Rebuilding Greensburg Green

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

(Fredric Heeren)

(Continued from page 3)

Mennonite Housing, a volunteer organization, has built ten new green houses in Greensburg and plans to build as many as 40 more. Most people are choosing to scale down the size of their homes, but otherwise, as Community Development Director Mike Gurnee points out, "you can have a green house and it can look like a traditional Cape Cod or a ranch house. It can be very sustainable without looking like it came from Star Wars."

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), part of the Department of Energy, is advising people on how to design green and energy-saving features in their new homes. NREL has tested 100 recently built homes in town and found that, on average, they consumed 40 percent less energy than required by code. Community Development Director Mike Gurnee notes that, "with some of the houses, now that they're getting their utility bills, they see that the increased cost of construction is being made up rapidly with the smaller cost for utilities. They remember that in their prior house, their heating bill was $300, and now it's under $100."

Some energy-saving features, like geothermal heating systems, are just too expensive for most homeowners. "If we could really have started from scratch," says Gurnee, "if we could have erased property lines, I'd have liked to have tried geothermal or wind turbine or solar system on a block and have the cost shared by all the houses." That's not something that's been done on a large scale anywhere else in the United States. But, according to Gurnee, when the town expands and a developer subdivides new lots, "I want to make sure that there's a provision in our subdivision regulations so that the lots can be situated so that alternative energy sources can be shared among people on the block."

The first retail food store to rebuild was a Quik Shop/Dillons, which was designed as a national prototype to implement energy-saving features including extensive skylighting, efficient coolers and motion sensors that light up refrigerated cases only when people are near.

This month the LEED Platinum-targeted Business Incubator Building will open on Main Street, with funding provided by SunChips, the U.S.D.A., and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The building will offer temporary, low-rent office space for ten small and emerging businesses being encouraged to return to the community.

The new John Deere dealership not only has a couple of its own wind turbines, but has begun a new business, BTI Wind Energy, to sell them internationally. The building combines skylights with mirrored reflectors to direct light as needed. Fluorescents are staged to come on partially or fully according to need on darker days, and the entire showroom makes use of motion detectors to use lights only when people are present. "You can imagine in a building this size what kind of energy we can save by doing that," says Mike Estes.

After the tornado, school superintendent Headrick had just a few months to get temporary facilities in place for the next school year. He also had to come up with long-range plans to make it worthwhile for families to return. He succeeded on both counts. Today, while providing for a growing student body in trailers, he is also supervising the design of a new school that he hopes will achieve LEED Platinum certification.

The new school will feature natural daylighting, meaning that most rooms will receive enough illumination from windows and skylights that artificial lights will seldom need to be turned on. All the heating and cooling will be done with geo-thermal heat pumps. "There are 97 geo-thermal wells we have to drill," says Headrick.

He hopes to generate all the school's electricity from wind power. As for water reclamation: "we'll have water cisterns both below ground and above ground. Any water that falls on our building will be captured and transported through roof lines. And we'll use that rain water that runs off to do any irrigation that takes place on the facility."

Do Greensburg's young people care about clean energy and recycling? Charlotte Coggins, a high school junior, says, "a lot of people think it's way nerdy, it looks dumb. They've been raised that way."


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