On May 4, 2007, a 1.4-mile F5 “wedge” tornado leveled 95% of the town of Greensburg, Kan. Mere days after the devastating event, the rural farming town of 1,500 people, regrouped and decided to rebuild their community as a model green town for the future.
Daniel Wallach and his wife, Catherine Hart, attended the first town meeting after the tornado. After hearing the ideas for rebuilding the town, they formed a third-party organization that would vet the ideas, products, and providers considered for the rebuild.
“This is a very conservative community,” explains Wallach. “They needed to see a long-term vision about why we should rebuild sustainably. It took some reframing of issues to get people to understand that sustainable development was authentic and not just an agenda being imposed on them.”
The first challenge, then, was to work with a town that was mourning the loss of lives and property—and nearly every building that had formed its cultural context. The shift took time.
Wallach formed Greensburg GreenTown—a grassroots community-based organization—designed to work side by side with city and county officials, business owner, and local residents to incorporate sustainable principles into their rebuilding process.
Wallach says the town of Greensburg has learned many lessons about the process of rebuilding green. Here’s his take on where the town is nearly five years since the rebuilding began, along with some advice:
- Show the green commitment. The entrance to Greensburg boasts a wind farm. Wallach is most proud of this visual demonstration of the town’s support of renewable energy. The 10 turbines also serve as a healing image—where wind once took the town away, it also has the power to sustain it. And in fact it produces 100% of the towns energy needs. Most major municipal buildings use wind turbines to supplement their energy needs.
- Build municipal buildings to the highest green standards. The town’s hospital is a LEED Platinum building, and the school is currently waiting for its Platinum designation. Two of the town’s buildings--the Court House and City Hall—survived the disaster and were renovated to LEED standards as well.
- Encourage energy efficiency. While there are no mandates for green, the town now boasts 10 “showcase” homes that have high-performance systems, such as ICFs, SIPs, and geothermal. Of the town’s 300 homes, 120 homes average 40% better than code. “That’s phenomenal for any community,” he says, noting that homeowners were not given incentives of any kind to build green.
- Make good partnerships. The city partnered with The Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to promote green development as part of a national effort. Greensburg GreenTown’s site houses the Sustainable Building Database. The database is provided by BuildingGreen and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as part of the High-Performance Buildings Database, which holds information on green building projects around the nation.
- Keep the education going. Greensburg GreenTown launched “The Chain of Eco-Homes” project, with plans to build up to 12 model homes in the town. Each home will serve as a “living laboratory” featuring a variety of building techniques, prices, sizes, energy efficiency features, and green living products and services. Each will be available both as an informational center and as eco-lodging where people can experience green living first-hand in homes that interest them. They will also be monitored to demonstrate how each type of construction technology performs.
Greensburg is small but its plans are big. Greensburg GreenTown is currently in talks with the cities of Denver, Colo., and Lincoln, Neb., to build pilot eco-communities that will offer the same “green immersion” lessons that Greensburg has in the Midwest. “This town is a living trade show. It is an immersion experience of green living. We can conduct tours of an entire town and show people 60 or 70 different green companies.”
Wallach sees future opportunity for builders and municipalities alike: “You don’t need a tornado,” he emphasizes. “You need to be aware of the condition of our ecosystem and then you need to tap into that part of people that loves to solve to puzzles and meet challenges. This town did it as a whole and that is what’s astonishing to people.”
Photo: The silo house is the first of 12 Chain of Eco-Homes to be built in Greensburg. The 2,000-square-foot home is a veritable safe house, with its precise concrete walls and roof. It is designed to withstand winds of 200 mph.