Communication in commissioning

An effective commissioning authority must bring far more than technical skills to the project team. Communication skills of all types are key.

By John K. McFarland, PE, CCP, CEM, LEED AP, WorkingBuildings, Atlanta October 26, 2012

Thanks to the rise in popularity of green building certification systems, most engineers are now familiar with the building commissioning (Cx) process. With the decrease in new building projects and the resulting decrease in the need for MEP design services, many firms have expanded offerings to include Cx. This would seem to be a natural fit, as the technical knowledge required to design these systems is an important skill for the commissioning authority (CxA). However, a truly effective CxA must bring far more than technical skills to the project team. He must also be an exceptional communicator, and herein lies the potential for the success or failure of the Cx process. The CxA, while representing the owner’s interest on the project team, must serve as a facilitator to unify the project team around the common goal of delivering a successful project. Communication is at the heart of this success. 

Testing equipment requires little artistry, yet the great divide between a standard CxA and an expert CxA is evidenced in the different communication methods each employs. The CxA has a variety of audiences with which he must communicate. These audiences include nontechnical owners and end users, construction managers, architects, engineers, general contractor project managers, and field technicians. Each audience requires different forms and frequency of communication, and the CxA who can navigate those differences will quickly establish himself as an expert in the field. 

So what forms of communication are available to the CxA? These can be subdivided into three large categories: personal, electronic, and printed. Each has its pros and cons and, when used appropriately, can be quite effective. However, when the wrong form is used, the miscommunication that may result can start a breakdown within the project team, jeopardizing the success of the Cx process. The stories abound of the “flaming” e-mails in which everyone on the team is copied. Nothing positive comes from this sort of communication, only ill will and hard feelings.

Personal communication 

Personal communication includes face-to-face conversations and group meetings. Personal communication has the huge benefit of body language. It is generally known that body language constitutes approximately 80% of communication. This is an important element that the CxA must employ to avoid undue tension when issues or problems with the design or construction of the building are discussed. 

To the greatest extent possible, potentially contentious or embarrassing issues should be discussed with the affected party in person. Personal communication is limited in the speed that information can be transmitted, as it requires both parties to be present at the same place at the same time. This can make it challenging, as many project teams are scattered across the country and have different on-site obligations during construction.

Electronic communication 

Electronic communication includes phone calls, e-mails, text messages, software, and social media such as Twitter or instant messaging. Phone conversations are classified as electronic rather than personal communication on the basis that there is no body language in the communication. Video conferencing has the potential to bridge this gap if it becomes used more widely. In general, phone calls are the next best alternative to face-to-face meetings, especially when the conversation is limited to two or three parties. Phone calls allow dialogue and tonal intonations, which can go a long way in diffusing potentially tense situations. 

Electronic communication can be an effective means of transmitting information quickly to a (potentially) large number of interested parties. This can be quite powerful on a project. As a very wise and experienced project manager once told me, “on a project, good news needs to travel fast and bad news even faster.” With this in mind, the dissemination of information through e-mail is a power that comes with the great responsibility to not abuse it. Abuse could involve using the “cc:” field without forethought, such as including everyone on the project team on every e-mail. This leads to the inevitable e-mail overload where, suddenly, your e-mails begin to be ignored, like the boy who cried wolf. It also is common professional courtesy to give a party a “heads-up” prior to sending a broadcast e-mail that might embarrass or accuse that company or individual. Embarrassing others has no place in the Cx process. All those on the project team are in the same boat, and on a project, that boat will either float or sink based on the mutual respect and consideration among the team members—and this includes the CxA. 

Text messages can be an effective means of communicating small bits of information quickly to just a few individuals. It is usually easier to respond to text messages, as they are less formal than e-mails. This allows for a bit of a dialogue to develop, potentially avoiding misunderstandings (especially tonal) that can arise via e-mail. 

One of my most effective forms of communication is through cloud-based software. A good Cx software will allow you to transmit information to the team instantaneously, will provide one general information bank for team members to update and access, and will provide an easy and clear forum for team members to discuss and ultimately resolve these issues. I use the software CxAlloy, and have been very happy with its ease of use and ability to quickly disseminate information. Regardless of what software you choose, having a Cx software to track issues and store information that can be accessed by all team members is a necessity for effective Cx.   

Twitter and other forms of mass instant messaging have the potential to impact project communication in unforeseen ways. I have yet to see these alternative communication methods used on a project, but with their growing use within individual companies it seems inevitable that they will enter the multi-company world of designing and constructing buildings. 

Printed communication 

Printed communication includes plans, memos, review reports, site reports, and ultimately the Cx report. These are formal documents that must represent the skill and professionalism of the CxA. They should exhibit consistency of form (the look and feel), technical accuracy, and specificity, and be free of grammatical and typographical errors. 

The documents will be read by very technically skilled project team members and by owners who are not necessarily well-versed in the design and construction professions. As such, the CxA must use report elements such as the executive summary to provide “big picture” information, as well as provide sufficient details to illustrate the technical nuances or intricacies of specific design or construction issues. In this latter element, the age-old saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is particularly relevant. It is a good practice to take one or more pictures of an issue observed in the field and include them with the issue description to better communicate the problem.

Design phase 

The critical element that the CxA should strive to communicate at the outset of the design phase is that he is part of the project team. The CxA should use this phase to emphasize that his role is to help ensure the owner’s goals are achieved. The CxA should also be there to help the design team in this endeavor. This is best done through personal communication via a combination of face-to-face meetings and project team meetings. Certainly the CxA will be delivering key documents in this phase, including the Cx plan and design review reports. I believe that it is professional courtesy to meet, either face-to-face or (at a minimum) on the telephone, with design professionals to discuss the CxA’s design comments prior to publishing these in a design report. Personally, I have found that these conversations result in better acceptance of the comments as helpful rather than critical. Additionally, I have found that often the design professional has explained his design process or pointed out something the CxA overlooked in the mass of drawings and specifications that resolved the issue, eliminating the need to publish it to the rest of the project team. These meetings can go a long way toward fostering teamwork that will pay dividends during construction when unforeseen issues arise there. 

Design review reports must be consistent in structure and include as much information as necessary to point the design professional to the specific issue. This includes citing the specific drawing (column intersection) or specification including paragraph. The reports should either be sorted by discipline or, if via an online system, be easily sortable to make it simple for the design professionals to find the issues relevant to their area of expertise. 

Construction phase 

During the design phase, the CxA has the luxury of interacting almost exclusively with fellow professionals. This is not necessarily the case during construction. Here the CxA interacts with a wide variety of professions. This makes it particularly challenging for the CxA to find the most effective means of communication. 

Standard printed documents include site observation reports, construction checklists, and functional test procedures. Effective site observation reports follow the same general rules of design review reports: be specific regarding the location of an issue, clearly describe the issue, and sort the issue by who the responsible party is. Photos should be used as much as possible to show the issue. 

Construction checklists will be used predominantly by the field technicians. These need to clearly specify what is to be checked and indicate the appropriate responses (Yes/No or Pass/Fail). Checklists can either be printed or made accessible online via Cx software. An exceptional CxA will understand the challenges of writing on a printed checklist when it’s 20 F and your pencil was sharpened with a pocketknife. In other words, provide plenty of space for the user to write. 

Project closeout

During the project closeout phase, the CxA communicates with the entire project team to facilitate the resolution of any remaining open issues. Additionally, the CxA may communicate with the building operating personnel and the end users as they move in and begin to use and operate the building. Taking the time to show these individuals how the building operates is critical to delivering a successful Cx process. If the end users and operators do not have confidence that they know how to operate their new facility, then all your hard work ensuring that the systems operate effectively will be wasted when the controls are turned off and diffusers are covered with cardboard.

The final printed deliverable of the CxA is the Cx report. This is the capstone to the Cx process. It is important that the structure and appearance of the Cx report represents the high quality of the Cx process. Key elements include an executive summary that highlights the positive impact of Cx on the project, and any critical issues that remain open pending final resolution. The body of the Cx report should be easily navigated to find the history of the Cx process by individual equipment or by a system as a whole. The Cx report has the potential to be an incredibly useful tool for the building operators to keep the systems operating at their peak performance. 

At its core, Cx is a quality assurance process. Quality is something that cannot be dictated, but instead must be inspired. It is the responsibility of the CxA to foster an environment where individuals are inspired to do their best work. Whether these individuals are the designers or the installers, the CxA has the ability and position to lead them toward success. In so doing, the CxA will help ensure the owner’s goals for the project are achieved. Effective communication tied with technical prowess is the key to an exceptional CxA. The CxA who uses personal, electronic, and printed communication methods at the right time and in a way that fosters teamwork through mutual respect and understanding will demonstrate the true value of the Cx process. 

John K. McFarland is the director of operations and principal at WorkingBuildings. He has been commissioning facilities since 1998, and has been actively involved with the U.S. Green Building Council and ASHRAE in promoting sustainability in projects. 

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