A New, Green Town Rises in Kansas

Sunday, December 12, 2010

by Keith Schneider, NEW YORK TIMES, September 22, 2009

image Even if it were the only one of its kind, Mike Estes’s brand-new, energy-efficient, wind-powered, water-conserving, environmentally sensitive John Deere dealership here would attract considerable attention in Kansas. This is a state that consistently ranks among the top 10 in oil and natural gas production, and routinely elects to Congress skeptics on matters of energy conservation and environmental regulation.

But in July, Mr. Estes’s 28,500-square-foot, $3 million BTI Greensburg dealership (BTI stands for Bucklin Tractor and Implement, the name of the original store, which has since expanded to four locations) earned the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification, the highest designation, Six other buildings anticipate LEED certification.

While many of the nation’s biggest cities do not have a single platinum development, BTI was not even the first building in Greensburg to receive it. That distinction goes to the 1,670-square-foot Arts Center at the center of town, designed, built and opened a year ago by graduate students of the University of Kansas School of Architecture. The center is powered by windmills and a bank of solar photovoltaic panels, and heated and cooled by a state-of-the-art geothermal system. It was the first LEED-platinum building in Kansas.

That such visionary development is occurring in this sun-washed, wind-whipped agricultural community of 900 residents can be attributed to a single event: a monstrous tornado in May 2007 that killed 11 people.

In the weeks after, as federal and state officials assessed the damage and estimated the cost of rebuilding, business and civic leaders gathered with residents to come up with a reconstruction plan. The most important goal, city leaders said in interviews, was to build a sense of economic dynamism that would generate new businesses and jobs and persuade Greensburg’s talented young people not to leave.

“We had the chance to start over,” Mr. Estes said. “What do you do when you start with a clean slate? You want to build it better. Right?”

And so his company decided to incorporate in the new dealership — the old one was wrecked in the tornado — design features like skylights and electrical systems that cut energy use by half, plumbing fixtures that save almost 40,000 gallons of water a year, and two wind turbines out back that spin in a steady wind and generate a part of the dealership’s electricity.

The first gatherings after the tornado produced a surprising civic consensus in a community where “green roofs” and the “heat island effect” were foreign concepts. As Dea Corns, a real estate agent who manages the Greensburg State Bank with her husband, Thomas V. Corns, recalls, “We decided to put the ‘green’ in Greensburg.”

These days, the technical language of the green building world is in everyday use as Greensburg sets out to achieve the distinction that the former Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, now the secretary of Health and Human Services, described in a news conference two years ago. "We have an opportunity of having the greenest town in rural America,” she said.

Last year, leaders approved a redevelopment plan drawn up by the architectural firm BNIM, based in Kansas City, Mo., that called for Greensburg to be a “truly sustainable community that balances the economic, ecological and social impacts of development,” and “a laboratory for research on sustainable design and community development.”

Greensburg also approved an ordinance requiring that all municipal buildings larger than 4,000 square feet be built to LEED-platinum standards, putting it in the forefront among communities in the United States in energy conservation standards.

BTI’s John Deere dealership is a small part of a bustling panorama of development whose total cost is expected to reach $100 million. Financing comes from a mix of federal, state and local sources, and to a surprising degree, private donations. [Read rest of story]

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