Dana Hoff Photography

Robert Reed, Assoc. AIA, closed his five-person Atlanta firm, Preston & Reed Sustainability Solutions, in late 2007, at the beginning of what the National Bureau of Economic Research has designated as the start of the recession. Since that time, thousands of small businesses such as Reed’s have closed, and thousands more employees have found themselves out of work. However, Reed, a Georgia Tech graduate, is no longer one of them. Using his architecture training and business experience, Reed is now the sustainable communities design director at Southface, an Atlanta-based nonprofit advocacy group for environmental solutions in construction, development, and communities.

The recession was pretty abrupt for our firm. Our client at the time—for which we’d been working on a big project for over a year—was being shut down by more than one creditor, and we realized that we needed to take drastic measures. First, we did not renew our month-to-month lease. Then we moved into the basement of a rental property I owned. Ultimately, though, we closed the doors. My wife, Marci, had worked with Southface at one point in her career, and so I knew of them—and I had also worked with them on a few charrettes. They reached out and asked for my help on a few things in March 2008, and I’ve been with them ever since.

Southface’s executive director, Dennis Creech, has been wise in seeing where thought about sustainability is most needed, but community has always been part of it. Community outreach is something I understood from my former firm’s work. Architects, like developers and engineers, hold on to things closely, and sometimes they have trouble sharing. But what I have found is that community outreach makes projects better. It makes for smarter development and a more sustainable solution. More than that, I think the need for transforming land-use rules has not lessened over the last 30 years. We are so far from any form of smart growth, and we need to reconvene that focus.

Energy efficiency is a complicated problem—how do you begin to invest in it? But this is an exciting prospect: finding decentralized power sources. Here in Georgia, we have a monopoly utility, and the inertia of having one big supplier who runs the grid is a big thing to overcome.

So what is smart growth? Smart growth is a combination of things: acknowledging that placemaking is necessary, acknowledging the proper response to context, and acknowledging that natural resources, a proper street network, and so on are things that need to work, respond, and adapt over time.

Ultimately, we can have green lungs in our cities; we can complete restorative landscapes—and the younger generation of architects sees density and mixed-use with a green connection as a good thing. As a profession, we seem to be focused on high design, and there are missed opportunities in sustainable design, such as natural forces, passive systems, materials, and so on. If architects and eager students could find their forms inside those systems, we’d have a more meaningful architecture. —As told to William Richards

To learn more, visit southface.org.