After an EF5 tornado tore through their town in May 2007, residents and officials of Greensburg, Kan., vowed to rebuild sustainably. Two years later, the town is living true to its word, transforming from rubble into a nationally recognized sustainable showpiece thanks to high-performance building techniques, environmentally conscious materials, and Midwestern determination.

In the wake of the catastrophe, which destroyed 95% of the tiny town, Greensburg’s leaders and many residents embraced the idea of rebuilding as a green community.

Their vision is becoming reality: Rising from the rural site are super energy-efficient homes, a new LEED-Platinum hospital, and a grocery store that sets national standards for eco-friendly retail design.

“We wanted to build the town back economically, residentially, and commercially,” says Mayor Bob Dixson.

About 900 residents have returned to Greensburg, which had a population of 1,400 before the storm, and many of them have embraced the mayor’s sustainability message, particularly in light of its energy- and money-saving potential.

“Our hope was that people would be inspired to build back green,” says Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg Greentown, the nonprofit organization leading the town toward a greener future. “In addition to being good for the environment, it makes sense financially and many folks have gone ahead and done it.”

More than 100 of the new homes have energy ratings that average 58%, making them 42% more energy efficient than code requires, Wallach says. Designs range from a traditional-looking “earth-berm” farmhouse built with ICFs to a futuristic geodesic dome dwelling made of SIPs.

The traditional-looking and affordable LEED-Platinum Prairie Pointe development consists of 16 two-bedroom apartments and a community room. Located on the former site of Greensburg High School, the townhomes were built with 2x6 exterior walls with blown-in cellulose insulation and a concrete slab floating floor.

In addition, 30 affordable “blitz-built” homes by Mennonite Housing of Wichita feature an ultra energy-efficient design by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“They look like everyday ‘normal’ homes, but they are more than 40% more energy efficient than typical homes,” Wallach says.

Downtown Goes Green
Main Street Greensburg also is alive and well--and sustainable. The only downtown building to survive the storm, the historic S.D. Robinett building, is being retrofitted to be highly energy efficient and will house a first-floor antique store and second-floor condo.

“It retains some of the original character of the town,” Wallach says.

Back in business are the town’s new sustainable GM dealership, three eco-friendly banks, and a handful of energy-efficient churches. A new ICF-constructed Dillons grocery is slated for LEED-Gold certification and features optimal daylighting, a superior building envelope, and motion-activated display case lighting.

“This is going to be the prototype for the entire Kroger chain of very energy-efficient buildings,” Wallach comments.

City officials are hoping to draw more eco-minded businesses to their town, such as the BTI Wind Energy business that grew from a partnership with the local John Deere dealership.

“We think businesses are going to be happy to be a part of Greensburg and have a Greensburg mailing address that shows they are leaders in sustainability,” Wallach says.

A Green Future
2010 will be a big year for the small town: The LEED-Platinum Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, slated to open in January, will feature stormwater management and water harvesting, passive solar design, on-site renewable electricity, and recycled materials.

Opening in August 2010, a new 125,000-square-foot K-12 school will utilize stormwater catchment and reuse, passive solar techniques, and salvaged materials.

“The school will be a living laboratory not only because the students will be learning there, but they will also be immersed in sustainability and eco-friendly practices,” Wallach says.

In addition, a wind farm is expected to be up and running early in the new year to offset much of the power needs for the city, which is enjoying its new role as a model green community, says school superintendent Darin Headrick.

“As you drive down the highway and come up to Greensburg, people will notice we have something different to offer from most towns,” he says. “I hope we can continue to grow and hopefully be in a better position than we were before.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor Online for EcoHome.