written by:
photos by:
April 6, 2011
Originally published in The Photo Issue

On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was wiped off the map. An EF5 tornado ravaged the small town of 1,400 residents, destroying or severely damaging 95 percent of the city. Less than a week later, however, the survivors did the incredible: At a meeting under a tent, they rallied to rebuild as a sustainable city.

 

Some community members at first were skeptical, but they later embraced the idea of following in the footsteps of their ancestors, who had lived off the land. With the backing of the city, state, and federal governments and the nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, founded by nearby Stafford County residents Daniel Wallach and Catherine Hart, the town has become a sustainable mecca—boasting more than 25 green projects so far and attracting thousands of eco-tourists.

The Big Well in Greensburg, Kansas
We're not in Kansas anymore, except we are—despite what the wind turbines may suggest. After being torn to shreds by a twister, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as a beacon of sustainable design in the middle of the American heartland.
Photo by 
1 / 25
Wind turbines near Greensburg, Kansas
The 1.7-mile-wide tornado hung over Greensburg for eight minutes and destroyed nearly all of the 1.5-square-mile town.
Photo by 
2 / 25
Main Street in Greensburg, Kansas
Main Street, Greensburg, Kansas, nearly four years after the tornado. "The town is a living green science museum," says Greensburg GreenTown cofounder Daniel Wallach. "It's not theoretical; it's something people can tough, feel, and see in action."
Photo by 
3 / 25
Main Street tornado aftermath in Greensburg, Kansas
Remnants of the past provide contrast to the new buildings and LED streetlights that line Main Street. "Everything is new but you have an awareness of the destruction if for no other reason than the trees are so haggard and really stumpy, but in a very violent stumpy kind of way," says photographer Alec Soth, who visited Greensburg for Dwell to shoot these images.
Photo by 
4 / 25
Greensburg, Kansas tornado aftermath
These steps are among the remains left by and reminders of the 2007 tornado.
Photo by 
5 / 25
Greensburg, Kansas road side wind turbines
The tornado that swept through Greensburg wasn't even the largest to touch down in Kansas that evening in May 2007. A three-mile-wide twister hit ground about 30 miles away.
Photo by 
6 / 25
Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Catherine Hart
Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Catherine Hart. Though they live 35 miles from Greensburg, the two became intimately involved in the rebuilding efforts as a friend of the town; both were close with Greensburg residents and had started a natural foods co-op nearby that several Greensburg families were a part of before the tornado.
Photo by 
7 / 25
Greensburg, Kansas city administrator Steve Hewitt
Through early 2011, city administrator Steve Hewitt led the charge for a “stronger, better, greener” Greensburg, working with community members like Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Hart.
Photo by 
8 / 25
Green-roofed City Hall designed by BNIM Architects in Greensburg, Kansas
Completed in 2009, the green-roofed City Hall, designed by BNIM Architects, served as an early symbol of the town’s commitment to sustainability and green building.
Photo by 
9 / 25
Former Greensburg Kansas council president John Janssen
Just weeks after the storm, then–city council president John Janssen assumed the role of mayor.
Photo by 
10 / 25
LEED Platinum standard elementary school
Janssen oversaw the December 2007 passing of a resolution requiring all publicly funded buildings, like the new K–12 school, be built to LEED Platinum standards.
Photo by 
11 / 25
Exterior view of Kiowa County School
The Kiowa County Schools campus opened its doors in August 2010, just in time for the new school year for the 375 K-12 students it can support. A 50-kilowatt, on-site wind generator and ground source heat pump system have made the building 50-percent more energy efficient than similar structures built to standard building code.
Photo by 
12 / 25
Cowboy at community gathering
A close-knit community where everyone knows everyone enabled the rethinking of Greensburg as a sustainable town and provided the joint effort needed to realize the plan. "What happened wasn't due to any one person or organization," Wallach says. "It's an example of what we can do when everyone comes together."
Photo by 
13 / 25
Centera Bank in Greensburg, Kansas
Though individual businesses and residents are not required to built green, many have embraced the town's enthusiasm for sustainable design. The owners of Centera Bank rebuilt the bank where the old structure had stood and incorporated strategies such as passive daylighting, LED lighting systems, low-flow fixtures, rain-water collection, and others to achieve LEED certification.
Photo by 
14 / 25
Modern funeral home with insulated concrete form and Trombe wall
Another businessperson to adopt green-building practices was J. Wynn Fleener, who rebuilt his family’s funeral home with insulated concrete form (ICF) blocks and a Trombe wall.
Photo by 
15 / 25
Modern LEED certified house with side dome
Residents, too, have taken the opportunity of rebuilding to embrace experimentation.
Photo by 
16 / 25
LEED Platinum certified The 16 Prairie Pointe Townhouse
The 16 Prairie Pointe Townhouses (one shown here) include eight of the state’s first LEED Platinum residences.
Photo by 
17 / 25
Resident Kari Kyle on a Greensburg, Kansas road
Resident Kari Kyle moved back to the area after the tornado to fulfill her dream of opening a coffee shop, the Green Bean Coffee Company.
Photo by 
18 / 25
5.4.7 Arts Center in Greensburg, Kansas
The 5.4.7 Arts Center is a green—in color and building strategy—glass rectangle in Greensburg.
Photo by 
19 / 25
Artwork in the 5.4.7 Art Center in Greensburg, Kansas
Artwork hangs in the 5.4.7 Arts Center showing the destruction from the tornado.
Photo by 
20 / 25
Wind- and solar-powered 5.4.7 Arts Center designed by the University of Kansas students
The wind- and solar-powered 5.4.7 Arts Center was designed and built by students from the University of Kansas’s Studio 804. The name reflects the date the tornado touched down.
Photo by 
21 / 25
Motor bikers on a flat dirt road in Greensburg, Kansas
The town, small enough to walk end to end in five minutes, is surrounded by a flat landscape, something that the residents take full advantage of.
Photo by 
22 / 25
Greensburg, Kansas resident portrait
Though residents have finally re-established regular routines, "a lot of people are really tired," Wallach says. "It's four years after the storm and people have been working nonstop to get their lives back to some semblance of order."
Photo by 
23 / 25
Water tower in Greensburg, Kansas
The water tower stands as a beacon in the tiny town. "It's really small," photographer Alec Soth said after traveling to Greensburg for the shoot. "The first day I didn't know anything and was asking for directions. Then I realized, it's all right here. I knew every corner by the end of my short time there."
Photo by 
24 / 25
Wallach and Catherine Hart Silo by the Silo Eco-House in Greensburg, Kansas
Hart and Wallach walk outside the Silo Eco-House, the first of Greensburg GreenTown's series of Eco-Homes. These buildings will be bed and breakfasts where eco-tourists can stay and experience green building. (The homes will be filled with small plaques explaining the different sustainable strategies, products, and fixtures used throughout the residence.) The Silo Eco-Home is the first B&B and also houses the Greensburg GreenTown headquarters.
Photo by 
25 / 25
The Big Well in Greensburg, Kansas
We're not in Kansas anymore, except we are—despite what the wind turbines may suggest. After being torn to shreds by a twister, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as a beacon of sustainable design in the middle of the American heartland.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
Two toddlers, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016
forest for the trees english prefab mobile home facade chesnut cladding
On the edge of a historic park in an English shire, a prefabricated home sets a new design standard.
May 23, 2016
tread lightly australia
A family home on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula is built to blend in with its lakeside setting.
May 23, 2016
jardins party dining room hay chairs local wood floor
A pair of architects help a client carve out an oasis of calm amid São Paulo’s bustle.
May 23, 2016
hwm6zf 1
No matter where you're located or what time of the year it is, having a fireplace in your home is a treasure that’s continuously sought after. Besides the obvious benefits of keeping a fire going through the cold winter months, it can also be a cherished asset that provides an extra level of year-round comfort—not to mention how it can help define the layout of a space by acting as a sculptural element.
May 23, 2016
An office Crosby Studios designed for NGRS in Moscow
Crosby Studios just cares about the essentials.
May 22, 2016
cold sweat seattle floating sauna gocstudio
A cadre of designers let off steam after hours by building and sailing a seaworthy sauna.
May 22, 2016
in the swim off the grid campsite healdsburg california swimming pool solar heat lap pool ipe deck loll designs lounge chairs
An off-the-grid house that is little more than a decked campsite—albeit with a roof—includes a swimming pool for a family that loves to enjoy the elements.
May 21, 2016
A print by Kristina Krogh
From flat to physical, Kristina Krogh masters every dimension.
May 21, 2016
scifi
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 21, 2016