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Photo © Farshid Assassi
A handsome corten steel sign announces the main entrance to the school.


Kiowa County School

BNIM Architects
Greensburg, Kansas

Back to School in Style: The architects at BNIM give Kiowa County a community resource for all to enjoy.

By Jane Kolleeny
November 2011

Over half the 1,700 residents of Greensburg, Kansas, never returned after a 1.7-mile-wide, EF-5 tornado devastated their town in 2007. The remaining residents never looked back, seeing the tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild a better—and more sustainable—community. "For decades, many of the youth of Greensburg would graduate from high school, go off to college and not return. The town wanted to help redefine their future, be a place where its children would choose to return and live," explains Casey Cassias, principal from BNIM, which served as master planner for the rebuilding of the town and architect on several of the new facilities. That includes the cornerstone of this new green town—the Kiowa County School, a 123,000-square-foot, $45 million LEED-Platinum K-12 facility.


Location Greensburg, Kansas (Great Plains)

Gross area 131,994 ft2; conditioned 123,045 ft2

Cost $45.2 million

Completed July 2010

Annual purchased energy use 29 kBtu/ft2 (330 MJ/m2); 60% reduction from base case

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 14 lbs. CO2/ft2 (70 kg CO2/m2)

Program Pre-K and K-12 education, including two gyms, classrooms for art, science labs, and distance learning programs


Curtain wall Series 3000, Vista Wall

Lighting controls Ecosystem, Lutron

Glazing Sunshine rooms, Guardian, SunGuard

View all team & sources

Kiowa County School
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Combining resources, the Kiowa School District right-sized the building for the rural setting by establishing a place to serve the needs of both Greensburg and the neighboring towns of Mullinville and Haviland. Numerous public spaces augment the educational requirements of the 250 students, making the school a hub of activity in the evenings and on weekends. Two gyms and outdoor track facilities accommodate competitive sports events and a library and cafeteria support community activities. Students have access to distance learning centers, labs, art and music classrooms, and the building itself serves as a teaching tool about sustainability by demonstrating a variety of alternative energy sources. "The facility is pedagogical and provides an environment that will increase the learning and health of the students while reducing operating costs," explains Bob Berkebile, principal of BNIM.

The design reinforces the town's master plan by establishing the entrance along Main Street; a handsome corten steel sign donated by Kansas City-based metal fabricator Zaner invites the visitor inside. The building is organized in a U-shape around an outdoor courtyard recreation area. Each of the two wings is oriented east-west, optimizing solar orientation and prevailing breezes. The high school and gymnasiums occupy the north wing and the lower and middle schools are situated in the south wing.

A 50-kW wind turbine sits in the native landscape where a series of bioswales, walking trails, and constructed and restored wetlands process rainwater. "Western Kansas is ripe for wind energy, and PVs take a long time to pay off—the power company gives back only about 2 cents per kW hour," comments Brian McKinney, project architect from BNIM. Nevertheless, the team prepped the Kiowa roof to receive PVs at a future date, not knowing that BTI, a subsidy of the local John Deere dealership, would eventually pay for a wind farm to serve the community. "After much of the school was already under construction, the wind farm did go forward due to BTI's private support. They are now carrying this model into other rural communities in America," adds Cassias.

In addition to wind energy, a closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling system serves the facility with 97 wells. As far as energy performance, the project is right on track with the model. Explains Cassias, "We are now 100 percent supplied by renewable power and net-zero carbon for electrical use.We are running far below our water use projections at nearly 50 percent better (1.4 million gallons calculated baseline versus 800,000 actual) and this includes the initial watering demand for new plant materials during the first year."

A plentiful collection of locally sourced, recycled, and nontoxic materials was used on the project, including durable Kansas limestone on the exterior. The building's envelope, orientation, lighting, and sun-control systems minimize HVAC needs; SIPs on the facade reduce thermal loading, and a rainscreen cladding system resists moisture infiltration. "We made the rainscreen from fallen cypress from Hurricane Katrina, purchased from an online company called Planet Reuse, which is like a construction eBay," explains McKinney. No-VOC paints, finishes, and carpets were used, and 95 percent of construction waste was directed away from landfill. Light-colored roof finishes reduce heat-island effect and the school's windows are sized and positioned to make the best use of light and warmth from the sun.

The logistics of getting to remote Greensburg—an almost five-hour drive from Kansas City—posed challenges for the team. According to Arlen Kleinsorge from McCownGordon Construction, "traveling was required for most of the craftsmen and due to the fast pace of the project that meant weekly onsite meetings of the owner, architect, and contractor. [The location] also increased the difficulty of fulfilling the regional materials requirements needed to achieve LEED-Platinum certification."

The disaster recovery financial model imposed additional constraints. "FEMA, USDA, and Kansas representatives put the funding package in place and the team had to comply with the rules and regulations," explains Cassias. Still, everyone felt rewarded in the end once the regulations and guidelines were understood and the constituencies integrated. "Their [FEMA's] project manager became so actively engaged in the effort he turned into a real champion for its success," continues Cassias.

In the end, the rush to get the school back up and running, combined with the need to take the time needed to build the right school, form the right partnerships, and obtain the necessary financial support, came into balance and led to a successful outcome. Berkebile feels the project "redefines the relationship among student, school, site, and community; it's a new synergy and paradigm. Over time it will increase performance in test scores, human health, and productivity while reducing costs."


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