Platinum turns out to be town’s silver lining

Gold Award: Kiowa County USD 422 K-12 School

July 06, 2011

Following a devastating tornado in 2007, residents of Greensburg, Kan., vowed to rebuild their town as a model of sustainability, with all new construction meeting LEED Platinum standards. Kiowa County’s new K-12 school does so in style.

On May 4, 2007, an EF-5 tornado virtually wiped Greensburg, Kan., off the map. The nearly two-mile-wide twister destroyed 95% of the town’s homes and businesses and displaced 1,500 residents; 11 residents were killed. This on top of an already struggling economy and declining population.

Faced with the task of cleaning up and rebuilding, the community chose to look past its mangled ruins and see an opportunity to radically improve by requiring all new projects to meet LEED Platinum standards. The new Greensburg would be economically and socially sustainable.

The years following the disaster sometimes challenged the town’s can-do attitude. With no school building, classes had to be held in FEMA trailers, a frustrating experience for both teachers and students. Building a new facility for Kiowa Country Schools’ nearly 300 students quickly became a top priority.   

Fortunately, the cash-strapped town was able to count on FEMA to cover more than 80% of the project’s $45 million construction budget. FEMA became an integral member of the Building Team that also included BNIM Architects, McCownGordon Construction, BGR Engineering (MEP), and SEA Associates (structural engineer).

The firms in the Building Team, all from Kansas City, Mo., were unfamiliar with the local subcontractor market, so they held open houses to meet subs from the surrounding communities and then worked with Greensburg officials to develop a list of qualified local subcontractors to help bring the project in on time and budget—a process that required an aggressive schedule and extensive coordination with multiple stakeholders.

The 135,000-sf joint-use K-12 school initially came in significantly over budget. Rather than rush through the process, the Building Team chose to extend the preconstruction phase by five months to resolve budget issues and ensure the school’s sustainable elements weren’t compromised—and to guarantee that the school would open in August 2010 for the new school year.

Construction finally got under way in February 2009, with plans calling for a single K-12 facility along Greensburg’s Main Street corridor. The site was selected to help revitalize the downtown and place students and staff close to retail and city services and allow them to walk or bicycle between home and school. The single school building was divided into zones for elementary, junior high, and high school students, who share an auditorium, cafeteria, interactive iTV classrooms, two gymnasiums, and a stadium athletic field with running track.

The athletic field was completed a year before the school opened to give the community a place to gather and reconnect—a move that resonated with our Building Team Awards judges. “Building the field first was a profound insight. It’s poetic,” said juror Tim Brown, AIA, Studio Associate Professor and Director of International Affairs, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.

The key consideration in the school’s design was to optimize daylighting: Every classroom is designed to be lit primarily by daylight. The school’s east-west orientation,  operable, high-performance windows, exterior and interior sunshades, and light shelves help reduce solar heat gain, diffuse glare, and bounce light deep into the building. Skylights further aid in bringing daylight deep into the school. Lighting controls and photoelectric switches and occupancy sensors were installed to determine when and how much interior lighting would be needed.

Sustainable features also include a heat recovery system and a hybrid closed-loop ground-source heat pump system combined with a fluid cooler that uses 96 vertical wells, each 415 feet deep. With its on-site wind turbine, energy savings are projected to be 50-60% better than standard energy code. As of publication, the school was anticipating LEED Platinum certification from the USGBC, and it was named to the Top 10 in the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Awards.

While the school was under construction, another storm with winds in excess of 80 mph knocked over a 30-foot-tall, 200-foot-long masonry wall. Despite this setback, the Building Team was still able to meet the Kiowa County Schools’ tight budget and scheduling deadlines. “The fact that this project rose out of a traumatic experience and that so many collaborators were able to marshal through a project like this is a testament to the entire Building Team,” said Brown.

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