Climate Solved Episode 4: Inside the Hearts and Minds of Building Owners

Lindsay Jones
Lindsay Jones

Climate Solved Episode 4: Inside the Hearts and Minds of Building Owners

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.

On the last episode of our inaugural series, Brenden sits down with JJ Steeley, VP of Client Experience. The pair dig into what makes commercial property owners tick, the myths and misconceptions of carbon emissions in commercial real estate, and how increasing financial returns makes positive environmental change happen fast.



Brenden: The buildings and the building owners we love. 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.

This is the last installment 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 global emissions from non-residential buildings, which are responsible for 20% of greenhouse gasses worldwide and 40% of emissions within the United States.

Part of solving any problem rests in communication, which is why I’m so excited to speak with JJ Steeley. JJ is our VP of Client Experience. She’s a life-long storyteller who spent years in the hotel industry and has a unique vantage point on commercial property investment and management. JJ understands what makes commercial property owners tick and we had an insightful conversation about the motivations and pain points of commercial real estate executives. Let’s dive in.

Coming from such a different … I mean, I’m from a physics background. I love using details and data to see the big picture of things. But I’m very curious what your favorite buildings are and why?

JJ: Yeah. Well, it is true we see the world very differently, which is why I enjoy so much working with you.

Brenden: Me too.

JJ: I am, in fact, the only non-scientist on the leadership team here and find myself routinely inspired by things like what you just said. The way I see buildings is as stories. I fundamentally see the world as stories that either need to stop being told or need to be told more.

Brenden: Right. So JJ, could you just give us a little bio here just to regale us with tales of yourself?

JJ: In studies at Berkeley, I studied documentary film and photography. I was doing a lot of ethnographic work, and quickly found myself in need of making a buck once ejected from the wonderful academic halls at Berkeley. And therefore took on advertising in the dot-com era.

So I left that for lifestyle branding and ended up selling performance apparel that had been developed for elite warriors.

Brenden: So then you came to efficiency.

JJ: No, there’s a little bit in between. I’m a little … I’m maybe like the big sister of the company from a career longevity standpoint. And so then I ended up doing a lot of consulting like inventing sparkling beverages for millennial women to pre-game their Friday nights out. That was fun. But I also worked on the Today show and left that to go into the hotel business. So that’s where I actually first got a sense of how real estate works.

And at that time, I think you were really heavily looking for a VP of Marketing through your rigorous pursuit of emailing everybody in the world you know. And somebody forward me your email, and I thought, “Well, this might be a useful place to put my energy.”

Brenden: Our last hiring blast to help get the name out. I emailed, I think 10,500 people which was effective because we end up with people like JJ. Let’s talk about the people. Can you talk about how these complex ecosystems with all these moving parts that is a building, who makes the buildings work? How do they operate? Who is operating these on an ongoing basis?

JJ: Yeah. It’s so interesting because I never really thought about this before I went into the hotel industry and then now here at Carbon Lighthouse. But buildings are really like theater performances, they kind of go dark at a certain point and they open up.

So I’ll take you kind of through that. Early in the morning, a building engineer or a set of facilities folks that work for the engineering team really light up the buildings. They prepare it for the day long before any of us have arrived to use that thing. And then I’m really grateful they do it, thanks to all the building engineers who make things nice for us all to arrive.

And then there’s a property manager, and there’s maybe a hotel operator, and certainly several of them who really start kicking in and getting ready for the people who occupy the building.

Brenden: Regardless of why someone gets into owning a building, there is one commonality that all buildings have in common which is it’s hard to make the financials work, particularly because buying a building requires such a very large amount of capital upfront.

When you talk about shifting risk around and making it easier for different parties to get engaged in making money by reducing emissions, I think it would lead to some very interesting potential collaborations and partnerships that put some people who maybe didn’t consider themselves a climate warrior on the forefront of actually addressing this problem.

JJ: Yeah. It’s interesting. When I started here, obviously, a lot of really earnest technically-driven people. And I got the sense that there was this mental picture of real estate owners as like a Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, just diabolically counting money and doing anything to get it. And whether that’s true or not, certainly, you have a very broad spectrum of people involved. But the one thing that makes the world go round at this time is the capitalist structure that drives our society.

And so I don’t believe that it’s that hard to get building owners on board so long as you address the basic mechanisms by which their business operates which is they have shareholders, they have partners, they don’t own it in and of themselves. They’re actually representative of a large ownership group that they have to deliver value to and that’s a stressful situation, right?

Brenden: Well, I think it’s a very powerful mechanism to provide the service where someone can make more money, and not need to take any additional risk, and stop climate change.

JJ: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, going back to my Berkeley days, I was very idealistic, and why don’t people do the right things. But it’s a complex world, so it’s up to folks in industry really to find ways to align what we want to happen with what they need to happen. And there’s really no reason we couldn’t turn up the volume on this across the business landscape in America.

Brenden: When I think of buildings, I think of these monuments that have been passed down to us by previous generations. This statement on society and use for everyone in society and the gory guts and details of fans and pumps. And here we are inheriting this or building this thing that then we need to be caretakers of and figure out what is the best way to make this be of use for society so that the people who have put in the money to build it, or operate it can make money on it and everyone else can enjoy it and use it, and figuring out the best way to be a good caretaker for all of the stakeholders.

JJ: Well, that’s right. And there’s a level of urgency around that because 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are coming from buildings. So we need to help those owners of buildings and those stewards of buildings tell a different story. I mean, there are almost six million commercial buildings alone in the U.S..

Brenden: Yeah, I think it’s 87 billion square feet of rentable space.

JJ: That’s right. And so it really does come down to building owners, and it does come down to making it essentially easy for them to take what is kind of a baked-in way of operating. It’s a very old industry. It’s not one that’s been innovated as much as other industries we’ve watched transform in our lifetime. And I think now is that time, and I’m seeing tremendous willingness from building owners to do that so long as we don’t require them to change their fundamental requirements of doing their jobs.

Brenden: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a very powerful proposition to be able to make more money without taking on more risk while stopping climate change.

JJ: Yeah.

Brenden: Well, JJ, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

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