June 1, 2007
  Greensburg, Kan., Now More than Just a Name
AIA members help Kansas town rebuild sustainably

by Zach Mortice
Assistant Editor

How do you . . . organize a dialogue about green and sustainable architecture?

Summary: After a devastating tornado in early May, AIA Kansas members are helping the town of Greensburg, Kan., rebuild with sustainability and green architecture as their top priority. At this early stage, the Kansas Design Team and Disaster Assessment Program have been gathering stakeholders and facilitating the decision making process. Those involved hope that Greensburg can become a nationwide model of green, rural development.

On May 4 at 9:45 p.m., a tornado ripped apart the western Kansas town of Greensburg with winds of over 200 mph. When the debris settled, the destruction was immense and complete. Twelve people had been killed, more than 90 percent of the town was rubble, and the tiny hamlet of 1,400 people was nearly wiped off the map.

But such immense destruction can bring amazing new opportunities for change, and AIA members are hoping to put a reconstructed Greensburg back on the map as a model of green and sustainable architecture. This call has been echoed by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, the people of Greensburg, and their mayor, Lonnie McCollum.

“If they can bring a lot of new economic resources, then the town could be a model for the world, or at least for the U.S.,” says Trudy Aron, Hon. AIA., AIA Kansas’ executive director. The scale of devastation leaves a nearly unprecedented blank slate. So little remains of the town that whatever takes its place will be built from scratch and with no reference to previously existing infrastructure.

“Even with New Orleans and the devastation they had, the core [of the city, the French Quarter and the Garden District] was not affected as badly, so that allowed them to begin rebuilding with that as their core,” says Stan Peterson, AIA, president-elect of AIA Kansas. “With 95 percent of the town gone, there’s no core.”

To this end, the AIA Kansas component is bringing together urban planners, architects, engineers, grant writers, and contractors, along with the people of Greensburg, to walk them through the process or re-envisioning their town.

Enter the Kansas Design Team
An entire new group has pledged to volunteer their services for Greensburg. The Kansas Design Team was originally created from an AIA150 grant and modeled after a Minnesota program to help small, rural communities design and build civic projects. When the tornado struck Greensburg, the team recognized the immediate and comprehensive needs the town had for design expertise and consultation. The Kansas Disaster Assessment Program was on site completing structural inspections immediately after the tornado, and AIA Kansas members have continued to help establish a temporary building codes department in Greensburg.

In these early and critical stages, Aron has been meeting with FEMA, the USDA, and the governor’s office to get all involved parties onboard for the greening effort. The weekend of May 18, Aron helped put together a green products trade show to expose residents to the range of options available for rebuilding and to round up contractors and builders. The show was held in Greensburg under a tent in a park, which succinctly exhibits some of the many organizational problems of trying to communicate and organize with people towards a concrete goal in a place with little to no infrastructure left. Future gatherings will require some sort of town hall meeting to get direction and feedback from residents. But, as of now, no such place to meet exists. Furthermore, many residents have left town in the wake of the tornado and are unreachable. Overcoming these barriers will be the key to letting the residents of Greensburg completely take part in and own the sustainability and green ideals that will shape their new town.

“The main thing we have to do is get people’s lives back to as close to normal as we can. To do that, it has to be their ideas [for rebuilding the community],” says Peterson, who is a member of both the Kansas Design Team and the Disaster Assessment Program. “All we can do is educate them and give them options.”

“It’s going to be their project and their design when we get done,” says Michael Vieux, AIA, AIA Kansas’s treasurer and chair of the Greensburg effort. Vieux has more than a professional interest in Greensburg. He grew up there and still has family in the area. He was there the day after the tornado struck and says he was “emotionally devastated” by the destruction.

Beat the clock
Though the final design of what Greensburg might look like is weeks away, (Aron says she hopes to have a plan of action ready to go in a month) one stark certainty is that Greensburg will change drastically whether the Kansas Design Team intervenes or not. At this stage, the team’s mission is pre-emptive. “What we’re really trying to prevent and to be there in time to do is to keep a lot of cheap, non-green, energy-inefficient housing and businesses from happening in a scattered way—to give them a chance to look ahead and put together a plan for where they want to go and what they want to do,” says Vieux. “Hopefully, we can guide that to a green, sustainable economy.”

Unfortunately, time is not on AIA Kansas’ side. Residents and businesses are already bringing in temporary metal buildings and doublewide trailers. Every day’s delay drains the population of the town and encourages more unplanned, haphazard growth. Aron and Peterson say the citizens of Greensburg are anxious to move forward, and with a little guidance, this initiative will grow up green.

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To volunteer, time, money, support, etc. to the AIA Kansas Greensburg effort, visit AIA Kansas online.

This year the AIA Communities by Design Disaster Assistance Program is releasing a state level disaster assistance program to equip all AIA components with tools and resources to ensure preparedness and capacity to respond in the event of a disaster. For more information about the Disaster Assistance System or to participate as a local champion, please contact Daniel Lobo, or 202-626-7442.