Commissioning (Cx) is a service that sometimes causes apprehension and even reluctance from the design and construction community. There are differing opinions about whether the commissioning provider (CxP) is friend or foe in the building process.
In a recent conversation, Robert Hayes, (above right) one of Paladino’s resident commissioning experts, explained that when critical issues are handled correctly the commissioning process becomes a valuable component of new building construction.
Bob, in your opinion, what are the essential elements of Cx that you think are sometimes misunderstood?
Commissioning is a quality-based process to ensure that the owner’s requirements for key systems – typically major energy using systems, mission critical systems, or exceptionally complex systems – are met. We work with design and construction teams on behalf of owners to verify and document that those requirements are fulfilled. Commissioning gives the owner or developer a high level of confidence that systems are fit for their designed purpose and are ready to go on the first day of occupancy.
When people think about building commissioning, the thing that stands out most clearly is functional performance testing (FPT) of those systems. These are a key element of a commissioning process and can be thought of as final exam in math class or a test drive of a car – everything is complete, the contractors have checked their work, taken a practice test and are ready to show off a successful building.
But Cx involves a lot more than FPTs. A good Cx process starts in pre-design and continues all the way through occupancy and operation. Ongoing commissioning is gaining ground as a best practice and LEED v4 awards points for including key monitoring infrastructure in new buildings.
What is the role of a CxP in a green building project?
Our role depends upon the specific needs of the client. We essentially serve as an owner’s rep for the systems being commissioned. Cx is a quality assurance process whereby we document requirements; plan the Cx process; and conduct design review, submittal review, and site inspections. We also witness equipment start-up, develop FPTs, and verify successful execution of those FPTs. At the end of construction, we verify owner training, and prior to the end of the contractor’s warranty, we collaborate with both construction and operations teams to evaluate building operations after turnover.
In a perfect world, at what point does the Cx process ideally begin?
Commissioning delivers the most value when a CxP is engaged early in design phase of a project. An experienced commissioning provider has the ability to understand and evaluate complex projects. The CxP can ask the design engineer detailed technical questions and add the perspective of a building operator to the system selection discussion. Commissioning providers have a significant advantage because we work on many different projects with dozens of different design teams. When an owner wants to know how a piece of equipment performs, chances are we can bring specific, independent information to the table.
In design, our role is to check in with the design team to ensure that the owner’s requirements are being met. Initially, we review the basis of design or schematic narratives. We conduct a second, detailed review in the design development phase. The point of the review isn’t to grill the designer. Rather, it’s to confirm the OPRs are being met, ask questions about design intent and approach, and identify areas of the design that are unclear or conflicting.
So, in order maintain objectivity, the CxP is ideally not part of the design team, correct?
Yes, as I said earlier, the CxP is really an owner’s rep role for quality assurance. We interface with the design team in a number of ways, but we’re not responsible for the design of the building. We’re independent and our independence allows us to ask questions, suggest ideas, and make objective observations. When you check your own work, that’s quality control; when someone else sets up a framework for verifying the work is done correctly, that’s quality assurance.
Some people have described the CxP role as trying to find all the things that are wrong with the design and construction. Scrutinizing the work of other companies in a project on behalf of an owner could become problematic. How do you handle that?
Construction projects are complicated and there’s a lot that can and does go wrong. Commissioning was conceived to first, reduce, and second, fix things that go wrong with complicated building systems (HVAC initially, but now, fire protection, electrical, lighting, security, telecom, building envelope, etc.). Paladino uses a triple-top-line value framework (people, planet, and prosperity) to resolve issues with the least amount of effort, cost, and high-blood pressure. That’s our goal on every project.
The commissioning team is essential in resolving issues on site. The team cuts across traditional silos and communication pathways on a job site and allows everyone to look at the same information. When things go wrong we evaluate the problem and recommend the quickest, least expensive, and most effective solution so that the problem doesn’t recur in future projects. Our job is not to point fingers but to identify issues and provide technical assistance to find the best resolution to those issues.
Any final thoughts?
Attitude is key. Our attitude is to make it as easy as possible for the team to complete a rigorous commissioning process to assure a high quality building that everyone can be proud of.
Murray Greenwood is Client Service Manager in Paladino’s Seattle Office.
Robert Hayes is a Green Building Consultant, EIT, ACP in Paladino’s DC office.