Commissioning Engineered Building Systems: The Universal Benefits

By George Bourassa, P.E., LEED AP, Senior Vice President and National Director of Commissioning, Facilities Division, Carter & Burgess, Inc., Chicago March 8, 2005
Last month we looked at the financial benefits of commissioning for building owners. These were in two main areas: by virtue of lower change orders during construction and the payback in operating costs during the buildings life cycle.

This month, let’s examine other benefits of commissioning for building owners and for contractors and subcontractor members of the project team.

Because of the increasing sophistication and interfacing of individual systems in modern buildings, when a building reaches permanent operation, there may be situations that will occur that require multiple building systems to interact. But an owner or operator may not know whether these interface properly or not until an emergency or unusual operating situation arises.

Perhaps there is a power failure, a fairly common, and unfortunately, more frequent, occurrence over the last few years. You assume that your emergency power generator will start. Hopefully, it will. But if there are multiple generators, will they properly parallel? What other systems are to be powered by the generator? Will the HVAC system operate and to what extent? Will the security system properly function? What happens to your fire-protection system and the data and telecom systems?

A whole array of systems may be designed to interact with your emergency power generator and with proper commissioning, you will be confident that that they will perform to original design criteria.

The group that is delivering the project would typically make the investment in commissioning and this may lead the contractors involved to view the commissioning provider as an agent of the owner, having only the owner’s interests to consider.

However, a properly executed commissioning process will save contractors time, money and frustration as well. The technological sophistication of today’s building systems makes it very difficult to be a master of all trades. Similar to many other professions, architects, engineers and contractors are inclined to specialize in specific products and building systems.

I believe that the most important role of the commissioning agent is to establish a partnership relationship with all members of the project team and to focus the team on delivering quality in the design and construction process. Through rigorous functional performance verification testing, the commissioning process will demonstrate that all of the technology installed in various systems performs interactively and in accordance with the standards and expectations of the building owner. In many respects, the commissioning agent brings a “big picture” perspective to help pull the individual pieces provided by the “specialists” together in a quality installation and to map and lead the transition from project delivery to successful permanent system operation.

We’ve all heard of buildings that did not operate as expected or required. I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of commissioning. Unlike code and design inspections that focus only on the static aspects of component and system installation, the commissioning process encompasses both static and dynamic aspects and results in verifying that commissioned systems perform fully in compliance with the design criteria and owner’s project requirements.

Contractors are not going to get callbacks after building systems have been commissioned, because the commissioning agent has gone through and tested all of the systems and verified that they meet the performance criteria originally developed by the architects and engineers, subject to subsequent “value engineering”. The commissioning process will benefit all project team members, because the owner will be satisfied in knowing that “everything works.”

Commissioning also benefits the building operations personnel. During the commissioning process, the commissioning agents are compiling all of the documentation necessary to have the personnel understand the systems, to know what is installed, how to access it and how to maintain those systems. They provide significant training, so the operators feel confident they understand how to efficiently operate the systems and that there won’t be any surprises down the road.

Finally, the building occupants will also experience the benefits of commissioning. Case studies have documented that occupants of buildings that have been commissioned are more productive, with less absenteeism due to illness, in comparison to occupants of buildings that have not been commissioned.

All of these benefits also support the bottom line financial benefits of commissioning and add to them. With fewer callbacks and satisfied owner, trained and knowledgeable operators and productive occupants, the commissioning process pays for itself many times over.

  • Commissioning will provide:

  • A high quality outcome in project delivery.

  • Clear documentation and achievement of owner’s project requirements.

  • Improved contract documents as a result of design reviews.

  • Verification and documentation that systems and assemblies perform to OPR.

  • Verification that operations and maintenance personnel are properly trained.

  • Organization of record documentation.

  • A seamless transition to permanent facility operation.

  • Energy consumption efficiency starting at initial occupancy.

  • Comfortable and more productive building occupants.

  • Reduced downtime due to improved diagnosis of failures.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider the value of commissioning from another perspective. Rather than focus on the direct costs of commissioning a building, I suggest that one consider the costs of not commissioning a building project. Add up the following costs: lost production due to employee absenteeism resulting from complaints about their environment; callbacks to contractors, engineers and architects and the time spent by your operating personnel in diagnosing system operational problems; mistakes made by untrained operators that may cause long term damage to building systems and higher than budgeted energy expenses; I think it is clear that the true cost of not commissioning a building project can indeed be very high.

Next month we’ll explore the scope and timing of the commissioning process.