“What we need is a carbon reduction plan for every existing building on the planet. And we can do that immediately."
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Episode 85 is a conversation with Christopher Naismith, CEO and founder of Audette.
We talked about how unscalable the traditional way to remove carbon from buildings is and what Audette is doing to make it more scalable.
Then we talked about how the business case for energy reductions is changing and what the leading indicators are telling us about the new way to think about the value of decarbonization.
Without further ado, please enjoy the Nexus podcast with Christopher Naismith
Mentions and Links
- Audette (8:40)
- Whitepaper: The Untapped 87%: Simplifying Controls Technology for Small Buildings (22:57)
You can find on Christopher LinkedIn.
- What did you do as an energy engineer / consultant? (3:27)
- After target setting and benchmarking, we need to scale up the building decarbonization process. Where are most organizations at today? (5:19)
- What are all the ways in which the process is not scalable today? (7:26)
- What is Audette? (8:40)
- How to fund net zero when it doesn't have a quick payback (16:34)
- Does the ESCO or energy as a service model solve this? Why or why not? (23:31)
Note: transcript was created using an imperfect machine learning tool and lightly edited by a human (so you can get the gist). Please forgive errors!
James Dice: hello friends, welcome to the nexus podcast. I'm your host James dice each week. I fire questions that the leaders of the smart buildings industry to try to figure out where we're headed and how we can get there faster without all the marketing fluff. I'm pushing my learning to the limit. And I'm so glad to have you here following along.
James Dice: This is a conversation with Christopher Naismith, CEO and founder of Audette. We talked about how unscalable the traditional way to remove carbon from buildings is and what our debt is doing to make it scalable. We talked about how the business case for energy reductions is changing and what the leading indicators are telling us about the new way to think about the value of de-carbonization. So without further ado, please enjoy the next podcast with Christopher Naismith Hello, Christopher,
welcome to the nexus podcast. Can you [00:01:00] introduce yourself please?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, thanks for having me. My name is Christopher Naismith. I'm the CEO and founder of debt. And our mission is to get carbon out of buildings. All right.
James Dice: Very, very noble mission. Uh, So how'd you get into the buildings of the street?
Christopher Naismith: what's your background? Yeah. I grew up in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. And I was always interested in maths and sciences. I ended up going to engineering school and a couple of different spots in Canada, but I. Uh, And then I studied civil engineering, but I ended up back in the forest uh, Vancouver island where I grew up.
And my first job was as a surveyor and I was in a forest, like tying ribbons around trees. Um, And I came back a week later and that forest had been clearcut to make way for the center line of our road that I had marked out. And it was, you know, maybe not an epiphany moment, but in that job that I realized that The decisions that we make has sort of the architects of the built environment have long-lasting [00:02:00] and broad impact. And that we do have a responsibility to be really conscious about the decisions that we make. So I dropped out of that. I spent a long time looking for. A better path. I went to Uganda and built water pipelines.
I built houses out of recycled material in the Nevada desert. But I eventually ended up back in academia and building science and really the study of how the design of commercial buildings impacts cost and carpet efficiency over time. And really found a passion there and ended up back in this world as a consultant.
And about 15 years ago. Cool.
James Dice: So I'd love to really just take a quick detour. What do you mean by plastic houses in Nevada? Sure. It
Christopher Naismith: was a kind of a house called an earth ship. Uh, And it's really an off-grid house built from tires, cans, bottles uses a thermal mass and recycled water three times. So I spent a couple [00:03:00] summers building those by hand and in Taos New Mexico.
So it wasn't yes or not. Nevada New Mexico. Cool.
James Dice: Well, that's not too far from me. And you're talking about, there's like a town to the north of tack, like a little, not a town. It's like a neighborhood
Christopher Naismith: in commune. Yeah,
James Dice: that's the one. Okay, cool. Yeah. Driven by that. And just my jaw dropped out the window, like look at those cool things in the side of the Hills.
Very cool. All right. So consulting, I'm assuming you mean like energy engineering type of consulting? Can you explain what that process is as a way to kind of set up the rest of this conversation? How does that
Christopher Naismith: process work? Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, at a client has a large portfolio of buildings.
They might be a university city you know, a REIT and whomever, and they've decided that they want to. Reduced carbon for some reason, a lot of the times that's cost driven, but [00:04:00] increasingly more and more, it's a sustainability driven. And so they need to know what to do. So they'll hire a energy engineer or consultant to come crawl around their buildings, go through boiler rooms, go through records, take photographs and, and build a model of the buildings and then run scenarios.
Figure out the business cases and present them back to say, here's the. Specific capital projects you should take on here's the impacts. and then it gets passed into construction. So that, that was predominantly my job also helping to oversee you know, take a look at the construction process and make sure it's happening properly and do post-project measurement and verification as well.
James Dice: Yeah. And I I've, everyone knows that I've done a lot of that work as well. I think we can probably say that's not the most scalable process. Is that an accurate assessment?
Christopher Naismith: That is very accurate. So I went through actually LinkedIn and added up everyone who was called themselves the sustainability or energy professional.
Um, Did the [00:05:00] math on it. If we were all sort of stacked in a pile, it would take us 200 years to touch every building that we needed to touch to get to net zero. And we certainly don't have that one.
James Dice: All right. So before we get to OD that, I'd love to like really kind of dig into what, what, where most organizations are asked today.
So I've kind of done a lot of work and writing recently around taking the energy management process, which I've been doing my whole career and kind of. Revamping it, I guess you will, for the sustainability kind of mindset, right?
The bigger picture for ESG, the bigger picture for decarbonization. And it's basically just like get the data, do some benchmarking, do some reporting. You know, develop out projects, measure and verify those projects kind of like you just said, and why you need to do an individual building. Where are most organizations at today in that process that you guys work with?
Christopher Naismith: Yes. So most [00:06:00] organizations generally are still in that very early vision setting stage you know, Sometimes say that they've tweeted carbon neutral. But they haven't actually got any, any plans to deal with it. We're fortunate enough to be in a place where there are, there are enough groups who have actually committed that, that need plans, that our client base tend to already have a net zero ambition ESG reporting.
In place and are really just looking to start churning through the spend. But that is now really just a small percentage of the market at this point.
James Dice: Totally. But in order to get to all those targets, right. Before we hit record, you said something like 82% of the economy has some sort of zero carbon target or something like that.
Christopher Naismith: Yeah. Yeah, that's true. So 82% of the global economy by GDP has a, mid-century get carbon out of the economy target. So it is absolutely crucial that we [00:07:00] start significant movement on, on identifying and actioning those projects. Uh, A huge portion of that is related to buildings. The construction and operation of buildings represents about 40% of our global carbon emissions.
So there is no carbon-free future in which we don't have carbon free real estate. Absolutely. So,
James Dice: I mean, you walked through it, right. Go dig around the boiler and find some drawings, but like, what are all the ways in which this, the process? So we talked about. Target setting benchmarking. The next step is actually doing something, creating a plan.
What are all the ways in which that piece is not scalable besides the fact that we just don't have enough people? We talk a little bit more detail about that.
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, absolutely. I think where we've really failed as an industry is to think about this as a, as a linear process of like start from scratch.
You know, benchmarking models and then go out and collect data and populate a model and then run [00:08:00] scenarios on it and then bring it back a hundred days later. And and then try to get it into next year's capital cycle. It's just far too slow and it is not really taking advantage of the fact that the building ecosystem is actually has quite a lot of rich data.
If we know how to structure it properly. I can talk a little bit about the solutions, but the problem is really more of a mode of thinking about how we pull forward conservation projects. We're kind of stuck in the same place that the travel industry was when we had to rely on travel agents to, to book our flights.
Right. There's just, there's a better tech enabled solution for, for actioning.
James Dice: Cool. All right, so, so what is the solution? What did you guys developing at on it?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, so kind of, to a two-pronged approach. So we sat down with the head of analytics for Google cloud and, and kind of blew our minds early days.
You know, he sort of said, there are two ways you can approach this. You can either [00:09:00] take an existing process that's broken and you can try to improve it incrementally and you will, you know, and we have been actually improving the way that. Identify projects, or you can forget about the process for a second and you can start where you want to go.
So where we want to go is having a carbon reduction plan for every existing building on that. And we can do that immediately. It'll be wrong, but we can, we can use satellite imagery. We can use public records. We can use what we know about buildings to really map out and archetype all of the buildings across massive geographies.
And then when when you show up to a building, you have a pre-built model. Of what you think is going on. That just needs to be corrected by the, by the auditor or by the data system. And the more that we learn about, about buildings, the more that we can characterize the smarter these machine learning models, get the better.
And the smarter those models get. So [00:10:00] we're building that out. We're basically mapping every commercial building on the planet using all sorts of ML techniques to pull forward. What we think the HVAC archetypes are, what we think the gas and electricity steam profiles are based on contextual data.
While at the same time running us a concierge driven SAS service that looks like Building a data lake that connects to asset records, maintenance records, smart building systems, and helps to build out realistic bottom-up plans for corporate real estate. So by running both those things concurrently, we're able to learn about what's important to do at a massive scale while also delivering immediate value to the people who have to do construction projects tomorrow.
James Dice: What does a plan look like? So the plans I'm used to creating right. Go out and like you said, crawl through boiler rooms and audit every building. And then every building would have like a list of energy conservation measures and [00:11:00] those energy conservation matters depending on what stage and what type of water you do.
Might have a scope of work and bids from a contractor and projected out
Christopher Naismith: savings and all of that.
James Dice: So w where do these sort of plans come in? How does this work?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, so, if you're familiar, obviously familiar with those stages of audit, we sold somewhere between an ashtray level one and a national level two.
So the. The projects are specific to pieces of equipment. They have costs, they have savings, they have incentives and they're placed in time as, as to where they, you know, where the equipment is in its life cycle. So all of that together creates a sort of a visual roadmap of how you're going to step down your, your carbon emissions.
Okay. And then the way that we handle the. The actual, like quoting and, and from contractors is where we have a marketplace where you it'll point you towards, Hey, this is the technology you should use. Here are the [00:12:00] heat pump vendors that will help you implement that. And then you can just go straight to them.
James Dice: Okay. And so, I mean, all of the existing HVAC systems, this buildings out there have some. Best path to that. Zero or zero carbon, right? Yeah. So you guys are basically just like crowdsourcing that into some
Christopher Naismith: sort of like recommendation engine for.
James Dice: An individual building based on the information that you might have.
So it might be this building's a 20,000 square foot grocery store and it's got six rooftop units. And based on that information, we know that the steps to be carbonated or this is
Christopher Naismith: that kind of how it works. Yeah. And it's as its basis level, that's the model sort of a digital model of the building, but then we get the, the end user to.
To fill in any gaps using their existing maintenance records, their existing asset condition reports we'll drop ship, a data [00:13:00] collector that plugs into their smart building system. So it actually were able to parse out a lot of relevant context that helps those recommendations be very specific.
James Dice: Okay. And what sort of data would you collect that would sort of just metering or what would you collect them and sort of feed into this process?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah. So we'd start by collecting some high level site information. You know, how big is it? Where's it located? What's it being used for? What are your operating schedules? Then we'll, we'll then connect to the utility data. So we have a direct API connection to 9,000 utilities worldwide where we can pull out the billing data ship a.
Data collector that runs on a raspberry PI and a plug into any smart building, any backnet or that's smart building system it's been for that
James Dice: piece. But what data would you collect from the system's
Christopher Naismith: onsite? Sure. So w we could like what we're really looking for [00:14:00] is like an HVAC topology. So what are the major heating systems, cooling systems, air handlers.
We tag it with some combination of like a haystack and brick schema tags, and then we pull in the operating schedule and the enable points, so we can see how, how that piece of equipment actually operates and how that affects. Okay.
James Dice: And these are all then getting fitted. It fed into this plan that is getting more and more detailed and accurate based on the more and more data . You have.
What's the next step after the plan is put
Christopher Naismith: together. Yeah. So we deployed that plan on a ongoing as a SAS product what we, what we found. Through many years, is that audits themselves get stale after some time, right? They'll get it. Maybe done every three years, maybe every five. But in fact, for capital planning purposes, the CFO doesn't really trust them after a year, maybe a year and a half.
And so what we've done is blend out the cost of that auditing into [00:15:00] an annualized subscription. So those data points. Kept up to date. And those business cases are always fresh when it's time to do planning for them. So that's sort of layer one and then the next logical question. You know, what technologies should I use, which you know, who, how should I develop this project and the, and that's where the marketplace comes into play.
So they can actually see a direct line from those recommendations to the technology providers. We're we're a layer in the market. We're not aiming to do the construction piece. So we'll then just pass that work off to the professionals who take that on.
James Dice: Okay. And then does that get tracked in the software after they get to work?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, so, the, the equipment get records get updated. The, obviously the smart building networks, if there is one get adapted, we get to see the new data. And so then we can actually do post-project measurement on the impact of those projects.
James Dice: Hey guys, just another quick note from our sponsor [00:16:00] Nexus labs. And then we'll get back to the show. This episode is brought to you by nexus foundations, our introductory course on the smart buildings industry. If you're new to the industry, this course is for you. If you're an industry vet, but want to understand how technology is changing things.
This course is also for you. The alumni are raving about the content, which they say pulls it all together, and they also love getting to meet the other students on the weekly zoom calls and in the private chat room, you can find out more about the email@example.com lab. Start online. All right, back to the interview
Okay. So a piece of this that I'm not familiar with, you know, when I did this process as a consultant, you know, in the non-scalable way, It was always like, let's try to hit a two year payback, right.
Or let's try to hit a five-year payback. I had one client one time that wanted a positive net present value over 10 years. And they. [00:17:00] Included the social cost of carbon in that equation. And that was by far the most progressive client I ever had and they did a ton of work. And that was amazing. But in order to get to zero carbon, right.
We're not necessarily going to have a two year, five year, even 10 year payback in order to get there. Like, if I just think about, you know, the average building is going to have to do some stuff that they probably wouldn't do otherwise. Right. To get there. And so w what are your, what are your thoughts on this?
How do we get to where. The stuff that doesn't have a payback starts to happen. And I'm thinking about like, like the roadmap that you talked about, you're doing the low hanging fruit first and then maybe the next highest payback next. And then eventually you're going to get to where, like, we're still have to, you know, squeeze 20% out of this building or something like that.
How do you think about that? Getting to that zero carbon
Christopher Naismith: number? Yeah, it's a great question. One of the nice things about [00:18:00] being a product instead of a consultancy is you can be pretty opinionated. And in our opinion, is there is that old narrative is tired as hell. Like there's, there's no carbon-free future that has a positive payback.
At least from an operations perspective right now in aggregate electricity costs three times as much as natural gas, the, the moving to, to like getting to a carbon free future involves getting off of gas and and cleaning up the grid. It's pretty simple. And so the business case doesn't work. If you're just looking at it from a pure energy savings perspective where we have to shift the narrative and where it is thankfully shifting is about, is towards asset value.
So, Increasingly regulations around the world. You know, the Netherlands, as a, as a sort of acute example, you cannot rent an office building to anyone. If it doesn't hit energy labels, see, by the end of 2020, That drives the value of that [00:19:00] particular building asset to zero. Hey, if it doesn't, if it doesn't serve its primary function on the market, nobody wants to buy it.
And that's the type of change that we're starting to see. People realizing that there's a huge amount of investment risk in inaction. And so as soon as we shift. To that narrative. And you know, you have people like the CEO of BlackRock saying climate risk is investment risk and actively turning down investment opportunities.
If they don't have a coach in ESG strategy then who cares about payback, right? It just, it moves, it moves the conversation so firmly away that we don't even have to be caught up in that anymore. It's it's a. You know, a unique opportunity that we have in the market. And I think we have to leverage it really strongly.
James Dice: And how do you see this playing out? So listeners will have probably listened to the episode a couple weeks ago with the neighbors program and Australia. So it's really act like this concept is really active [00:20:00] in certain pockets of the world. You mentioned the Netherlands in the U S we have different cities that have passed local ordinances.
Right. But when I think about like all of the buildings in the world, decarbonizing all of the buildings, like how long is it going to take for that regulation to hit all of them? Right. It's how do you think about that? Piece of, of scaling this
Christopher Naismith: up. Yeah. So right now, what we have to find is the folks who have portfolios that are, are distributed enough, that they're in one of those pockets, right.
And those pockets have thankfully happened to be in the largest population densities around financial markets. You know, you've got New York, Toronto, Vancouver, California. And so when you Approach a group who has those, like a portfolio that's distributed in those geographies. Then they're actually, they actually care about it and where they were, they distributed enough that they don't even know what all the regulations are.
Um, That's where they really need to start [00:21:00] to, you know, pull the data together. And so that's really the focus of our work right now is working with those large corporate. Class a like AAA buildings, smart buildings in order to serve that specific need. But what we're doing is learning so much about the features that make up buildings in general, that the, the, the models get smarter and smarter and smarter to the point that we can actually turn them out.
Like we, we envision a future in which access to what you should do is. Public utility. Right? You don't have to hire anybody it's just available. And then you can see exactly what technologies you need to deploy to, to get you there. So I, I see the first step is really to work with those groups who have the current financial motivation to make, to make moves and then take what we've learned and turn it out to.
To sit and geographies at large and thankfully [00:22:00] received that kind of groundswell of movement of the regulatory level as well.
James Dice: Totally. Do you think eventually the regulatory.
Christopher Naismith: Impetus for action
James Dice: will translate down into smaller buildings and different different industries, like different types of buildings.
Christopher Naismith: At some point, absolutely. I I mean, it has to, right. I think you shared a chart What is it? Night 93% of commercial buildings or something are below a certain square footage. 13% of commercial buildings are, are smart buildings. So we have to deal with small dumb buildings and So you where you have entire geographies, like, you know, here locally, the city of Vancouver, obviously New York taking a lot of action, but entire countries in Europe saying we're going to decarbonize our economy.
It absolutely has to target those, those groups. And the only way to do that is by providing easy, strong visibility into what the opportunity.
James Dice: Yeah, the thing you're referencing, the post I've made is on [00:23:00] our new white paper, which we'll put a link to is basically saying like one of the barriers to decarbonize decarbonizing the world is like this layer that you guys are attacking.
Right. Which is like, someone needs to go and figure out what to do in the, in the U S it's 5.9 million buildings that are below 50,000 square feet. So yeah, it's, it's really exciting to innate like, think about that big. That piece is just taken away. That piece is done. Right. That sounds really cool. Can we talk about the ESCO?
So Nesco part of this? So I have a background as an ESCO four or five years, the beginning of my career people don't know what that acronym is. Energy service contractor, they're doing performance contracts to reduce consumption. I think there are some schools of thought that think that. We just need to kind of revamp the ESCO model to where it can be applied to any building.
You know, historically ESCOs, we're just, you know, approaching public [00:24:00] buildings, usually bigger buildings as well. Municipalities universities that kind of thing. And so. I think I have the perspective that the ESCO piece and it has it it's evolved into the energy as a service or efficiency or the service, that piece doesn't still doesn't quite solve it.
Even if we were to apply the ESCO model to every building in the world, it's still doesn't get us to where we need to go. What, what are your thoughts as someone who has experience in that world as well?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah. I think that the, the evolutions in the ESCO market are really exciting. I think the energy is a service for moving down market is, is, is a really positive.
Thing. W as you say, we've seen that kind of stranded in the upper levels of the market because insurance costs so much because you have to, you know, the paybacks had to be so short. There, it just limited what you could do as a, as a contractor and actually see positive returns. I think the challenge with.
Energy performance is that you have, it [00:25:00] has to be performance right there. And there's a lot of buildings in which the investment is not worth it in terms of pure savings. So it just becomes a pure lending activity. In which case, you know, what's the, what's the motivation for a contractor to put in all that time and effort if they can't.
C C performance. So I think for a certain segment of the market, it makes a ton of sense, and we really have to enable that. But more generally, I think we just have to open up, open it up as a market place. Like ESCOs are one way you can do it the other way that you can borrow money from. From a bank that has a low carbon lending program, a green revolving fund.
You can install it yourself if you want to. Like, there's no reason why we can't go all sorts of ways. So I think while it makes up one segment of it, we really do have to have a more robust toolkit from a implementation perspective. Yeah. The way
James Dice: I've been thinking about it is like, even
Christopher Naismith: if.
James Dice: An ESCO we're to serve every building in the [00:26:00] world.
They would still need like what you guys are developing. Right. To be able to do that at scale. So
Christopher Naismith: interesting. Yeah. And, and then the other thing that we're seeing is that while there are a bunch of really great emergent new ESCO models there are still a bunch of legacy. Suppliers and providers that, that control a huge segment of the market and they are, they require a software tool for deal flow for project origination.
And that's really a niche that we're filling.
James Dice: Cool. All right. Last, last question. I think if I'm missing anything, let me know, but I think my last question is around. Split incentives. So how do you sort of approach the payback question when you know, different buildings can be different for set up differently from a financial standpoint who pays the bills, who needs to invest in the projects themselves?
Like how do you sort of sort out that, and I'm assuming you guys [00:27:00] have clients that are tenants and clients that are landlords. So how do you sort of navigate that process?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah. So we tend to be on the landlord side most often on the working with asset managers and their representatives in, in property management.
And so it's a, it's sort of back to that at that earlier point about payback is, you know, the split incentive thing is even just another thorn in the side of, of payback driven approaches is like, well, you know, I don't pay for any of this. Right. Where
James Dice: NDA, they have to do something about it and yet they
Christopher Naismith: have to do something.
Yeah, exactly. So if we're not worried about operational costs um, in fact, operational costs from an like of energy it's relatively low in, in, in the grand scheme of all the net operating costs. If we can forget about that and just talk about how it affects asset value, then again, split incentive.
Doesn't doesn't really come into play. One interesting thing we've seen. With heat pumps particularly is actually going [00:28:00] to go in the other direction where a landlord has a centralized boiler system that can turn into unit specific P-TECH units. Then they actually get to offload more of the operating costs onto the tenants while achieving those outcomes as well.
So there's, sometimes it works in our. Yeah.
James Dice: Well, cool. So what's the, what's the sort of future of all that you guys you know, the company started a couple of years ago. You guys just started raising money. What, what, what's 20, 22 and beyond look like for you.
Christopher Naismith: Yeah. So 2022 is a, is an exciting year for us where it's really the year where our machine learning models start to bear significant fruit.
We're actively mapping out a bunch of north American geographies through satellite imagery, through image recognition um, on the machine learning side. And then using that to deploy into corporate real estate at an ever increasing rate we've got a bunch of really exciting [00:29:00] partnerships and contracts on the go, which I probably can't speak about right now.
And we'll be doing a fundraise starting in, in April of this year. yeah, no, it's a, you know, a generally a really exciting time for the world. I think 2020. Kick in the butt for a lot of, a lot of folks and realizing how close 2030 was. And so we're in a lot of really exciting conversations and, and working, you know, proud to be part of a community that is really working hard to solve this problem.
James Dice: Awesome. Well, let's, let's end up with a little, two truths and a lie. Can you stump me?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, let's give it a shot. Okay. So, um, I once lived on a beach in Mexico with circus performers. Prior to the pandemic, I, I promoted large electronic music, dance parties and I once fell through a lake in the Canadian winter and died for a minute.
James Dice: Oh, wow. That is a tough one. Died for a minute.[00:30:00] I'm going to go with B but dance parties.
Christopher Naismith: There's a lot. There's a lie, a lie. Sorry, man. It's the, it's the ice thing. Okay. Can
James Dice: you just made that up or is that like a friend that happened to her or what?
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, I just made that up. I just figured it was, it was, they were pretty Canadian though.
James Dice: Yeah. So tell me about the Mexico beaches and circuit performers. Circus performance.
Christopher Naismith: Yeah, no, I M Uh, Volkswagen Westfalia and drove down the west coast of Mexico and ended up in Puerto Vallarta. And randomly met up with a troupe of, of circus performers, had out at a pizza place on a beach where I had plugged my van in and we just hung out for about two months juggling and bending fire.
James Dice: That's amazing. Well, thanks Christopher, for coming on the show. I wish you guys the best of luck and [00:31:00] 20, 22 as you ramp
Christopher Naismith: up. Yeah. Great, great to chat and thanks for the time.
James Dice: All right friends, thanks for listening to this episode of the Nexus Podcast. For more episodes like this and to get the weekly Nexus Newsletter, which by the way, readers have said is the best way to stay up to date on the future of the smart building industry, please subscribe at nexuslabs.online. You can find the show notes for this conversation there as well. Have a great day.