Climate Solved Episode 3: The Anatomy of a Building

Lindsay Jones
Lindsay Jones

Climate change may seem like an insurmountable challenge. But while politics and passions paint a bleak picture of inaction, Carbon Lighthouses recognize climate change as just another problem — and problems are meant to be solved. Many of the tools for profit-driven carbon elimination already exist, what matters is finding the combination of willpower, business sense, and financial structure that make it possible. Climate Solved is a podcast celebrating the ideas and collaborations that make use of market forces to take climate action. Each week, Co-founder and CEO Brenden Millstein sits down with a new guest to discuss the solutions that will stop climate change in our lifetime. Created for entrepreneurs and leaders in commercial real estate & hospitality investment, asset management, solar, and energy services, Volume 1 will introduce you to key members of the Carbon Lighthouse team and how they’re uniting commercial interests with a mission to stop climate change.

In this episode, Emma Bassein, VP of Strategic Initiatives, joins Brenden to dissect the anatomy of a commercial building. Emma and Brenden dive into Carbon Lighthouse’s innovative CLUES® software, and the ways in which the company is using it to run holistic diagnostics on commercial properties, treating each as a unique set of interoperable systems.



Brenden: Here’s a big idea: Make the stuff you already have more efficient. Hi. My name is Brenden Millstein. I’m a physicist, former jazz saxophonist, and co-founder of Carbon Lighthouse, and this is Climate Solved, a podcast that celebrates the ideas and actions that will stop climate change within our lifetime. Welcome to episode three of a four-part series of discussions with my Carbon Lighthouse colleagues. I’ve asked them to share some stories from the work we’re doing to eliminate carbon emissions from non-residential buildings, which are responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and 40% of emissions within the United States.

Today, I sit down with my fellow Berkeley High School classmate Emma Bassein, our VP of Strategic Initiatives. Emma studied Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Science at MIT before getting her Master’s in Environmental Engineering at Princeton. She then took over for me after I left the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, and was so much more effective than I was that they tripled her budget up to a quarter of a billion dollars to use to improve buildings to become more efficient. She also ran a Palo Alto nonprofit committed to energy and water conservation in small to medium commercial buildings. Emma is also a serial traveler, as you’ll hear. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

So, you just returned from a trip to Africa. Want to tell me about it? What were you doing there, what did you learn, what did you love?

Emma: I spent about three months working in Kigali, which is the capital of Rwanda, and I was there partly, mostly to annoy you, Brenden, by leaving the company for a while on sabbatical, but also to pursue this lifelong goal I had of learning about energy in another context. The company I was working with there is the first provider of commercial PPAs on the continent of Africa, I think, so the first provider working with grid-connected businesses to try and do a finance solution for solar, and it turns out there’s a ton of complications around that that were really interesting to learn about. What I spent a lot of my time with was actually working with a team on the same things you would with a young startup team anywhere in the world, working on processes and management, and how do you actually get things done in an efficient and repeatable and effective way, so that was a really interesting lesson.

Brenden: That’s interesting. How did investigating solving these challenges, and maybe some of the other ones that you’ve seen through your travels, how have those influenced how you think about climate change and the ability to solve it?

Emma: I think one of the really obvious things that came out of that experience for me was how important it is to have people who are local to where they are, trying to solve the problems in their context.

Brenden: You’ve obviously thought about these problems of scaling solutions, and making them profitable, and making them work for all of the constituents deeply, and I think you’ve also thought about buildings quite a bit more than, say, your average bear. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you think about when you see a building, and what you think most people see when they see a building, and some of the more interesting tenants of buildings, pun intended.

Emma: Buildings are such an interesting background to the lives that we all lead, right? Like, we spend probably 80%, maybe more of our time in buildings any given day, and if they even think about them at all, it’s like, “Oh, I’m a little bit hot,” or “I’m a little bit cold,” or maybe people who are art-inclined think about how beautiful they are. The built environment really impacts us as people. It impacts our health — there’s a lot of indoor air quality issues around buildings — and it also impacts the overall environment, and it’s … A huge percentage of the energy that we use in our society goes into making our buildings habitable.

Brenden: I’ve heard that percentage is, for commercial buildings, maybe 30% or 40% of total energy consumption in the US.

Emma: Yeah, Brenden, I think that’s about right; if you include commercial and industrial properties, it’s around 40% of energy use in the United States.

Brenden: Yeah, that is high. Perhaps you could share a little bit more about how Carbon Lighthouse looks at buildings as a collection of systems, and what some of those systems are, and how the interesting ones work to keep us cool, then heated, and supplied with nice fresh air instead of suffocating.

Emma: Yeah, absolutely. A way that you can think about buildings, and particularly the parts of buildings that are there to keep us from suffocating, or from getting too hot or too cold, is really just a series of loops that are trying to move heat and air from one place to another. Lots of things inside of buildings make heat, so — like us right now — so you can think about all of the systems, all the mechanical systems as this series of interconnected loops that is trying to either reject heat from inside the building to outside the building, or take heat from outside the building and bring it inside the building, depending on whether you’re in heating mode or cooling mode.

Brenden: Why does it take so many loops? Why can’t you just pump in nice fresh air from the outside, and heat it up a little bit if it’s cold, or cool it down a little bit if it’s hot?

Emma: Buildings are really fun because they have a ton of different spaces, and they all want things to behave differently, and so you can’t actually treat every space the same. If I put the same temperature air into this tiny room that we are in right now and into the main lobby, you wouldn’t get the same temperature effect, and so you need to be able to control both the temperature and the volume of air that you’re distributing based on the requirements of a given space.

So that’s part of what makes it complicated, and then the other part is that buildings, for the most part, were built before we knew what we were going to use them for, so it’s very rare that the actual occupant of the building is the one who’s designing it and building it. Maybe in some tech campuses or something like that, but most buildings are kind of built by a developer, and then sold or rented to whoever takes it, and so the design of that building isn’t necessarily … It needs to be able to be customizable, to a certain extent, to whoever is going to be using it, and so it needs to be adjustable in different spaces.

Brenden: You, not coincidentally, lead the Buildings Innovation Group, or BIG, if you will — which I will — at Carbon Lighthouse, which is designed to innovate in buildings as a group. So, what’s so big about BIG?

Emma: I’m really excited about BIG. This is an initiative that I’ve been owning for a little while now, and the reason for it to exist, you have to know a little bit about our process here at Carbon Lighthouse. Part of what we’ve done as a company is make it possible to do really high-end, detailed, customized engineering analysis in a very short period of time, and we do that by having very systematized data that we collect, and how we analyze it, and how we move forward with it. What that means is that on any given site, we might not have a lot of time to look at something outside of our normal scope of work, and so what BIG does as a group is make sure that we’re continuously incorporating the best in class coming out of the research community, and coming out of other companies working in the field, about what are the best things to do in buildings.

Brenden: The general idea, then, is that anything new and innovative that gets created by anyone, say, by academia, or a government lab, or another company, your group or the BIG group can then go and figure out how to apply it to all of Carbon Lighthouse’s customers?

Emma: Exactly.

Brenden: What is the process the BIG team goes through to see if they work in real life and can actually bring value to a client and help stop climate change?

Emma: Absolutely. We typically start with a literature review, so we look at what’s already published on this. Has anyone already studied this, has there been an independent evaluation, particularly if it’s a private company? From there, we move into the interrogation phase, so we will get anyone involved in either that research or that product on the phone, and we will ask them our signature batch of probing questions. After we do that interrogation, we may find that we’re not convinced by the data that already exists, and we’ll actually go do our own field trial.

Brenden: Emma, as someone who runs an innovation group, what words of wisdom do you have, having gone through this process so many times in such a rigorous fashion, for people who want to try new things and experiment and find innovations of their own?

Emma: Great question. Starting at the problem and working backwards means you sometimes open up your mind to think of new solutions and new ways of using things that you wouldn’t have thought of previously. And then the other, I think it’s just … A lot of times, it’s not something big and crazy and schnazzy, it’s not a moonshot, you know, it’s just … It’s a lot of incremental improvement. That’s what we’ve done here at Carbon Lighthouse for years, is always just looking for what is the next best way to do that, and it builds up over time, and you end up finding these really cool solutions by just tinkering around the edges of what you already know how to do, and just pushing the limits a little bit further here and there.

Brenden: Well, Emma, thank you so much for being my third guest.

Emma: No problem.

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