Winning the first design competition they'd ever entered came as a great surprise to the architects of New York City-based Steven Learner Studio. According to principal Steven Learner, AIA, the firm entered the Greensburg GreenTownChain of Eco-Homes design competition in fall 2009 intending simply to use the experience to expand its cumulative knowledge of green and sustainable design.

But the studio's expertise in maximizing livable space within minimal footprints, gained through its many urban loft and apartment projects, served it well in the competition. The design of the 1,450-square-foot, three-bedroom Meadowlark House recently won the grand prize in the Chain of Eco-Homes Competition.

Greensburg, Kan., was leveled by a tornado in 2007, but almost as soon as the dust had settled, its leaders and residents vowed to recreate the town as a model green community. With the help of Greensburg Greentown, a grassroots organization established to support the rebuilding, the town has made great strides. The organization launched the 12-house Chain of Eco-Homes project to develop living laboratories that will inform the town's residents and visitors about the latest sustainable and tornado-resistant building techniques, energy technologies, and green products. The houses also will be used as lodging for eco-tourists visiting the town.

"Most importantly, they will demonstrate the breadth of what's possible in sustainable residential design and green-built living," says Daniel Wallach, executive director and founder of Greensburg GreenTown.

With the Chain of Eco-Homes Competition, the organization and its partner, FreeGreen.com, invited the design of affordable, two- and three-bedroom single-family houses that balance innovation with practicality and incorporate one of three disaster-resistant and green wall systems: insulated concrete forms (ICFs), environmental masonry units (EMUs), or the prefab wood block HIB Building System.

In addition to earning a cash prize of $10,000, Steven Learner Studio's Meadowlark House will be built as part of the Chain of Eco-Homes Project, and the design plans will be made available on FreeGreen.com, an online source of free sustainable home plans.

Many of the designs entered in the competition were strikingly beautiful and far flashier than Meadowlark, which is modest in both size and aesthetic. In keeping with the competition's guidelines, the designers focused on practicality, livability, flexibility for multiple types of residents, and adaptability over time. "This is a house that is actually going to be built and someone is going to live in it," at least temporarily, Learner says. "That was our starting point."

Set along an East/West axis to maximize passive solar and ventilation performance, Meadowlark's compact floor plan separates public and private spaces into two parallel, but slightly offset, wings. The long wedge of public living spaces—containing an open kitchen/dining room/living room—extends to exterior patios at the house's front and back. The simple rectangle of the private wing houses three bedrooms and two bathrooms, buffered from the public realm by closets, kitchen wall, and a hall. With three bedrooms, Meadowlark can easily accommodate many different family patterns. A standing-seam metal-clad butterfly roof is designed to channel rainwater to an underground cistern for irrigation. A large portion of the roof is oriented southward to allow installation of photovoltaic panels, although the architects didn't specify the technology.

Learner chose to design around the modular HIB Building System of stack-locking wood blocks made from a combination of sustainable, non-toxic materials, including ground mussel shell. The system, produced by German company HIB, provides high insulating values, and its dovetail and tongue-and-groove connections provide lateral stability against seismic forces and high wind loads. Continuous metal straps from foundation to roof joists provide extra structural strength.

While Meadowlark's design is decidedly modern, it's not emphatically so. "The Meadowlark was different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough that people can feel comfortable with it," Wallach says. The design appealed to the most diverse aesthetic preferences among the competition judges—architects, builders, and Greensburg residents, alike.

Meadowlark struck all the right notes with its simple elegance, modest approach, affordability, and durable structural design.

Two runners-up were also selected for recognition in the Chain of Eco-Homes Competition, each receiving $1,000 and also being made available on FreeGreen.com. The Root/Breathe/Endure House by Stuttio Workshop of Venice, Calif., and Linear Villa by Daniel Day Studio of Dallas.

Competition judges were Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP; Allison Arieff, editor-at-large, Sunset magazine and columnist for The New York Times; Lloyd Alter, columnist for TreeHugger.com and associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto; Ron Jones, CEO of Green Builder Media; Steve Hewitt, Greensburg city administrator; and Ben Uyeda, FreeGreen.com chief architectural officer and university lecturer.