governments about what to expect, should disaster befall them, was an important plus. Steve Hewitt’s opinion was that planning was critical. It might take time but it was worth it. Stick to your plan, even in the teeth of adversity. And use common sense, a point he hammered over and over again.

This excerpt has been adapted with permission from The Greening of Oz, published by Wasteland Press, 2012.