The balance of power

Successful projects adopt best practices from project requirements through deliverables.

By Paul Levy, CCxP, Kirlin Mechanical Services, Rockville, Md. March 13, 2013

As a result of our rapidly changing environment and access to better technologies, engineers are challenged to create better designs that result in optimum performance. At the same time, the proliferation of articles touting energy conservation and environmental efficiencies create high expectations in building owners.

Still, when all is said and done, basic design is the most critical element to ensuring success. Beginning with a basic design, documenting all aspects of the design, keeping critical communication lines open, and developing a process to memorialize the steps are important in ensuring optimal performance standards. When these elements are evident and strictly followed, best practices will result.

Changing environmental standards and new government regulations have imposed more requirements on the designer, engineer, and building owner in the past few decades. Often the requirements come without a change in the design fee. And while we may be expected to do more because of the tools at our disposal, these same tools also create a more urgent need for checks and balances.

To assure a successful project with expected results, the following best practices should be adopted and agreed to by all members of the project.

  • Owner’s project requirements (OPR). This document is essentially the owner’s directive of what is expected. It is developed by the owner and should provide a clear understanding of the ideas, concepts, and criteria of the project. In many cases, documentation of the OPR is required for compliance with respect to energy systems and enhanced commissioning. The OPR states the goals upon which the design is judged. It should be completed early—prior to signing the design contract—so that the design team can use it as the basis for their design.
  • Commissioning. Project commissioning is the process of assuring that all systems and components of a building are designed, tested, operated, and maintained to the performance standards stated in the OPR. While the architect and/or engineer are not expected to perform the commissioning, they should be provided the specifics to be addressed in the commissioning of a building. Along with specifics, it’s important that the engineers know how much time is needed to provide project commissioning. Commissioning should be considered an essential factor in the completion of the project and the proper time scheduled for the discipline. (See Figure 1.)
  • Integrated design approach. In this approach, all stakeholders in the process are required to look at the objectives, materials, systems, and construction from all perspectives. This approach demands that everyone work together throughout all phases of the project to evaluate the design for cost, quality of life, expansion capabilities, efficiencies, impact on environment, creativity, and productivity. Specialists should not be isolated from the process. An integrated design approach makes it easier to resolve issues and optimize systems. It is essential to holding project goals in proper balance and achieving a high-performance building.
  • Building envelope. The physical separator between the inside and outside of a building, the building envelope maintains the indoor environment. There are lots of moving parts in the building envelope, from the physical structure protecting the occupants from weather and climate to indoor air quality, durability, and energy efficiency. The building envelope design values should contain information on everything from the main switchboard requirements to plumbing fixtures, daylight harvesting, and even expansion requirements. Anything that will impact the design must be documented, preferably in the drawings where it will be seen and memorialized. (See Figure 2 or click here to download)
  • Building information modeling (BIM). This trend in computer-aided design has an impact on the entire design, planning, and construction community. BIM makes it easier to consider design alternatives and make changes. BIM provides the ability to add performance standards directly to the drawings, aiding in the process of integrating the design work of various teams. As noted, performance standards should be provided in detail within the drawings. (See Figure 3.)
  • Measurements and verification (M&V). To determine the actual performance versus the usage estimated from the design phase energy model, there must be a system for measuring performance criteria and providing verification of those criteria. There are several common practices for the measurement of actual usage. The sensors required for M&V will be project specific, depending upon the OPR, budget, codes, and types of utilities used.
  • Training and maintenance procedures. Owner involvement in the training and maintenance procedures within a facility results in a more controllable environment. Once the building has been designed and the engineers are no longer on staff, the owner must have confidence in the training and maintenance procedures that are outlined in the drawings. This information should include who conducts the training and where it is conducted.
  • Use of electronic media. An integrated design approach demands the use of an electronic recordkeeping system with reasonable controls. The system should ensure accuracy, authenticity, and reliability of data, and contain requirements and standards applicable to all parties.
  • Standard 189.1. This is a total building sustainability standard addressing all aspects of the building. The standard includes energy efficiency measures and renewable energy requirements and, according to the foreword of ASHRAE Standard 189.1: Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings “goes a step further with requirements for site sustainability, water use efficiency, indoor environmental quality and the building’s impact on the atmosphere, materials and resources.” Standard 189.1 provides a foundation for green building. The best practice in applying this standard is an economical test: What is the cost to meet the standard, and will the result be worth it? This commonsense check should be applied as part of the integrated design approach.
  • Deliverables. These are the requirements of the building and how they can be achieved. The deliverables also should include an energy model to serve as a benchmark for the project and the  design criteria recommended by the engineer in order to achieve the requirements. These and other requirements should be documented as best practices in a narrative format. The documentation, known as “as-built drawings,” should be updated regularly.

When reviewing the best practices listed above, the need for good design and excellent communication is paramount. Nothing impacts the quality of the building performance more than good design. But intrinsic to the design is the communication and timely integrated action between the designers, engineers, architects, contractors, and owner. If the engineers are not given sufficient time, or if they are given incomplete or incorrect information, no amount of integrated design, OPR, or commissioning will overcome this deficiency. Each phase of the project relies on the ability of the responsible party to view the specs, apply the specs in a way they know how, inform every one of the options available and the expected results, specify the proper equipment, and complete a bid on the project—with team members having full knowledge of the deliverables. Informed team members have a stake in the project and take ownership of their responsibilities, meeting the owner’s requirements and assuring a successful project. 

Paul Levy is a commissioning consultant at Kirlin Mechanical Services. He has 30 years of experience in large, complex mechanical construction system installations and operations, and serves on ASHRAE technical committees.