7 min read

Nexus news #26: the flames burn closer and closer

Our collective action; the adaptability and resiliency of smart buildings; a new standard for particulate monitoring
African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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.


Oh, and by the way: if you missed last week’s edition, you can find it here.

Disclaimer: James is a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). All opinions expressed via Nexus emails, podcasts, or on the website belong solely to James. No resources from NREL are used to support Nexus. NREL does not endorse or support any aspect of Nexus.

1. 🤔 ON MY MIND.

We all have individual roles in the fight for justice and racial equity. I’ve been examining my role and there so much more I can do. I hope you’re doing the same.

But what is our collective role? What is the responsibility of our industry as a whole?

At first glance, it can seem like there isn’t much overlap between racial equity and our day jobs. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes about burning buildings, dust in the air, and letting the sun in, he’s obviously not talking about fire protection systems, measuring indoor air quality, or adding daylighting controls. So we can just go about our business as usual, right?

I don’t think so. As Kareem says and as you’ve seen in every city, the flames are burning closer and closer. What’s the point of progress in the better buildings movement without progress in the Black Lives Matter movement? Why work to make buildings smarter/greener/healthier/safer when some human beings don’t have basic human rights and will never be able to set foot in some of those buildings?

“Business as usual” doesn’t make sense. And yet, when I look around, I don’t see much collective action from our industry. I don’t see us owning and integrating the initiatives of the BLM movement. What projects, working groups, position papers, standards, etc are aimed at the center of this Venn diagram?

If you have thoughts on this and where we go from here, I’d love to hear and learn from you. If there’s an existing group or initiative you’re aware of, I want to join or support or promote it. Others from the Nexus community do too.


  • PODCAST—Episode #008 of the Nexus Podcast is a conversation with Jean-Simon Venne, CTO and Co-Founder of BrainBox AI, an advanced supervisory control platform for autonomous buildings. This is a great introduction to how AI is getting applied in real buildings.

  • DEEP DIVE—After the interview with Jean-Simon, I did a deep dive on my reaction, my top highlights of the episode, and a full transcript (Pro members only)

  • EVENT—June’s member gathering is on the calendar! Pro members already received a calendar invite. Here’s the plan:

    • We’ll do two breakout rooms so you can meet likeminded industry leaders

    • Dennis Krieger, Director of Engineering at Willow, will present on “Demystifying the Digital Twin: Connecting BIM with IoT”

    If you’d like to attend the event, sign up for Nexus Pro.

  • DISCUSSION—Analytics for buildings is just as much art as it is science. Agree or disagree?


Did Cities Fail Us? (Dror Poleg)

American cities have not been too kind to minorities because (most) American cities have not been, well, cities. They are not dense, not walkable, don't allow people to rely on public transport, don't create enough opportunity (or necessity) to interact with people from different socio-economic brackets.

Scientists Consider Indoor Ultraviolet Light to Zap Coronavirus in the Air (NYT)

Sales are up tenfold in the past month. “The demand is through the roof.”


One of the challenges in the wider use of ultraviolet lights is showing that it works well in a variety of settings. Hospitals are generally well ventilated and well maintained. Would air in a cavernous department store flow close enough to the fixtures to be disinfected? Would a fixture on the wall of a restaurant be effective enough to halt virus from traveling from an infected diner at one table to the neighboring tables?

The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them (Erin Bromage)—This article has gone viral and for good reason… the author does a great job of distilling what we know about COVID science into a short and readable essay.

So throughout most of the country we are going to add fuel to the viral fire by reopening. It's going to happen if I like it or not, so my goal here is to try to guide you away from situations of high risk.


Any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and high density of people, spells trouble. All these infection events were indoors, with people closely-spaced, with lots of talking, singing, or yelling. The main sources for infection are home, workplace, public transport, social gatherings, and restaurants. This accounts for 90% of all transmission events.
  1. RESET® Spearheads New Airborne Particulate Monitoring Standard


How does smart building technology help with resiliency? This question came up in a recent meeting and I thought I’d share my answer. If you’re new to the resiliency conversation, NREL’s resilience assessment methodology offers a great place to start. It’s a step by step approach to assessing, mitigating, and learning from risks.

In March, I wrote a (free) deep dive into how antifragility takes resiliency to the next level. Regardless of the terminology, I see 3 main areas of support provided by smart building tech:

  1. Remote monitoring and control – ensuring building operators have visibility of system performance and the ability to address issues remotely

  2. Analytics to keep equipment tuned and maintained properly – fault detection and diagnostics, condition-based/predictive maintenance, etc increase resilience by helping O&M teams keep systems operating properly and even predicting failure

  3. Advanced supervisory control – vendors are adding the ability to automate advanced controls strategies with several advantages:

    • Reducing dependency on humans

    • Ability to learn, predict, optimize in ways that are above and beyond the typical BAS, e.g. using weather forecasts and physical models to decide on the best control sequences

    • Ability to control across previously siloed system boundaries, i.e. connecting HVAC, electrical, metering, access control, GIS, etc

    • Ability to perform grid services to support the resiliency of the overall grid

What opportunities are you seeing?


As we’ve been exploring in recent Nexus editions, the average building operator is about to get their hands on a lot more occupancy data.

How many people are here? What space are they in? Etc, etc, etc.

This isn’t just due to COVID—it was already trending that way, thanks in part to energy codes requiring more occupancy sensors. Like the broader trend toward digitization, COVID-19 is just accelerating what was already happening.

Simultaneously, also partly thanks to building code and standard progressions, lower-cost submeters, and utility AMI installations, the average building operator is also getting more granular energy usage data. Analytics software can now calculate virtual meter points for end uses such as HVAC, lighting, plug loads, etc. It’s becoming commonplace to have 15-minute whole-building energy data and the ability to drill down into each piece of equipment.

As we’ve discussed in the past (here and here), more data allows our smart building platforms to create better key performance indicators. KPIs allow the building operator to zero in quickly on under-performing buildings and systems actually do something with all that data.

What new KPIs are enabled by more prevalent occupancy and energy data? A recent study in Building and Environment explored just that. The authors argue that the typical commercial building just doesn’t adapt its energy consumption to real-time occupancy very well, and KPIs to measure “adaptable building performance” are proposed to help change that.

They propose 3 sets of KPIs:

  1. Metrics that focus on quantifying occupied vs. unoccupied energy use
  2. Metrics that focus on measuring the utilization of different building systems at full capacity relative to equivalent occupancy at full capacity
  3. Metrics that focus on using hourly occupancy as the normalizing factor for building performance reporting

While technologies and control strategies exist to adapt building operations and energy use to lower occupancy, these metrics would enable evaluating and comparing the ability of these technologies to improve or maintain adaptability. With ever-increasing volatility in the occupancy of our buildings, these are numbers we should be tracking and paying attention to.

What do you think?

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


P.S. Nexus is a 100 percent reader-funded publication and podcast. It only exists because people like you support it. If you liked today’s edition, please consider joining Nexus Pro! Members get exclusive access to the Nexus Vendor Landscape, monthly events, weekly deep dives, and all past deep dives like these:
How technology is replacing old supervisory controls
Build it from scratch: How next-generation building automation could change the industry
The carrot or the stick? Digital transformation for building service providers
How a platform + app architecture enables a single pane of glass
Deep vs. shallow integrations and the misaligned incentives in commercial real estate
How BrainBox AI uses reinforcement learning to improve the BAS

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