6 min read

#38: does it need to be so complicated?

Two camps forming; buildings as virtual power plants; Charlie continues his lessons with Maureen

Good morning!

Welcome to Nexus, a newsletter, podcast, and membership community for smart people applying smart building technology—written by James Dice. If you’re new to Nexus, you might want to start here.

Here’s an outline of this week’s newsletter:

  1. 🤔 On my mind this week

  2. 📚 What I’m reading

  3. 💡 New from Nexus

  4. 🧐 New to me

  5. 🧱 Foundations


1. 🤔 On my mind this week

This week I’m reflecting on some key parts of last week’s Nexus Pro member gathering. There were 40+ of you on Zoom, and the level of expertise and passion we brought together blew me away.

One interesting discussion arose around the complexity of building technologies. It seemed like there were two sets of opinions:

Camp Complexity would say something like this:

Complexity is inherent to our industry. The building automation system (and other tech) is complicated because it needs to be in order to meet the diverse needs of building owners. Trying to smooth the complexity away only confuses and gets in the way of the real solutions.

Camp Simplicity might respond like this:

Sure, the systems we’re trying to control, automate, optimize, etc are complex, but that doesn’t mean the user’s experience with the technology can’t be simple. Look at the technology we’re using in our personal lives… obviously it’s complicated behind the scenes, but it’s not complicated for me to use it.

Obviously there are shades of gray here, but what camp are you in and why?

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2. 📚 What I’m reading


The newest power plants are buildings – generating efficiency resources—An interesting article explaining what happens when utility industry regulators agree on a method to quantify energy savings. (Gridium)

The eternal knock on energy efficiency has been that you can’t measure it. As anybody operating an asset knows, what you can’t measure, you can’t finance or incentivize or create markets around.

Once grid operators can measure efficiency resources, they can treat it like other energy sources. Utilities can start to bill for efficiency resources, to set market auction mechanisms, to plan grid capacity around them, etc – in short, to do the many things that make our wholesale energy markets so efficient.


Disrupt a Broken Industry – The Industrial Construction Sandbox (Shadow Ventures)

We need something beyond incremental change, something that will truly disrupt the industry, increase the value of other innovations, and tackle industry challenges. The answer: industrialized construction technology with off-site manufacturing as the cornerstone. Technology innovation becomes exponentially more valuable when placed in this context.


Smarter Buildings. Better Experiences.—I finished up the book this week and enjoyed the second half, but again found it a little too dedicated to new buildings. (Bruce Duyshart)


Other pertinent reads from just (a bit) outside the smart buildings industry:

Who killed the supergrid?—Juicy investigative journalism shows how important the US election is for the decarbonization of the North American electric grid. (The Atlantic)

If NREL researchers are able to work unencumbered by political concerns and release Seams in its entirety, it could help point the U.S. toward a greener future, in which a robust economy runs on renewable energy. But for now, Seams is demonstrating an unintended finding—that when administrations stick their hands into scientific research, politically inconvenient truths are in peril.


Propelling the transition: The battle for control of virtual power plants is just beginning—We’ve covered building-grid interaction in previous editions of this newsletter and in our first Nexus Pro member gathering. This article is a fascinating look at the drama of the burgeoning virtual power plant (VPP) market, where utilities and third-party aggregators are vying for control over behind-the-meter distributed energy resources. (UtilityDive)

Aggregators also claim they can do things with DERMS that utilities simply cannot, and that this disparity is only growing as the technology matures. DERMS use machine learning to be able to forecast the optimal times to dispatch DERs given weather, electricity prices and other factors. Now, they are incorporating more sophisticated artificial intelligence that makes these systems so complicated that they are "not something you would sell to a utility — that’s not their expertise,"

This adds an extra layer to considerations around advanced supervisory control platforms for buildings, who could begin to compete with the aggregators once they gain enough customers in a given utility region. Or, the behind-the-meter platform providers could partner with the aggregators, like Schneider Electric and Autogrid just announced.

This installment of NEXUS is free for everyone. If you would like to get full access to all content, join the NEXUS Pro community. Members get exclusive access to the Nexus Vendor Landscape, monthly events, weekly deep dives, and all past deep dives.

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3. 💡 New from NEXUS

  • PODCAST—🎧 #016: Brad Pilgrim on how multifamily buildings can achieve energy Parity

    • Brad breaks down the application of smart building technology in multifamily residential buildings, including how that's different from other verticals and why it's such a unique niche.

    • We unpack Parity's solution for that space, which as a long-time resident of multifamily buildings myself, sounds like a perfect product-market fit.

    • Brad shares how the pandemic has changed residential energy consumption patterns and why that has actually driven more demand for the Parity solution.

  • DEEP DIVE—Episode #16 reaction: How the multifamily vertical is unique (Pro members only)

    I think the smart buildings world gets too focused on commercial office buildings, which is a shame.

PODCAST BITE—Jean-Simon Venne on predictive vs. reactive building automation (full episode)

4. 🧐 New to me

Even though the Nexus Vendor Landscape has over 100 vendors on it, I still learn about new companies/products to track every week.

Here are this week’s discoveries:

  1. Power Takeoff—Denver company, home of Pro member Mike B, helps utilities with small and medium-size building efficiency using analytics and services that capitalize on the local utility’s investment in interval meters. Very aligned with the energy management hierarchy of needs approach.

5. 🧱 Foundations

The dates are set for cohort 1 of Nexus Foundations, an introductory course on smart buildings. From 10/1 to 11/19, we'll publish weekly content, host weekly live workshops on Zoom, and hold weekly office hours.

The weekly content will feature the story of Charlie, a smart building rookie who eventually grows into a smart building champion thanks to his mentor, Maureen.

In week 2, Charlie continues his journey. If you missed week 1, check out last week’s newsletter for the beginning of the story.

Week 2: This is weird

In week 2, Charlie got to the coffee shop 20 minutes early. He just couldn’t wait to see Maureen and learn more. Last week, she helped him see his career from a whole new perspective. He now understood that he was part of an entire ecosystem of stakeholders who interact with each building—all with different and sometimes contradictory goals and priorities.

Now he was ready for the next lesson. When Charlie walked in, he immediately noticed Maureen had beaten him there.

Hey Maureen! Great to see you! Am I late? What are you doing here so early?

Charlie wasn’t late, Maureen explained. She just needed some extra time to get her thoughts together. All week, she had been at a loss for how to explain the next step in the journey to make a building or portfolio smart: Assessing the existing conditions.

Let’s face it: in the buildings industry, the existing conditions are SO F*CKING WEIRD! Where to even begin?

This time, it was Maureen who needed the extra caffeine.

Take a seat, kid. We have a lot to cover.

After a coffee refill, she decided to flip the problem on its head: the first step in creating a smart building strategy is to assess all the ways in which the building is currently dumb.

Maureen knew that Charlie’s projects had been getting derailed by what he considered invisible forces. He had begun to think of smart building projects like walking through a field of landmines. He didn’t know when, but eventually, something would blow up.

Maureen decided that if she could show him how to see the invisible landmines for himself, maybe he could learn to navigate without stepping on any of them.

To be continued… 


We're capping this (deeply discounted) first cohort at 25 students to maximize the time we can spend with each student.

Reserve your spot now. 👇

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OK, that’s all for this week—thanks for reading Nexus!