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What do you need to know about Smart Buildings? with James Dice and Ramya Ravichandar


The Propcast talks to James Dice the founder of Nexus Labs, and Ramya Ravichandar from JLL Technologies, about the Nexus Lab Foundation Course and how it can help further the industry’s understanding of smart buildings and sustainability. We also chat through how the smart building space is going to affect the future of our buildings. Explore the course here!


Key Insights From This Episode


  • There’s a lot of growing momentum in the smart building space – James Dice
  • We’re looking at bringing in CRE experts with world-class technologists to deliver solutions – Ramya Ravichandar
  • Why we need smart buildings depends on the “who” that we’re talking about. So what we like to do is start with those humans and the outcomes that they need in order to get their jobs done better – James Dice
  • Technology is just only one component. The success of the product really depends on the people and the processes that are in play in that vertical – Ramya Ravichandar
  • It took me messing up a project and spending long nights and weekends in the office fixing it to learn a lot of the lessons that we try to bake into the curriculum – James Dice
  • Back in the day, we were all excited about smart cities and I feel like we’ve come a full circle today. A decade later, we’re still excited about smart cities but we’re still grappling with what that exactly means – Ramya Ravichandar
  • Leaders are waking up to the fact that you need fundamental infrastructure and domain expertise to support smart buildings – Ramya Ravichandar
  • Energy efficiency when I started my career in 2010 as an energy manager used to be a fringe thing. And now it’s central to the business of real estate – James Dice
  • There’s a clear call to action for everyone here in terms of being able to do what we can do to reduce emissions, reduce our carbon footprint and achieve net zero goals – Ramya Ravichandar


About Our Guests

James Dice

James Dice, PE, CEM, CMVP is the founder of Nexus Labs, a weekly blog, podcast, online school, and consultancy striving to create smarter, more efficient buildings. Through Nexus, James shares remarkable stories with the aim of educating and moving the smart building industry forward. James created the Nexus Foundations course to share everything he wished someone had told him in his first 10 years in the smart buildings industry, showing how to avoid common pitfalls and roadblocks. James has experience as a professional engineer and energy efficiency innovator, and is an expert in data analytics software for smart buildings, such as Energy Management and Information Systems (EMIS).


Ramya Ravichandar

Ramya is VP of Product Management and Sustainability at JLL Technologies, delivering clean-tech products to reduce the carbon footprint of our built environment. In her role Ramya is focused on enabling sustainability goals informed by the dimensions of Environment, Social, Governance, Resiliency (ESGR) through AI, ML, Edge, and IOT technologies. Ramya is a seasoned product leader in identifying blue ocean markets, with special expertise in defining, creating and launching innovative products. Ramya was part of the Nexus Labs course previous cohort of students.


About Our Host

Louisa Dickins

Louisa started her career in property working at a well-known estate agency in London. Realising her people skills, she moved over to Lloyd May to pursue a career in recruitment. She now is a Director at LMRE, who are a specialist recruitment firm driven by PropTech and recruitment professionals, and Louisa oversees their 5 core areas. Louisa co-founded LMRE and provides a constructive recruitment platform to the new disruptors in real estate. Louisa is also on the board of Directors at UK PropTech Association (UKPA).

About LMRE

LMRE believe there is a better way to recruit. LMRE focus on a more comprehensive, client led focus delivering exceptional talent to the place at the time. They are passionate about the industry and passionate about people’s careers. LMRE spend time with each client to become and an extension of the business, and their transparency and core values help them grow with the sector. LMRE simplify recruitment and innovate with our clients and evolve the people driven, PropTech community.


Resources Mentioned


LMRE website

Nexus Lab Foundation Course

James’ Podcast Nexus with James Dice

Nexus Lab newsletter, explore here

JLL Technologies website

Nexus Labs website


Episode Transcript


On today’s Propcast, we are talking about the smart building space and our guest on today’s show James Dice, founder of Nexus Labs, who’s also another fellow podcaster host so definitely check his out too. And the wonderful Ramya Ravichandar, who is vice-president of sustainability products for JLL Technology, so welcome both of you.



Thanks for having me.



Thank you, Lu.



For those who are not familiar about guests who are joining us from the US James is the founder of Nexus Labs, which is an international community of engineers, energy managers, technology vendors, building operators, and real estate investors, working together to define and bring to life smart buildings. James has years of experience as a licensed engineer, working in energy analytics and optimization, full detection and diagnostics, and predictive operations. James has built a holistic understanding of and network around smart building strategy and execution.


And Ramya who’s joining us has also done the Nexus course and is currently working at JLL Technologies and is responsible for building, creating and scaling disruptive clean tech products and solutions. She has over a decade of experience launching new products and using AI edge. She’s currently fuelled by a sense of urgency to deliver technology products that help meet our global sustainability goals. She has a PhD in computer science from Virginia Tech, and we’ll be learning a lot more about her role, her remit and JLL’s technology space in a moment. We’ll also be covering a bit more about the course for those who are looking to take it, you’ll know a bit more about the modules, what the key takeaways are from it from James, and we’ll also be going into the smart building space and how it’s going to affect the future of our buildings and all the key areas of it because it’s massive and I’m looking forward to hearing and learning more about it. So without further ado James, why don’t you kick us off and talk us through Nexus Labs? How’d it come about? You’ve had various cohorts, so for our audience listening please let them know how to get involved.



Thank you, and so glad to be here, big fan of the podcast. I just listened to the episode with Prasan Kale over the weekend. I love how you have multiple guests on, I’m going to have to incorporate that into the Nexus podcast, it’s an awesome concept. So Nexus Lab, it started as a newsletter. I was working full time at the national renewable energy laboratory in the US and it started as a newsletter, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the space. It quickly grew into the podcast, I was having some conversations and realized, Hey other people would probably benefit from these conversations. And then I started a membership community, so basically all the people that really care about these technologies and are deploying them in real buildings every day, I wanted to provide a space for them to all connect and share learnings. And then what I realized once that started was that that community was the nerdiest and most experienced, and the people that are really the most expert among us.


And what I realized is that it wasn’t quite accessible for the newcomers and the people that haven’t been doing this for a long time. So the foundations course  grew out of that. I wanted to provide a way to grow the pie and create more nerds, and shorten the learning curve for the newcomers to the smart building space. And what it ends up looking like is, we have a bunch of total beginners that take our course, but then we have a bunch of people that have been around for a very long time. And they’re just looking to meet people that are like-minded and think like them. So the course is basically we take the students through this process called the smart building strategy. So the development of a smart building strategy, and I can take you through the different modules if you like, but that’s  an introduction to the course.



Yes it’d be good to learn a little bit more about the modules because the smart building space is pretty hot topic at the moment and the audience have requested to hear a little bit more about. I said we’d be talking about it, so please tell us they key modules.



So the smart building strategy process is really designed to once you get through all the modules you should have gone through, all the different ways that you could mess up smart buildings, so it was designed backwards. So when I developed the course, I thought back in my career of all the projects that have gone by the wayside, and so what that ended up with is these five weeks that make up the smart building strategy process. So we start with stakeholders, so why we need smart buildings depends on the “who” that we’re talking about. So what we really like to do is start with those humans and the outcomes that the humans need in order to get their jobs done better. And that could be a building occupant, it could be a building owner, it could be any of the different service providers and vendors in the space as well. So there’s a vast network of stakeholders. Second, we go through the ideation process, which is really the development of use cases for new technology. So really cutting through the fluff around smart buildings technology, and getting into exactly how technology is going to help those stakeholders.


Next we get into what we call assessments. So most smart building technology sits on top of existing building systems. So your HVAC, your lighting, your access control, your metering, your elevators and those systems are traditionally and still can get in the way of enabling those outcomes for our stakeholders. A lot of times they haven’t been built to enable the stuff that we want out of our technology. So really assessing those systems to understand what can get in the way, we call those landmines. So you don’t want to wait until you’re deploying a new technology for those landmines to blow up your process. Next is research, so you talked about how broad the space is. So we really teach our students to categorize and understand the vast marketplace for new technologies, because like you said there’s just a ton of new solutions, a ton of new start-ups. I track over 250 different start-ups in the space, and so really helping people understand and cut through, okay this technology is in this category, here’s what it does, and really teaching them to track how the space is evolving over time.


And then finally fifth is the business case. So there’s a lot of growing momentum in the smart building space and that’s for many different reasons. But when someone, a building owner is actually deciding what to do in their building and deciding what to buy and how to buy it and when, it’s really about the ROI, the return on investment. So we really cut through that fluff as well, as far as getting down to the exact ROI for this type of business that you’re talking about and teaching students exactly what that means. So those are the first five modules that make up the smart building strategy. And then what we added last cohort is a six module for career planning. So if you’re working on really wanting to make an impact in the smart buildings industry, we conclude with how people can really make an impact in their career and plan that out. So that’s it!



Beautiful, nicely summed up. And everyone who’s listening in today, we’re going to be sharing a discount code, but I strongly suggest getting involved and take the Nexus Lab’s course. And speaking of taking the course, we have Ramya who’s joining out from JLL Technologies who is one of the more experienced leading women in a small building space. So Ramya how did you hear and get involved with the course, how’s it benefited what you’re doing at JLL Technologies as well?


How is Nexus Labs smart buildings course of benefit to JLL Technologies?


Yes, let me start it by maybe giving a little bit of a description about JLL Technologies, because your listeners may not be familiar with that particular group. We are a division of JLL, very recently established about two years ago. And it’s a first of its kind because we’re looking at bringing in CRE experts with world-class technologists to deliver solutions that transform the way we acquire, manage, operate, and experience space. And it’s such an exciting area because it’s so cross-functional and interdisciplinary domains are literally colliding with each other.


I’ve been working in this space of IOT for well over a decade, as you mentioned earlier, and I’ve had the privilege of working across various industrial verticals, manufacturing, oil and gas, energy sector. And each time we know when you build a product and you deploy it, you very quickly realize that technology is just only one component. The success of the product really depends on the people and the processes that are in play in that vertical. And so when I joined JLL T, I very quickly wanted to get a sense for that in the building space. I’d applied products in smart buildings, but to get to the heart of incentives like James mentioned, who are the personas we’re actually going to use your product? I think that’s a learning round that the Nexus foundation course provides really nicely. And so it was a great balance of presenting both sides of the house, the technology side and the commercial real estate side and I strongly encourage anyone who’s new or even experienced in this field to take a peek in at that curriculum, because there are some modules that can really accelerate your learning in this area.



Beautiful. Thank you for that so much, James is there anything you’d like to add there?



No that’s exactly what we’re going for. I think what I realized in my career before I’ve created the course was that the learning curve was just too long. So it took me messing up a project and then spending long nights and weekends in the office, fixing it to learn a lot of the lessons that we try to bake into the curriculum, So that’s exactly the goal, it’s shortcutting in that learning.



And you’ve both been in this space for longer than a lot of people, most of the listeners here are fairly green, but eager to learn more. What are the major changes you’ve seen in the smart building space? Especially in the last five years since the adoption of technology within smart buildings.


What are the major changes you’ve seen in the smart building space?


Yes. I remember back in the day we were all excited about smart cities and I feel like we’ve come a full circle today. A decade later, we’re still excited about smart cities, but we’re still grappling with what that exactly means. And when we started this journey, I think the conversation was dominated by what sensors can we add, and what’s networking look like, and those presented themselves as smart building elements. But I think we’ve come a long way because leaders are waking up to the fact that you need fundamental infrastructure and domain expertise to support smart buildings.


So you start seeing titles like chief data officer or chief innovation officer, chief sustainability officer, I’m sure there’s going to be a chief smart building officer at some point. And they’re all so interrelated and that’s one of the exciting and challenging parts of smart building, because they touch so many different aspects, whether it’s sustainability, it’s new revenues, it’s innovative business models. You just have to get that to have a successful, smart building initiative. What I think has changed is a realization, one of my favourite quotes from Einstein is “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So I think we’ve woken up to that and then figuring out new ways to differentiate ourselves but I’m I’m definitely a way more optimistic now that we have a convergence of technology and a very pressing need of the hour of sustainability here today to drive new change.



James, what about you? Any major changes you’ve seen or maybe changes that some of your course takers have seen as well since studying with you?


What changes have you seen in sustainability technology adoption?


Yes, I’d echo a lot of what Ramya just said internal teams, I’m seeing a lot of people come into my course and they’re part of a smart buildings team within an organization that didn’t use to have that team. So, it’s like a new industry is being created and that’s a subset of engineering firms, it’s a subset of real estate companies, it’s a subset of technology companies. I’ve had Google on my podcasts, many people from Google, and they have smart buildings teams now and within this technology company. And so you’re seeing this industry getting created that didn’t used to be there before.


Ramya also talked about infrastructure, so a lot of what these smart building teams are realizing is that they want to head down the road of making their buildings smarter, but they have this infrastructure that’s not enabling them to do that. And so I think a lot of people that’s changed recently, as John Clark just said on my podcast a couple of weeks ago that we can’t have the app store if we don’t have the iPhone first. Or we can’t buy an application if we don’t have the app store first, I think is how he worded it. But basically what he’s saying is if you don’t have the enabling infrastructure to get to our use cases, then that is the place to start. And so that’s an interesting realization and I think more and more people are realizing And then lastly I’d just say the same thing as Ramya, the energy efficiency when I started my career in 2010 as an energy manager, it used to be a fringe thing, It used to take many meetings six month one year sales cycles to get to where someone was even paying attention to energy management. And now it’s central to the business of real estate, and we can talk about why that is, but we’re in this moment where it’s like there used to be just a few of us in this little industry. And now this is going from a fringe to core central.



It’s like a proper asset class isn’t it now, the whole smart buildings technology space, it’s taken seriously. What I’ve learned in life only been reading about it for what two and a half years, and I know I have a lot to learn, but how all clients, and our clients vary from the consultancies, the funds investors, the small and big tech companies, it seems another new craze, which isn’t it a craze. it’s here to stay. James, we spoke about changes, but changes also as you guys know better than I do, change cause challenges. And that could be a challenge that the industry’s facing, or hiring new people to this industry, but it’s also getting the wider business to maybe adopt some new technology or look at that building differently. What are the main challenges you’ve both experienced?


What are the main challenges you have experienced in the smart buildings tech space?


How long did you say this podcast was supposed to be? I think one of the main challenges is just being able to design the right products. It’s factoring in design thinking because you’re not building technology for the sake of it. You’re building technology and products that empower an end user and that end user in this case could be a chief engineer, could be an investor, could be an ESG expert, a CSO. Being really thoughtful about how we design products I think is going to be a key challenge as we try to lower the barrier to adoption. And just with everything else, this is where the physical and the virtual will collide. So it gets a little more harder to scale out new products. And the challenges I’m being thoughtful about how we scale as we go into the smart building space, but given my product background, I really think every single designer out there should consider who your end user is. That’s number one, and number two, how are they incentivized? None of these products will scale if we don’t have the ROI schemes in place. And that’s where I think we’ll see a lot of new innovation and the business models in this industry.



Interesting. And I guess James on your side, what are key challenges that you’ve faced throughout your career as well?



There are a lot of them, like Ramya started to say, how much time do we have? But I think the one I would key in on for this audience is, if you want to have like a real conversation about smart buildings in order to really cut through a lot of the fluff out there, the answer is there is no one size fits all . So there’s no one challenge that you can say applies to every situation. It really depends on so many different factors and the smart buildings industry is so diverse and every project is different. And I think that’s one of the key challenges out there. And let me just give one example. There are actually about three or four different smart buildings industries, depending on how big the building is. So if you look at like a million square foot hospital, that’s completely different than your 7/11 convenience store on the corner. And the answers to a lot of questions around smart buildings change based on what type of building you’re talking about.


And especially as the industry starts to transition from what I call back of the house to front of the house, so the smart buildings industry used to be more focused on back of the house operational improvements. So I’m going to save energy and that’s going to help with utility bills. Now it’s transitioning into more front of the house, which is I’m going to help run this building or run this business better. So if it’s an office building, I’m going to help drive increased rent prices or I’m going to help this tenant business run their business better by engaging their employees and automating their tasks. And so especially as you start to talk about that front of the house top line revenue of the business, you’re talking about all these different industries. And it depends on what building you’re talking about. If it’s a grocery store, you have totally different use cases, then that office building or example. And so the challenge is there really isn’t one answer, it just really depends. And I think that hurts the scalability of a lot of the technologies that are in the marketplace right now.



Now we covered challenges, I should have actually started the podcast asking you guys why you both got into this space because it also goes into the final question before the LMRE part, the true importance of automating our buildings in the future. And Ramya your hugely interested in the sustainability side of it and us hitting our sustainability goals. But yes, I’d love to hear from you personally, why is it so important to you and why should our listeners today be taking this as a serious area of real estate and what they should be doing for their building?


Why is sustainability so important?


Yes, buildings contribute to 40% of global emissions and I think any listener out there has probably heard of a climate crisis or is personally facing climate disaster, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes to floods. We have small countries running into famines induced by a climate crisis, billions of people starving. So there’s a clear call to action I think for everyone here in terms of being able to do what we can do to reduce emissions, reduce our carbon footprint and achieve net zero goals to keep with the Paris Accord. So personal and professional started intertwining very quickly where sustainability is concerned and JLL provides a global scale to have that impact and that’s why I’m here. One step at a time we’ll make this work together.



Awesome, thank you for that. And James why, why is it so important to you?



Yes so I started my career as an energy engineer for that exact reason. So I have the same mission, same driver, same reason I get up every day in the morning. And I think what I realized after 10 years doing energy management, is that in order to actually solve the energy problem in buildings, we need this more comprehensive technology approach, there aren’t enough energy engineers and energy managers to even cover the 6 million commercial buildings in the US.


And then expand that to the world, we just don’t have enough engineers out there. So what technology represents to me is a way to automate tasks, make it so those engineers, their expertise can be leveraged across more and more buildings to accomplish that outcome, which is getting to zero carbon real estate as fast as possible. And it’s automating systems as well. So making it so buildings can be controlled in better ways than they are before. And to me, that inherently means, because the people that operate buildings have so much on their plate, they often talk about how energy is 12th on their list of priorities. I hear that a lot, so being able to also solve all of their other top 11 priorities and maybe energy is a by-product of that, that’s what technology represents to me. Its getting all of their other stuff on their list accomplished as well. And so that’s why I feel like I needed to expand into the broader smart building technology ecosystem.



Yes, thank you for that James, maybe we need a few more people at big consultancies and agencies to do this Nexus Lab course and of start controlling their buildings a bit better. We’re coming to the final part of the show which is the LMRE part, so you talk us through L which could your main lessons you’ve learned in your successful career so far. M is you mentioned anyone, a product, a service, a shout out. R is what’s been the most rewarding aspect working within our space and E is what are you most excited about in the future of PropTech, happy to talk to you for it as well as we go along.


What is the main lesson learnt in your PropTech career?


I can kick off by saying a one day or day one. What did by that is, if you’re not excited about getting out of bed to go to work that pause and introspect because we really live in a very non-traditional time now, and there’s this convergence of living and work and not just in the sense of your physical space. But in terms of what you want do you want to do, your passion can be very professionally rewarding. Something that was unthinkable a few years ago. So if you want to step back and evaluate, there’s always an opportunity to find something that gets you going, then the time is now That’s my big lesson I always ask myself when I get up, am I excited about logging into the zoom call or not?



Yes and is there anyone or something you’d like to mention?


Special mentions in PropTech?


Yes, definitely a lot of shout-outs but shout out to the folks especially in property management teams who are pioneering new tech. It’s not always easy to be the first in any space, especially when it’s disruptive tech. So a shout out to all the folks in the building space who are trying these new technologies and figuring out what works. I also want to do a shout out to the Afghan women out there as they work in perilous conditions to create a future for themselves and their daughters. So you aren’t forgotten if I could use your forum for that.



And the most rewarding part?


What is the most rewarding part of working in PropTech?


Most rewarding part of working in PropTech, let’s see. I think it’s the people, there is no planet B and I’m often just blown away by deep expertise and passion all of the start-up vendors are bringing in to solve these urgent problems in a very traditional vertical. There’s no dearth of commitment and there are companies have been around for decades and they haven’t given up. I just love that tenacity and we need more and more of those folks. So definitely the people have been an amazing part of working in PropTech.



Yes, I completely echo everything you’ve just said and I literally can’t wait to meet people in person, and I know there’s going to be a huge amount of energy at these events and it’s pretty exciting. And then what are you most excited about? Is it what JLL Technologies are doing, that’s pretty bloody exciting. It’s like global domination and change!


What are you most excited about in the future of PropTech?


Well, you said it there, just like Google’s a worm I think PropTech is no longer going to stand out as like a specialized technology for buildings. It’s going to become very much a part of the building fabric, because you’re going to have this phenomenal convergence of verticals because you’re expanding from buildings to cities. You’re going to touch utilities, you’ll touch transport with autonomous vehicles, redesigning spaces, from financing to construction, all of these different areas will need to interplay to tap into the power of the holistic solution, the holistic product suite. So buildings will no longer be just an isolated point in the system. It’s going to be a living responsive node that reacts dynamically to all these evolving factors. And so I’m just excited about the possibilities of the world in five to 10 years. Smart buildings is just an enabler,  we’re going to have these terrific new set of applications that we probably wouldn’t even imagine now, but they’re out there waiting to be built. So I’m excited about.



Well, thank you so much for that and especially for your insights earlier. James, you finishing off the podcast so get started with what’s one of the major lessons you’ve learned?


Main lesson you have taken from your career, and rewards of working in PropTech?


This is the meta lesson, but just that learning how important actually learning is. So what you knew yesterday, especially in smart buildings, isn’t good enough. So always continuously learning, so that might be a cheating answer, but that’s what I got for you. My shout out, so I want to give a shout out or mention to all the different people that help us with the course. So we have a cohort number three that’s launching now. And there are so many people besides me that I need to give credit to, so I’m just going to fire them off. Rachel, Mandy, Jacinta, Joe, Stephan, Chad, Harold, Eric, Rob, and John. All those people are coming together and I hope I didn’t miss anyone, but they’re coming together mostly volunteering their time to make the experience better for our students, which is awesome.


Rewarding, as an engineer, smart buildings are the juiciest problem. So I think you said it, it’s a technical problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a change management problem, it’s an incentive problem. And so for just like the nerd in me, there are so many different layers and you get up every day and you’re just surprised by all the different nuances to it. And then really I’m excited about the awareness. So like I said, it used to feel like such an uphill battle just to get people to pay attention. And so now the focus is on what we can do about it and how we can do something about it. And that part is actually the easy part. So we have the technology for the most part, maybe not with embodied energy for new buildings, we don’t have that quite down yet, but most of the tech is there to operate buildings better operate buildings more efficiently, the know-how is there. It’s just not fully evenly distributed yet.



Well, we’ve go a hell of a lot to come but I’ve had feedback from so many clients and professionals in the industry who’ve done it, you are you on our third cohort? But if you are looking to get a better understanding for it please reach out to James, we’ll be sharing a code. Also if you want to hear a bit more about what JLL Technologies are doing the space as well globally, you really need to follow their blogs and what they’re doing. It’s super interesting and exciting and thank you both for joining us. We’ll definitely catch up after the show.



Thanks for having me.



Thanks Lu



So thank you both for joining me on the podcast and looking forward to catching up the after the show. Thank you for joining us this week on the podcast and a big thanks to our guests and our sponsors CREtech and Reimtech. Make sure you visit our website where you can subscribe to our newsletter, keep up with our industry news and events or if you’re looking for your next career move it’s all on there. The Propcast can be found on iTunesSpotify and YouTube where all good content is found. Whilst you’re at it, if you found value in the show, we’d appreciate if you could spread the word and tell and friend about it or even write us a review, and I’ll catch you next week.

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