Architect and director of ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives
Architects, as any artists, create from their imagination. But architects’ creations are bound by structure, budgets and physics. Patricia Reiter says those limitations present an opportunity for creative solutions.
Reiter, 58, an architect and director of Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, helped design the initiatives program while working at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.
“Very much like an architect designs something and then wants to inhabit it, I worked on the proposal and then I wanted to do the things that we had proposed.”
Reiter thrives on the combination of creativity and business. She calls the process “designing enterprises.”
Reiter considered being an artist once, and she still paints. She says creativity is very much a part of her life, but she doesn’t confine it to the visual arts. “I find creativity every day in trying to create this enterprise.”
On the business side, she sees herself as the “chief entrepreneurial motivator” behind the initiatives, which advance sustainability through the work of the university.
“My role here is building a social enterprise to drive impact on social, environmental and economic issues surrounding challenges of sustainability,” Reiter says.
The purpose of the eight initiatives is to educate and develop professionals and increase research. Among the initiatives is a fellowship program to create multicultural opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. She calls the initiatives “accelerators” to advance a transition toward a more sustainable future.
One initiative, the Sustainability Solutions Extension Service, creates teams of ASU faculty and students to work on projects with clients ranging from cities to corporations to analyze and solve problems such as waste water, energy efficiency and green supply chains, Reiter says.
Reiter began her career as an architect designing sites for world’s fairs, which are themed each year. She was a member of teams that designed the 1982 “Energy Turns the World” fair in Knoxville, Tenn., and the 1984 “The World of Rivers” fair in New Orleans. She also designed a theater prototype that was used throughout the country.
Reiter was bucking trends when she switched her college major from art history to architecture at the University of Tennessee. She was told that interior design was a suitable area of study for a woman, but Reiter says, “I didn’t want to measure a window for drapes; I wanted to create the building.”
She knew she was good at math and capable of succeeding in the engineering classes, Reiter says, even if the ratio of women to men in architecture school was one-to-10.
“I was lucky to be at a point in time when our culture was really advancing feminist thought, and it was very empowering for me.”
She discovered business skills while working in architecture firms.
“It was challenging because architecture studios are very time consuming. But I also had some skills that colleagues might not have had. I’ve always been involved in marketing and business development in architecture firms,” Reiter says.
Reiter worked as an architect for 16 years and had a firm in Boston with her husband, Wellington Reiter, also an architect. In their partnership, she managed the business operation and her interest led her back to school for an M.B.A. at Simmons Graduate School of Business in Boston.
Reiter had an epiphany when she joined the board of a nonprofit organization. She says she had not been aware that professional and sophisticated business principles were being applied to nonprofits.
When her husband took a position as dean of ASU’s then-College of Design in 2003, Reiter began working at the ASU Foundation. She became involved in SkySong, which aims to grow the economy by launching and accelerating new companies, and the Global Institute of Sustainability.
Reiter and her husband left Arizona in 2008, moving to Chicago where he became president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When he left that post in 2011 they returned to the Valley. Reiter says they missed the sunshine and knew they wanted to live here again. They have two sons. One lives in San Francisco, and the other is a junior at ASU.
Her current project, developing sustainability solutions, combines Reiter’s and the university’s goals. They expect the initiative projects to become financially self-sustaining within the university setting. Reiter describes the organization as “cause-driven,” rather than nonprofit, and the philanthropic dollars supporting it are an investment, not donation. The return on the investment is its impact on society.
Reiter first learned of sustainability issues while she was in architecture school, during the first oil crisis. She says it’s a complex issue that takes both individual and collective action to change the current trajectory.
“Sustainability can be seen as invasive and limiting,” Reiter acknowledges, “It is true that there could be some restraints now to get the future we want. We are a species that doesn’t often think long-term for our own good. This is the biggest dilemma, long-term versus the short term.”
Reiter says she and her team are helping people to understand and trust science and the academic perspective.
“We are translating very complicated information for people at every level, individual and political that, hopefully, can inform their choices.”
In the search for sustainability solutions, Reiter is aware that solutions of the past may have become today’s problems. She says the future can be a combination of “economic prosperity and economic resilience,” as well as social justice.