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Southface Institute’s new president wants to help build a greener Atlanta

Southface Institute's headquarters are a green oasis amid the bustle of Midtown. (Photo courtesy of the Southface Institute.)

By Hannah E. Jones

“I’m solar-powered,” James Marlow, Southface Institute’s new president, said as he walked into his office — a brightly lit room despite the lights being off, with big window frames showing lush, green trees. “The built environment impacts how we live. It needs to be healthy.”

James Marlow. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

Southface is an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on building sustainable, efficient homes, workplaces and communities. Marlow was named Southface’s new president in May, but his history with the local nonprofit goes far beyond 2022. 

As a 1978 high school senior living in a small Georgia town, Marlow was working on a project about solar energy. While doing research, he reached out to a brand new organization he’d stumbled upon — Southface. 

Years later, Marlow got involved with the nonprofit and experienced a lot of personal firsts, like riding in an electric car, seeing an LED light bulb and learning about advanced recycling and composting. 

“Their legacy is being a thought leader, an innovator, a convener and a connector,” Marlow said. “There are many things, like hosting the very first public meeting of the Atlanta BeltLine, that are examples of Southface’s leadership.”  

In his new position, energy efficiency’s role in housing affordability is top-of-mind for Marlow.

“A lot of people in Georgia have a very high energy burden or energy poverty,” Marlow said. “If you’re a senior citizen, particularly living in certain zip codes, you have a really high burden, and you may be choosing between your medical costs, your food or running the air conditioner. It’s really important to run an air conditioner right now. There are things that we need to do to help those communities.”

He’s also focused on the efforts of GoodUse, an initiative to help nonprofits cut utility costs and invest those savings into their programs.

Centered on where the built and outdoor worlds meet, Southface aims to improve the built environment while protecting the natural one, through sustainable building practices, training programs and environmental advocacy.

A diagnostic cabin for Southface’s training programs. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

These ideals are reflected in the name because a south-facing building is the most efficient as they get the most natural light in the northern hemisphere.

The organization has been instrumental in Atlanta’s sustainability effort, like creating the EarthCraft building standard, and founding the Georgia Solar Energy Association and the Georgia Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Fitting for a sustainability nonprofit, Southface’s headquarters — featuring the Eco Office and the Resource Center — are decked out with new technologies and unique eco-friendly designs that adapt based on its surrounding environment. 

The Eco Office is a bright, airy building, with “electrochromic glass” windows to regulate heat, compostable toilets and recycled rainwater. This is all topped off with a “green roof,” with drought-tolerant species planted that offer heat control and absorb rainfall.   

The green roof also offers a great view of the Atlanta skyline. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

The roof also has solar tubes which, as Facility and Program Manager Stephen Ward explained, “have long prisms inside that bounce the sunlight back and forth, providing great light indoors. You don’t have to use any artificial light.” 

The Eco Office uses less than 50 percent of the energy of a comparable building and 84 percent less water, according to Southface.

This may not be Southface’s home forever, though, as Marlow hinted that the organization could eventually move. He also hopes to be involved in the redevelopment of the historic and long-dormant Atlanta Civic Center site, owned by Atlanta Housing. 

“We want to be part of that master plan development and incorporate sustainability into the planning. Southface could become part of that development [or] we could remain here in our current facility and redevelop it. It could be a passive house or a living building — kind of pushing the envelope.”

Looking ahead, Marlow said that local organizations and advocates need to continue to encourage our elected officials to choose the green route.

“I think we need to do a better job of explaining that benefit so that it’s not just a feel-good thing or something that sounds cool, but it’s actually grounded in economics and makes good business sense,” Marlow said. “It also makes for healthy, happy, high-performance buildings, homes and schools.”

He continued: “[At Southface,] we want to grow our impact. We want to help more people, and be a change agent in sustainability, clean energy and electric transportation.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Southface Institute, click here.

Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.


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