Commissioning Engineered Building Systems: The Buck Stops Here

By George Bourassa, P.E., LEED AP, Senior Vice President and National Director of Commissioning, Facilities Division, Carter & Burgess, Inc., Chicago February 25, 2005
sequent columns will explore specific aspects of commissioning in detail.

There is no doubt that buildings are becoming more technologically advanced. The systems required in commercial and institutional buildings only a few years ago are now outdated and seem antiquated by today’s ever increasing standards of technology and sophistication.

New requirements in fire protection, building safety, energy performance and information technology are driving architects, engineers and contractors to constantly learn new and increasingly complex systems, many of which are required to interact through multiple sequences of operation.

With these changes over the past two decades, it has become more difficult to make sure systems operate seamlessly and nothing falls between the cracks during the design and construction phases and that the building meets the owner’s performance expectations from the day of substantial completion.

The commissioning process can help owners, architects, engineers, contractors and the building’s eventual occupants foresee and correct operational problems and make for a smooth transition from construction to occupancy.

Although commissioning has really only been formally recognized as an integral element of project delivery for about a decade, it has already proven to reduce callbacks from owners to contractors and designers and increase tenant satisfaction and productivity. The benefits are numerous and far outweigh the costs of correcting problems after a building is occupied.

The formal definition of commissioning published by ASHRAE is: “A quality- focused process for enhancing the delivery of a project. The process focuses on verifying and documenting that the facility and all of its systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained to meet the owner’s project requirements.”

I’ve heard all the traditional objections to commissioning, but I’ve also seen the myriad of benefits. There have been a number of highly publicized instances of buildings that either haven’t performed to their owners’ expectations or have simply been failures. In many of these instances, litigation, lost productivity and worker dissatisfaction have cost the building owners, contractors and designers much more than it would have cost to have a commissioning agent working to verify the operational performance of building systems during the design and construction process. Could this program be termed “preventive health” for buildings?

Cases like these, where buildings do not operate as intended or expected, raise the question of who is looking at the big picture. If the fire alarm contractor is installing, completing and perhaps testing the fire alarm system and the HVAC contractor is doing the same for his system—is anyone ensuring that these systems interface properly with each other and with other systems in the building? The day of an emergency, such as an extended power failure, is not the day a building owner or property manager finds out that his building systems are not performing as intended.

One of the most frequent objections to commissioning is that it adds to the project delivery cost of the building and owners want to know if they’ll ever see a payback on that money. There are some areas of obvious financial benefit to commissioning for building owners. Because of the design reviews that occur as part of a comprehensive commissioning program, the result should be a higher quality of contract documents, that would typically translate into fewer change orders. There should be a financial benefit to owners by virtue of lower overall construction cost.

The real financial benefits come in the first few years of building system operation, when there are fewer callbacks, higher operational efficiency and no surprises to the building managers and operations team. I’ve seen a number of case studies that suggest anywhere from $4 return for every dollar invested in commissioning and in some cases higher. However, some organizations have a distinct separation between the group that delivers projects and the group that operates and maintains them in the long-term. They have separate budgets and never the “twain shall meet”.

In these organizations, the group that delivers the project would typically make the investment in commissioning as an element of the overall project bud get, but the personnel that are operating and maintaining the building are the ones that will see the benefits.

It is important to remember though that a portion of the payback on dollars spent on commissioning is not immediate and will occur in the initial years of permanent operation and occupancy, when the buildings systems operate as intended and planned, saving energy costs, callbacks and increasing tenant satisfaction and productivity.

I hope that whether this is your first exposure to the field of commissioning or that you’ve already experienced its benefits, you’ll be able to learn a bit more each month about this growing field.