Commissioning and the Engineer

The commissioning process can be an important element in the success of a building program, especially one that involves complicated mechanical and electrical systems such as those found in laboratories, hospitals and pharmaceutical facilities. The movers, shakers and rainmakers of firms that provide commissioning services will spend a great deal of time and energy targeting the decision makers...

By Carl C. Schultz, P.E., CxA, Chief Mechanical Engineer, URS Corp., Columbus, Ohio April 1, 2007

The commissioning process can be an important element in the success of a building program, especially one that involves complicated mechanical and electrical systems such as those found in laboratories, hospitals and pharmaceutical facilities. The movers, shakers and rainmakers of firms that provide commissioning services will spend a great deal of time and energy targeting the decision makers that operate these types of facilities.

But even if they get these individuals interested in commissioning, there is a possibility that the client may look to someone such as a consulting engineer for an opinion before moving forward with incorporating commissioning as a project requirement. In a perfect world, the commissioning agent would have had the time to make it around to the engineering community in an effort to sell these professionals on the benefits of third-party commissioning. In doing so, the engineer might then be more likely to affirm the owner’s gut feeling that commissioning might be beneficial for its project. Of course opinions will vary in the engineering community on commissioning value, depending on the individual experiences that these engineers have had with professionals in this line of work.

There was a time not too long ago when the word “commissioning” conjured up visions of the Navy, battleships and broken champagne bottles. Now that the practice has established itself in the construction industry, it can be viewed negatively by the consulting engineer as being another “issue” that needs to be dealt with.

I know an engineer who doesn’t recommend commissioning to his clients because of the perceived hassle. I’m certain that this fellow had a bad experience at one time and consequently sees a third-party commissioning agent as a potential “fly in the ointment.” This same person may also see the entire process as something that will delay completion of the project and consequently final payment from the owner.

Now I am sure that there are individuals out there performing commissioning who do not have the requisite soft skills to do the job effectively. Perhaps they are good technically, but they may not possess the tact to deal with difficult situations in an appropriate manner. Instead of putting clients at ease, they might have the tendency to rub them the wrong way. The engineer that I mentioned may have had his feathers ruffled by an inconsiderate commissioning practitioner. But my guess is that he did not have all of his ducks in a row. You might know the type of engineer I am talking about, the type who, for instance, is not convinced of the need to include a comprehensive set of control sequences in his documents, as these are “details” that can be worked out later by the temperature control contractor either in the shop drawings or in the field.

Commissioning is important and the providers of these services would do well to sell engineers and architects on the various advantages. How can this be done? As for any product or service, sellers need to put themselves in a buyer’s shoes and try to understand what it is that the buyer wants. For instance, why would an architect or engineer wish to invite a third party to poke around on their project? Because with a commissioning agent on board they can be assured that the owner’s project requirements will get fully discussed and will consequently get down on paper. Often the architect may not even have an engineer on the project until after the floor plan is set and many of the important discussions about expected system performance have already taken place. This is often because the principals of the architectural firm have been busy shopping around for a desperate engineer with a rock-bottom price. The commissioning agent can assist in advocating for common interests such as having adequate service space for equipment and sufficient floor-to-floor heights for piping and ductwork. Although responsibility for the proper resolution of these issues lies squarely with the design team, it shouldn’t take much to convince the consultant that the commissioning agent’s independent opinion will often be aligned with theirs on these very important subjects and therefore can help them overcome the attitudes of others on the design team.

The commissioning agent can lend support to the engineer if there are value-engineering discussions that threaten to handicap the system’s ability to deliver the required performance.

Additionally, the agent will review the drawings and specifications catching potential errors and omissions. Recommendations also may be made to facilitate balancing, operating and maintaining the systems.

The commissioning agent also functions as a second set of eyes on the job site, catching non-conforming installation issues during construction. All of these efforts can directly benefit the profitability and success on a project.

Another reason for engineering consultants to warm up to the concept of commissioning is that they can earn revenue by becoming actively involved in the industry. An easy way for an engineer to become involved is by teaming up with an experienced provider on a commissioning project. Perhaps the firm came in a close second in the competition for design services on a particular project and now the building owner wishes to solicit qualifications for commissioning services. If the consultant’s design firm is well liked, the team might then have the inside track. The design firm could head up efforts such as developing the design intent document, writing the commissioning specification and performing the peer review of the plans and specifications. If the design firm is a full service architectural and engineering firm, they can add valuable assistance with commissioning the roof and building envelope as well as vertical transportation features if they happen to be in the scope. As an example, a large public university recently requested expertise with structural engineering as it relates to seismic design as part of the scope for commissioning services. If the project is located in another city, a design firm located there can reduce overall travel costs and can react more quickly to requests to be at the site. This firm also can do many of the repetitive tasks such as pre-functional verification checks, which are akin to punch lists that a design firm is used to doing. Functional performance testing, which is a higher-order activity, can be left to the commissioning firm.

Our office, which is part of a full-service, international E/A firm, became involved with commissioning about five years ago when a client wanted us to test and document that the building services for a complicated laboratory and vivarium addition that we were designing were operating properly. This arrangement worked well and has lead to several other commissioning and retro-commissioning assignments for this client at their facilities throughout the country.

There are third-party firms that are adamant in their belief that designers and contractors should not commission their own work due to an inherent conflict of interest. I tend to agree with this, but there are many situations where the client has a good, longstanding relationship with a consultant, and there is trust and confidence in their ability to perform the commissioning duties without the threat of such a conflict. Some consultants are not always trustworthy but this goes for contractors, test and balance agencies and commissioning agents as well.

The fear here is that there can be a design flaw that does not get brought to the surface during the commissioning process because the design firm also is performing the commissioning and might be tempted to conveniently overlook it. A good design firm will always stand up and admit to its mistakes whether they are commissioning the project or not.

At the risk of sounding cruel, I will add that not all design firms have equal capabilities and some should just not consider getting involved with commissioning. Examples include companies that specialize in designing simple structures where their services have become a commodity that is sold at the lowest price. Low cost can often translate into low employee salaries, which can mean that their staff may not be made up of the industry’s best and brightest. These engineers might specialize in retail and light commercial structures and may work on design-build teams for mechanical and electrical contractors. Firms that are candidates for offering commissioning services are ones that have established themselves as leaders, and although they may have started out doing commodity engineering work, these firms successfully have evolved to the point where they routinely design more complicated building types such as laboratories, prisons and hospitals. Commissioning can become a great business line for this type of consulting engineering firm as it provides a platform for senior level personnel to exercise their technical muscles, getting them out of the office and contributing to the success of a project. This kind of activity can be just the thing to stimulate the minds and imaginations of the firm’s technical talent. It also establishes to the market that this company is capable of performing at the necessary level to inspect, test and troubleshoot the building services that it designs thereby enhancing its prestige. From a sales standpoint it can provide an income stream that can keep several engineers busy for much of the year. Commissioning can also be tied in with any LEED related services and expertise that the design firm may already provide or may be thinking of providing.

Whether you are a third-party agent who must deal with consultants, a consultant who has to deal with commissioning agents or even an engineer who might be interested in providing commissioning services some day, I hope that this article did not offend but rather was informative or at least entertaining.