It’s time to recommission the construction industry

The commissioning team protects the owner by establishing and enforcing expectations.

By David Allen, McKinstry, Seattle August 14, 2015

The construction industry is in trouble. We work in an industry filled with silos where long-term results are sacrificed to maintain the status quo. It’s a big reason why productivity has lagged in the construction industry.

We don’t need minor procedural tweaks in how we conduct our business—we need a top-to-bottom shake-up to keep up with the evolving demands of our clients, who need builders able to wring predictable outcomes out of all the complexity.

Fortunately, there’s a sector of the construction industry already laser-focused on outcomes: the commissioning profession.

Challenges in the construction industry

Prepared or not, the construction industry is at a crossroads. Buildings are becoming more technically complex. Information technology platforms; integrated mechanical, electrical, data, and plumbing systems; and building analytics systems are all being squeezed into a single "spine" of the building. Few companies work to integrate all of these high-demand, high-data systems in a thoughtful, long-term manner, resulting in owners getting a building with systems that aren’t interoperable or optimized.

The basic understanding of project boundaries is shifting. There’s a real drive for certainty around long-term performance. Owners want to know that their building will operate well, remain efficient, and retain flexibility while they grow and change. New collaborative delivery methods like design-build, general contractor/construction manager, qualifications-based selection, and integrated project delivery challenge the linear thinking of traditional procurement and help assure these guaranteed outcomes.

Right now, project teams aren’t built to assure guaranteed outcomes very well.

Going to bat for the right kind of outcomes

This is where the commissioning profession steps in. Traditionally, commissioning authorities would walk in at the tail end of the project, with limited knowledge of the design intent, to make sure all of the mechanical and electrical equipment work as promised. Any problems they found had to be sent off to the architect and engineer for approval before they were fixed. Often, the commissioning authorities would not receive responses to the issues noted.

Nowadays, commissioning authorities are expected to commission a range of systems that demand a suite of technical expertise. When included during design, they can offer a number of suggestions that improve how well the building will operate.

Really, though, the commissioning team should be brought in first, even before design begins. Why? Because the commissioning team cares about the best project outcomes beyond the first cost, and they need to fully understand the needs of the owner to provide meaningful advice throughout the project.

Think of them like an owner’s representative for the owner 20 years from now. In other words, they force the project team to think about the mistakes they might make now that would plague an owner 20 years down the line.

The job of the commissioning team is to remain neutral between team members, but rigorously defend project outcomes. They can provide advice for how to pin down performance by asking hard questions: Who will guarantee performance? How will guarantees be measured, verified, and enforced? What are maintenance and operations procedures going to look like? What will the building and the facility engineering staff need to maintain excellent performance?

In short, the commissioning team protects the owner (and the quality of the project) by establishing and enforcing expectations across the board throughout the lifespan of the project.

A new ballgame

The construction industry, for the most part, isn’t ready for this new ballgame. We need help as we navigate our clients’ growing demands for predictable, long-term excellence in how their buildings operate, consume energy, and remain comfortable.

The commissioning team is our ally in this new world. It’s time to bring these team members to the table early, because they’ll be the ones to keep our clients happy—and keep us grounded amid all the chaos.

David Allen is executive vice president at McKinstry and is responsible for brand development, managing the company’s strategic positioning, and overseeing its business development, community relations, and client service activities. He is widely respected for helping create McKinstry’s positioning strategy, which has resulted in the firm’s national reputation as a leader in integrated facility services delivery and engineered solutions in the clean technology sector.

David Allen delivered the keynote address at the Building Commissioning Association’s National Conference on Building Commissioning in St. Louis. This is a summary of the presentation.