(We are republishing this story, first published May 6, in the wake of the Joplin E5 tornado, which flattened a third of that city on May 22.)
By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
As a monster tornado bore down on Tuscaloosa last week, residents of Greensburg, Kansas were preparing for a weekend of festivities commemorating their recovery from a 2007 tornado.
The May 4 twister that nearly blasted Greensburg off the map was rated an EF5. It turned 95 percent of the town’s buildings to tinder and claimed 11 lives as it skidded across the western Kansas town.
Rebuilding the community of 800 has become a testament to how people can plunge in to a new way of living. While some residents left after the storm, many more have worked diligently to turn that dark event into an opportunity, constructing a new village made of sturdy, energy-efficient, sustainable homes that employ the latest technology.
Greensburg’s new homes boast double-pane windows and double-thick walls; solar panels and SIPs panels; geothermal heating and forced air heat. They’re tightly built, and deliver energy savings that have cut their owners’ electricity bills by more than half.
“I was talking a couple days ago with a resident who built a very efficient home. He’s got electricity bills of $150 instead of $500,’’ said Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, the name for the prairie town’s collective green effort, which has been featured by national media and on the Discovery Channel.
“So why wouldn’t you invest in that? It doesn’t cost that much even on the front end. They say it costs between 3 and 10 percent to build a more energy efficient home” but those upfront costs pay for themselves within a few years, he said.
“It’s a real investment and every time you open your utility bill you’re seeing what you’ve earned that month,” Wallach said.
And that is how Greensburg spurned being a victim of Mother Nature in favor of harnessing her for solar power, geothermal heat and rainwater collection. Wallach, who had previously worked in organizing non-profits, believes that what has worked for Greensburg could work in many other towns and cities.
The success of the GreenTown effort has prompted him to start GreensTown National, which will franchise the steps that worked in Greensburg, helping communities that want to reinvent themselves into more sustainable communities to learn the latest techniques and put them in touch with the necessary experts.
One lesson the town in Southwest Kansas hopes to carry to the world is the idea that careful consideration, when building, can pay big dividends. That would seem obvious, but in a storm situation, residents seek to recreate the comforts of home quickly. Having suffered the shock of great losses, they desperately want a return to normalcy.
Wallach’s advice: Slow down. While the devastation can be overwhelming, if you wait to rebuild until you’ve identified the best contractors with the latest energy-efficient know-how and supplies, you may be much happier in the long run. People also need to tackle the green building learning curve they’ll face, because they can do far more than put in a high-efficiency furnace. With builders who understand green concepts, like using breezeways, wall mass and home orientation to help cool and heat spaces, a fancy furnace may not even be needed.
There’s a big “knowledge barrier,” Wallach says. Residents are confronted with choices, such as the hundreds of windows on the market. But most of these are presented by the people selling those windows. An impartial reviewer is needed, he says.
To solve that problem in Greensburg, which was overrun with the usual eager, but not always credentialed contractors, Wallach organized a team that included local experts, who worked with those sent from the Department of Energy and the National Renewal Energy Laboratory. They educated themselves and residents on the latest tools for green building. The team also brought experts to town to demonstrate the best practices, which paid off for homeowners who delayed rebuilding long enough to hurdle the knowledge wall.
“Part of what we were able to demonstrate in Greensburg was if you just delay that gratification (of rebuilding) just a little bit, it really pays off.”
Going green in Greensburg
John and Lana Janssen, farmers who lost their entire home except for the roof and their kitchen, were among those who exercised patience after the storm.
Today, their rebuilt two-story home uses a shell constructed of insulated concrete forms, or ICFs, made by Logix, geothermal heating, and state-of-the-art windows made by a company now owned by Serious Windows.
The couple says they couldn’t be happier with their cutting-edge house. It cost more upfront to install the ICFs (which John says look like Legos), as well as the highly insulating SIPs panels and low-e windows. But the Janssens expect their energy savings of more than $300 a month will have returned those costs within five years and then, says John, “it’s money in your pocket.”
Like Wallach, the Janssens believe the key to getting the home they wanted was resisting the urge and the pressures — from the scammers as well as that interior urge — to rebuild immediately.
The couple, whose children are grown, took unusual steps while studying the green building landscape. Faced with pressing business needs, as well as the need for a new pole barn, they re-built the barn first and set up both temporary living quarters and an office inside.
They used the barn to try out the insulated blocks they were considering for the walls of their new house.
“That’s how we tested it out,” John says. “It was excellent as far as heating and cooling. Basically you don’t heat and cool (the indoor space); it kind of stays the same all the time. If you put a good (quality) window in it you got it made.”
Janssen, who grows corn and soybeans, recalled that the couple lost electricity for about 48 hours during a 2007 winter ice storm, during which time the temperature inside the pole barn dipped by only two degrees.
“I have a really nice pole barn,” he chuckles.
Having vetted the insulated wall blocks, the Janssens proceeded with rebuilding their new 3-bedroom house the next year. They were able to recover and reuse their entire kitchen from the previous house, which the tornado had skipped over as tornadoes weirdly will, leaving it standing, while mowing down the surrounding rooms.
Only two new cabinet doors and some reorganization were needed. Janssen chuckles over that also.
The couple became so enamored of the thick exterior walls, which double as tornado protection, that they even used the blocks for one interior wall to buffer noise between the kitchen and laundry and other rooms in the house.
Their finished home is a multi-angled, stone and stucco three-story (counting the basement and lower level garage) that clocks in at 3,700 square feet. It features overhangs that shade windows in the summer; is oriented slightly to the Southwest, allowing it to collects solar heat in the winter. There’s a great room, craft room, a work room and dining room — more space than the couple had before – and it costs less than ever to heat, cool and power. Their total electric bill, which includes lights and the water pump for irrigation, is never over $200.
“I love it,” says Lana. “It’s more than I deserve, but I’m happy to live here.”
Wallach believes many homes that were lost when the tornadoes sliced across the South like a mandoline could be similarly rebuilt.
Residents could replace 20-, 30- or 40-year-old homes with new buildings that use half the electricity, girding them to survive financial storms as well as those that descend from angry clouds.
It would be so easy, he says, because so much previous construction has been done without much thought for efficiency.
Even if residents could not afford insulated concrete form walls, they might be able to have their new house constructed of 2 X 6s instead of the usual 2 x 4s, Wallach said. That adds 50 percent to the width of a wall; an area that can be used to add significantly more insulation, he explained.
The Power of Community
What worked in Greensburg, he says, is that the town formed a core group of enthusiasts that helped steer the rebuilding toward sustainable practices. It started with some “amazing experts” sent in from the DOE and the NREL. But it took determined local involvement, by a few visionaries, including then- Mayor Lonnie McCollum, representatives from then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ office and Daniel and his wife, Catherine Hart.
Janssen says Wallach was the true Pied Piper. He and the others brought in people to discuss walls and windows, building orientation and urban design.
“What we were able to demonstrate was the power of having a champion or advocate solely focused on the sustainability piece. We did a lot of networking and facilitating between parties, and a lot of cheerleading between the business community and residents, to ensure this was their initiative,” Wallach says.
The result was buy-in, from residents and businesses. Greensburg has a “green” car dealership as well as other energy-efficient town buildings, including a GreensTown demonstration home where the technology is showcased.
Back in 2007 and 2008, the team competed against that instinct to rebuild quickly (because “human beings will follow the path of least resistance”) by helping everyone become green building experts, to a degree.
As the residents’ comfort zone expanded, Wallach and crew discovered another instinct that worked in their favor, the pull of community.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to work together. The greatest by product of the experience was the community coming together,” he said.
“Humans beings are really wired to bond around shared adversity. So use that remarkable power to connect and imagine and work together for the greater good, for the community. That’s what we’re all living for.”
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