Rebuilding Greensburg Green

Everyone assumed this Kansas town was destined to fade away. What would it take to reverse its course?

(Fredric Heeren)

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The town is becoming a showcase for a series of firsts in applying energy-efficient standards. It recently became the first city in the United States to light all its streets with LED streetlights. The new lamps focus their beams downward, reducing the amount of light usually lost to the sky and allowing people to see the stars once again. They are also projected to save 70 percent in energy and maintenance costs over the old sodium vapor lights, lessening Greensburg's carbon footprint by about 40 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Greensburg's 5.4.7 Arts Center, named for the date of the town's destruction, is the first building in Kansas to earn a LEED Platinum certification—which is no small feat. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is based on six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design. The rating system qualifies buildings according to levels of simple certification, Silver, Gold, and at the top, Platinum.

Designed and built by graduate students of the University of Kansas School of Architecture, the 5.4.7 Arts Center is powered by three wind turbines, eight solar panels, and three geothermal, 200-foot-deep wells. At that depth the temperature is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which cools water that is then pumped up to chill the air in summer. In winter, relatively warm below-ground temperatures warm the water. Either way, less energy is required than in conventional heating and cooling. The tempered-glass-covered building also demonstrates passive solar design; it is oriented to take full advantage of heat from the southern sun in winter.

And that was just the beginning. Greensburg's new city hall, hospital, and school are all now being built with the goal of achieving LEED Platinum standards. A wind farm is being planned on the south side of town.

Daniel Wallach founded a nonprofit called Greensburg Greentown to attract outside companies to try out their most promising technologies in Greensburg. "Given the small scale of our town, it really lends itself to being a platform for even small companies that have good ideas—a lot like a trade show—that's what we want to be for these companies."

Among other projects, Greensburg Greentown is organizing the building of up to 12 "eco homes," each modeling a different design. Wallach calls them "a science museum in twelve parts: the only science museum that you can spend the night in." People thinking about building green, he says, can come and experience a variety of energy efficient features, green building styles, sizes and price ranges. "So before they invest in their new home, they get a real clear sense of the kinds of wall systems and technologies that they want to integrate into their house—and see them in action." One of the twelve homes has been built, an award-winning solar design donated by the University of Colorado. The second, shaped like a silo, is halfway through construction.

A number of proud homeowners have undertaken green designs on their own. Scott Eller invites John Wickland, a volunteer project manager for Greensburg Greentown, to tour the interior of his eye-catching domed home.

"This whole house is built out of 'structurally insulated panels' (SIPs), which are solid styrofoam laminated to oriented strand board on both sides," explains Eller. A builder in Lawrence, Kansas, found them to be the most efficient way to fit these 8 x 40 panels into dome shapes. They are well insulated and fit together tightly, preventing heat loss. Even better, given concerns about high winds and tornados, "these have survived what they call the 205-mph two-by-four test, which they shoot out of a cannon, and when it hits these, it just bounces off," Eller says.

Much of going green is also about the little things, and Wickland encourages Eller to take some dual-flush toilets off his hands. Wickland’s own living room is congested with large boxes of water-saving plumbing manifolds. An Australian company donated 400 toilets, stored in a warehouse nearby, that together could save 2.6 million gallons of water a year.

Bob and Anne Dixson invite Wickland over to see their new home, which is partly surrounded by a fence made out of recycled milk jugs and wheat straw. "It looks like wood," says the mayor, "but you never have to paint it, and it doesn't rot." Inside, they have built and wired the house with a "planned retro-fit" in mind. "When we can afford it," says Anne, "we'll be able to put solar on the south part of the house and retrofit that. Technology is changing so fast right now, and the prices are coming down all the time."


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