How to be a better CxA

Top 12 tips that commissioning agents (CxA) need to know to do their jobs better.

By Robert Linder, PE, NEBB BSC CP, LEED AP, Sebesta Blomberg, Roseville, Minn. October 21, 2011

What is an MEP Commissioning Giant? In short, it means you sold and executed a lot of work. But does it make you better? No, being a giant does not make you better. Being better than your competitors makes you better. Often this can make you bigger as well, but it is not guaranteed.

I’ve worked at small, family-owned commissioning firm, at a contractor, and at a mid-sized MEP firm. I now work for a Commissioning Giant. Each of these stops has taught me valuable lessons about what it takes to be an effective CxA. The journey has provided me with a unique insight into the industry. I understand what it takes, and what it means, to be better. Here are a dozen tips to help ensure you are better too.

  1. Understand your customer and their needs. You need to know how your customer defines success on a project in order to ensure you deliver it. You can’t assume to know—there is not enough time, nor enough budget. Documenting the client’s needs in an owner’s project requirements (OPR) is a great way to get the details flushed out. If this is not practical, initiate an open discussion at the kickoff meeting and document the details in the meeting minutes.
  2. Identify solutions, not just problems. Let’s be honest, many of the issues commissioning agents find on projects do not require 25 years of experience to identify. However, identifying an issue should only be the first step. The commissioning agent needs to add value to the commissioning process by assisting in resolution. If the solution is not apparent after your investigation, make sure to provide enough technical information for the project team to make an assessment of the next required step. This fosters teamwork and expedites the resolution process.
  3. Communicate effectively. In this age of electronic communication, go old school. Use the tried-and-true method of communicating with a customer—in person. When this is not possible, place a phone call. Nothing beats an open discussion. It is a great opportunity to get a read on how the project is going and how your services are being received. E-mails are nice, but too much is left open for interpretation. Instead, use e-mail as follow-up confirmation of the discussion.
  4. Be hands on. Come to the job site and be prepared to get a little dirty. Don’t be a “paper tiger.” Documentation is important, if not essential, but so is delivering results. Use your experience to truly evaluate equipment and system operations. Don’t just check the box. Interact with the on-site contractors. Talk with them to gain an understanding of what they did and why they did it. Watch individual component operations and validate sensor outputs to verify operations; don’t just assume the BAS graphics are accurate. This level of effort can only lead to a more thorough evaluation and better results.
  5. Plan the work, work the plan. A well-developed commissioning plan is essential for communicating expectations to the project team. Often this is overlooked, as many commissioning agents just roll out a generic plan that was used on a previous project. Don’t make this mistake. The plan is the perfect tool to gain buy-in from the team members.
  6. Don’t wait for the RFP. Chances are the opportunity is lost by the time the RFP hits the street. Even if it is not, you can be sure your competitors have been in the owner’s ear by now. Being successful typically requires being out in front of the RFP. Attend trade shows, participate in professional organizations, and follow the local business journals. Network with other professionals and do what it takes to stay connected with your local industry. Remember that business development takes time and energy. You may not see the results right away. Don’t be discouraged.
  7. Stand up for what you believe in. You are contracted by the owner to act in its best interests on the project. Stand your ground. Don’t let other commissioning team members tell you how to perform your services. Listen to them, and evaluate their insight, but ultimately you need to execute services as you see fit. You are a trained professional. Act like it.
  8. Don’t undersell your services. Be careful to avoid performing work outside of your contracted scope. Attending an additional meeting or repeating a test that the contractor was not prepared for are two basic examples. This work is coming out of the profit if you did not include it in your fee. Be specific in your proposal. Outline the number of meetings, trips, and so on that you intend on performing. The proposal lays the groundwork for your services. It is usually difficult to get an owner to add scope once the contract has been signed, and collecting on back charges is not any easier.
  9. Know your limitations. While we can all think of an individual who seems to know it all, few professionals out there do. Accept the fact that you may need to partner on a project to deliver results. This is becoming much more common, especially with the expanded list of systems commissioned in RFP scopes of work. It can strengthen your proposal and increase your chances for success.
  10. Keep the owner engaged. Keeping the owner updated on commissioning progress will deliver better project results and enhance your reputation. An engaged owner can provide input on key decisions that often affect system operations. The owner will understand the consequences of its decisions, and where it may be compromising on its original project requirements. Your facilitation will strengthen the relationship, and you will be viewed as a trusted partner.
  11. Resolve all issues. If it was important enough to put on the issues log, it is an issue. All issues need to be resolved before closing out the project. Open issues will come back to haunt you. The resolution may be a simple fix or may require extensive rework. If the owner chooses to accept an issue “as is,” make sure it understands the consequences of the decision and document its approval.
  12. Transition the building into operations. Delivering a building at the end of construction is not enough. The owner must understand that a qualified and trained O+M staff is required to ensure proper continued operations. The commissioning agent must address this with the owner and make sure the owner understands this concept. If not, the benefits of commissioning will soon be lost to the wrench of an untrained staff member. Worse, as memories are short, the commissioning agent may be viewed as not performing.

Throughout my commissioning journey, I’ve experienced great successes and some bumps in the road, both of which have led me to where I am today. While these 12 tips may not be new, they are often forgotten. My advice may not make you an instant Commissioning Giant, but it will provide you a solid foundation to build from.

Linder is director of commissioning for Sebesta Blomberg. He has 16 years of management and leadership experience in the areas of commissioning, retro-commissioning, and test and balance. Linder is the chairman of the National Environmental Balancing Bureau’s (NEBB) Building Systems Commissioning Committee.