Whirlwind Tour

Kansas architecture students haul a prefab arts center across the state to a tornado-ravaged town.

Earlier this year, a group of students from the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, set off on a 270-mile road trip through heavy rain to the place where Greensburg, Kansas, once stood. Ten months earlier, a 1.7-mile-wide tornado had ripped the town of 1,500 completely off the map, killing 12 people and leaving little standing but a grain elevator on the horizon. Along with the students’ motorcade were seven trucks carrying sections of a building they had prefabricated in a warehouse back in Lawrence. The 22 students—all part of Studio 804, a design-build master’s studio run by the architecture professor Dan Rockhill—would spend the next two months in western Kansas piecing together the 5.4.7 Arts Center, the first public building to be completed after the catastrophe and the first LEED Platinum building in the state.

“We’re a complete one-stop shop, from start to finish,” Rockhill says of the studio, which he founded in 1995. “We don’t sub­contract anything. It’s what I like to describe as a comprehensive design experience. Usually what happens is that young people today go through design school, and it’s totally idealistic. Then they get out of school, and we do such a shitty job of explaining the real world to them that students come back saying, ‘Man, why didn’t you tell me?’ This lets students understand the complexities of building.”

The arts center was an unusual project for Studio 804. For the last four years, students had been building homes with nonprofits in distressed areas of nearby Kansas City, but this year they wanted to do something to help Greensburg recover. At the time, most of the 800 residents who stayed after the storm were living in FEMA trailers surrounded by rubble. “There were still bricks in piles where the buildings used to be and holes where the basements were,” says Jenny Kenne Kivett, an 804 graduate who now coordinates the program. “It was all very raw and rugged. But even though the city said it couldn’t pay for a new building, we thought, Someone’s going to want one—there’s nothing there.”

Eventually they met Stacy Barnes, a Greensburg native who had formed a nonprofit a few years earlier and was kicking around the idea of opening up an art space. “Priority-wise here, when people don’t have homes, a lot of people ask, ‘Why an arts center?’” Barnes says. “But it just seemed like the perfect fit with Studio 804’s style of architecture. Really, it’s been a great step in the rebuilding of our town.”

Constructed in seven 12-foot sections using wood salvaged from a local ammunition factory, the entire structure is encased in a curtain of donated energy-efficient glass. A 38-foot-wide hydraulic airplane-hangar door folds up so that the gallery, which has already become an essential community meeting space, can spill out into the street. Powered by a geothermal-heat pump, wind turbines, and photovoltaic cells, the building dovetails with a city-council resolution last year that all publicly funded city buildings greater than 4,000 square feet meet LEED Platinum standards. “It’s really the first indication of what the new Greens­burg is going to look like,” Barnes says. “Being rural farming communities like we are out here in rural Kansas, it’s something that we have been doing forever. We just want to be good stewards of what the Lord has blessed us with. That’s just using what you have wisely and not being wasteful. Being sustainable is not a new idea here.”

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