Greensburg The only thing more amazing than seeing a row of space-agey buildings rising from western Kansas plains is the fact that there's anything there at all.
It's been nearly five years since an F5 tornado obliterated most of Greensburg. The residents who remained made some fairly radical decisions, electing to put the "green" in Greensburg by using disaster relief money, insurance money and donations to erect environmentally friendly buildings.
The city is about halfway through its master plan and the early results are in on their success. According to new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 13 public and private buildings in Greensburg will save a combined $200,000 a year in energy costs.
These include all of city's largest and most important buildings: the city hospital, the K-12 school, the city hall, the county courthouse, two banks, the John Deere dealer and the motel, among others.
Energy savings ranged between 50 and 75 percent over similar-use buildings, according to the federal study. Several other buildings are too new to be included in the study.
Several Wichita companies played a major role in making this happen, including Professional Engineering Consultants, GLMV Architecture, LawKingdon Architecture and Compton Construction.
It was an extraordinary learning opportunity for those who worked there because there just aren't many projects like these.
"There are a number of firsts and mosts that make Greensburg unique," said Steve Lenz, an engineer with PEC.
The locals are proud of the look on visitors' faces when they see the cool new buildings. Mayor Bob Dixson, the chief evangelist for Greensburg's reconstruction, never tires of talking about it to any and all listeners. He casually will drop facts such as Greensburg now having the world's highest concentration of geothermal wells.
It certainly is changing the vision of Greensburg - the "brand," in Dixson's words - from the usual worn brick buildings in most Kansas towns and certainly from the piles of rubble from 4 1/2 years ago.
But, as Dixson is first to say, Greensburg's effort has made it "a living laboratory" in rebuilding differently. By that, he means that the rebuilding effort is an experiment in which not everything delivers 100 percent of everyone's hopes and expectations, at least, not right away.
Generally, the systems and buildings are working well. It's a matter of fine tuning operations, changing behavior and adjusting expectations.
"You can't second guess any of the decisions," he said. "They were made with the best information available at the time."
What gives several of the buildings a modern look is the upward tilt of the roof and big southern exposure.
This gives them plenty of natural light, offset by controls to adjust interior lighting, measures to block the sun in the summer, and high-tech insulated windows.
Some buildings have solar panels or windmills supplying 5 to 10 percent of their energy, geothermal or heat pumps to use the constant 56-degree heat of subterranean water.
The list of systems and features in the buildings goes on and on. Some have a lot of features, others fewer, depending on what the owner was willing to pay for.
Steve Kirk, vice president of Centera Bank, estimated the bank's energy savings at about 30 percent using a less extensive package of features in the new building on Main Street.
"We bought right into it," he said of the green design. "We thought it was the right thing to do."
But he confessed to a little disappointment that the savings haven't been larger. It will take some fine-tuning in the systems, he said, but it may mean realizing that even high-tech designs and systems have limitations.
The other buildings in the federal study typically had more expensive systems, sometimes tipping into the exotic features that get a building the highest rating from the government. For instance, Kiowa County Commons - which holds the museum, library and agriculture extension office - has planted groundcover covering part of its roof.
And everywhere there are sensors and controls to balance comfort and efficiency.
"These buildings are living and breathing, and you've got to keep monitoring them to make them work correctly," said Matt Cortez of GLMV Architecture.
The appeal of going for the federal certification is limited, said Gib Compton of Compton Construction.
Budgets, especially now, are tight and it's hard to argue for spending more now even if there is a financial payback in energy savings, let alone something such as bamboo flooring, he said.
Even so, he said, building with federal standards can lead to a culture change in construction.
"Anybody who is a good steward of our Earth will take into consideration the green components, and lot of that can be done for no additional cost," Compton said.
Greensburg is also undergoing a culture change. The city only has about 800 to 850 of its 1,400 pre-tornado population. But as a result the populace is considerably younger, said several residents, and more open to something new than it has been for decades.
City leaders were also careful to reframe the idea of green architecture away from its liberal, tree-hugger connotation to the more traditional idea of conservation and sustainability, Dixson said.
City leaders realized that the tornado provided them an opportunity to change the city's destiny as a slowly-shrinking western Kansas city. The hope is that what they've done will help make it a growing city with a future.
"On May 4, 2007, our box blew away, so we don't have to think inside or outside the box anymore," Dixson said.