Greensburg Going ’Green’

Sat August 23, 2008 - National Edition
Lori Lovely




On May 4, 2007, a deadly EF5 tornado struck Greensburg, Kan., wiping out 95 percent of the small Midwestern town. Only one of an outbreak of more than 100 tornadoes in “Tornado Alley” during a 48-hour period, its total path length was 22 mi., with a funnel width of 1.7 mi. A few hours after it hit, twisted metal and splintered wood dotted the neat square blocks where neighborhoods once stood, as residents evacuated the now unsafe town.

Estimates place the monetary damage in Greensburg at $153 million. The Kiowa County Memorial Hospital sustained heavy damage, while two schools, a John Deere tractor supply company, City Hall, the visitor’s center at the Big Well, a motel and the city’s water tower were destroyed.

Writing a Plan for Starting Over

The task of rebuilding seemed monumental. But city officials wanted to do more than just replace buildings; they wanted to create a new Greensburg using renewable energy and sustainable design, making it a model green community.

“They didn’t build immediately,” said Craig Seranton of BNIM Architects in Kansas City, the firm responsible for designing City Hall, the Big Well Museum, the Business Incubator, the schools, the streetscape and a John Deere dealership. “The whole community got involved in the process of developing a master plan: the county, city, municipal groups, home owners, school districts and businesses.”

The plan, he explained, involved goals, such as creating a sense of community, a sense of downtown, sustainability and a Main St. business core.

By August that year, the city adopted a Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, prepared through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) program. It identified many projects, including the Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Plan, the city’s blueprint for redevelopment that was recently awarded the 2008 Sustainable Cities Award.

Recognizing that this new energy-efficient town probably is the largest development project in the state, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius contacted BNIM Architects to work with town leaders on the plan. Some of the key recommendations made by the group include planning for a 100 percent renewable supply of electricity, decreasing the town’s carbon footprint, rebuilding to LEED Platinum standards and increasing economic vitality without sacrificing the southwestern Kansas town’s cultural heritage.

Phase 1 addressed the Greensburg Design Goals and Principles for Rebuilding, a conceptual design scheme for downtown, a future land use map, infrastructure analysis, housing policy recommendations, energy policy recommendations and more. Phase 2 delved more deeply into issues regarding housing, economic development and plan implementation. In December 2007, the city council passed a resolution requiring all publicly funded city buildings over 4,000 sq. ft. to be built to LEED Platinum certification.

The Meaning of Green

The idea of “green” was adopted by Greensburg citizens early on, stated Stephen Hardy, BNIM Associate and co-leader of the planning effort. “They wanted to rebuild green, but what does that mean?”

The Greensburg plan to rebuild a more sustainable town is based on LEED Platinum green building standards. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, instituted in 1998 and developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, outlines standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

The city’s LEED-platinum resolution for rebuilding based on principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability will guide construction of City Hall, the art center (which has been completed and certified), two museums, the business incubator, a county library, a school and select private projects. The resolution targets efficiency 42 percent above code for these projects, a level not yet set or reached by any other city in the country.

However, as Hardy noted, the guidelines are not legally enforceable for the 1,400 residents (before the tornado).

“There are a lot of individual decisions to be made,” he noted, adding that numerous incentives to build sustainably are in place and a green home builder guide is available for reference. The city recommended that individual homeowners use an integrated design approach to achieve at least 40 percent energy savings relative to current building code. In addition, donated materials, such as Greentown’s gift of 300 dual-flush toilets, encourage greener building.

Design guidelines for downtown buildings include the use of native, harvested stone and building on a smaller scale.

“There are no tornado-proof buildings,” Hardy acknowledged, “but sturdier, more durable materials make these 100-year buildings.”

A downtown streetscape — currently out to bid — will provide an inviting area for pedestrians that also is environmentally beneficial. Street trees can provide a 5- to 15-degree heat differential on sidewalks, extending the life of concrete and asphalt pavement. Storm water best management practices and native plants will be integrated into the landscaping, which also includes lighting and street furniture.

City Hall — still in the drawing stage — will feature a vertical axis wind turbine, a working symbol of a sustainable Greensburg.

“Wind power is big,” Seranton noted, adding that small and large turbines are scheduled for various sites. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) advises generating electricity via individual wind turbines where space is available. The city is working with NREL on policy initiatives, including a strategy that will see the town powered by 100 percent renewable sources.

Other strategies designed to reduce energy usage include proper building orientation to take advantage of daylight. Windows on the east and west side are limited to reduce solar glare as well as heat gain and loss. Roofs are pitched for maximum southern exposure to allow for solar energy capture.

Practices begin with construction. The city required an innovative waste management program to reduce landfill materials. LEED points are awarded when 50 to 75 percent of construction waste is diverted from landfills. Contractors will attempt to reduce the impact of construction and protect the existing environment by altering standard practices involving the use of heavy machinery and toxic materials.

Back to School

McCownGordon Construction Co. LLC is incorporating innovative ways to reduce waste, according to Senior Project Manager Nathan Benjamin. Recycling also helps reduce trips to the landfill, he points out. “Reusing materials saves money.”

The Kansas City builder is working on one of the five biggest projects: Greensburg’s schools. With an 18-month schedule and a budget of approximately $35 to $40 million, groundbreaking is slated for sometime in August, even as portions of the work — such as the steel footing package — still go out to bid.

Benjamin explained that during the pre-construction phase, McCownGordon is working with the architects (BNMI) to find sustainable materials. They intend to use glazed glass on operable windows that offer controllability for light and reduction of dependence on the HVAC system. Overhangs will shield intense light. Benjamin explained that site positioning plays a complementary role, but that southern windows will still be equipped with shades that allow light but not heat into the classrooms. The gym features a “sawtooth scenario,” he said, letting in northern light without glare that could hinder athletes.

Site prep was made easier by the decision to locate the new building (which replaces four buildings pre-tornado) in an area that had no buildings previously. Because it’s “virgin area,” Benjamin said “no major site prep” was necessary. The town’s temporary school is stationed where the future parking lot will exist, so once the school building is completed, the two trailers will be dismantled to pave the lot.

Two wind turbines will provide most of the energy needed to power the school.

“It’s in one of the best paths of wind generation,” Benjamin said, adding that they “shied away from” solar power due to budget constraints. “We’ll do some [solar], but not enough to power the building. The solar panel price point is significantly more.”

Efficiency is the “biggest thing,” Benjamin stated. McCownGordon is “going for 10 out of 10 optimization of energy efficiency points.” Factors that will contribute include energy-efficient SIPS panels (structural insulated panels), geothermal heat pumps, which require a 400- to 600-ft. (121 to 182 m) bore, reclaimed flooring in the gym and stone cladding on ceilings and the exterior instead of vinyl.

“There will be no added ceiling tile or ceramic tile — just raw components.”

Similarly, very little carpet will be used — and what carpet is laid will be of recycled materials.

“Mostly, the floors will be exposed concrete with minimal finishes,” said Benjamin. That helps reduce gaseous emissions, just as does the use of low-VOC paint.

Benjamin reported that the design remains “pretty fluid,” as does the budget, thanks to escalating prices. One conceptual idea for the two-story high school involves the use of cisterns to hold gray water that could be incorporated in water features. The water would move from bioswales along the parking lot, under the building to the courtyard. Because the rainfall in Kansas is “not intense,” the water also could be used for the green roof and window box planters outside each classroom.

Challenges by the Numbers

Although a total budget for the entire town is not available, the price tag is expected to be unusually high.

“You don’t usually build a $40 million project in a small Midwestern town of 1,200 people,” Benjamin pointed out.

Greensburg occupies roughly 2 sq. mi. Its pre-tornado population was 1,400. Hardy estimated that 60 percent of that population will return or remain this year, and that within four to five years, 100 percent of that original number will be recaptured, principally because the town is trying to attract new business. He counts 500 homes to be built, with another 100 homes to be repaired.

FEMA is responsible for roughly 75 percent of construction costs, with State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) covering another 10 percent and the remaining — what Benjamin refers to as “the gap” — coming from insurance, USDA, corporate sponsorship, city and school fundraising and private donations.

Raising funds isn’t the only challenge being faced. Deadlines are tight. Seranton said most projects are “rush,” with some homes under construction but the overall plan focusing on public buildings. Home building is expected to occur in waves, the first of which happened in fall 2007, followed by one in spring 2008. Another surge is expected later this year when FEMA housing is no longer available.

Hardy said crews are “trying to finish by fall” on commercial projects such as the John Deere dealership and the Business Incubator, which is designed to provide start-up space for small companies to attract more business. The 9,300-sq.-ft. building in downtown Greensburg will house retail shops and professional offices.

But it’s hard to build so much in a short time when there’s a shortage of manpower. While McCownGordon has experience with sustainable construction, the Greensburg project constitutes a “different process,” Benjamin claims.

Because there have been few bids on the previous two major projects, before bidding, the company is holding job fairs in Greensburg and Wichita to “drum up excitement. It’s a unique problem. Greensburg isn’t near another town and because the tornado wiped out most of the town, there’s nowhere to stay. Usually, crews stay at hotels and other housing, but there’s not much available.” Limited housing is compounded by the limited availability of contractors and designers — especially with sustainable design experience — within a reasonable distance.

Seranton said the difficulty in getting a number of bids stems from the fact that everyone’s busy, but concedes that “bids are coming back higher than expected” and “we’re paying a premium for contractors. Cost is a big issue.”

High costs are coming from all angles, including the greater expense of cutting-edge green technology. Knowing that initial costs of energy-efficient items are often steeper, Seranton said, “Our strategy is to reduce the [energy] load through proper orientation of buildings, insulation and window location, then look at systems: what’s efficient, what’s payback…”

Reshaping a Vision

Whatever the cost, the people of Greensburg are determined to rebuild their town and redefine their future. “The town had a vision,” Seranton reflected. “They needed to do something different to attract people to a small town. They want to be an example so they set the bar high.”

He indicated that one Kansas City suburb has already referenced Greensburg as a model.

“If they can do it, anyone can,” Hardy said. There have been many lessons learned along the way — lessons in town-building, disaster recovery, economy and sustainable lifestyle. It hasn’t been easy, he said. “They have all the disadvantages: it’s a hard climate, they’re trying to reinvigorate the economy, the town was 90 percent gone. It was the largest tornado recorded, destruction-wise.”

He said work is going well and Greensburg residents are excited for the future. “The people’s dedication is what’s making it work.” CEG