The future of building commissioning

As technology changes, commissioning becomes more enhanced and advanced

By Liz Fischer October 15, 2021
Courtesy: Building Commissioning Association

For more than 20 years, the Building Commissioning Association has led the evolution of building commissioning as a practice within the design, construction and building performance industries. What began as an additional “owner’s set of eyes” and documenting heating, ventilation and air conditioning performance transitioned to include all mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems. Owners now are asking questions and getting smart about commissioning due to changes in building codes or becoming more aware of the value of commissioning.  

This recognition has elevated the need for commissioning providers, aka CxP, to be prepared to work on more — and integrated — systems within a building while also being prepared to support building performance well after a turnover to the owner’s operations staff. 

Whole building commissioning  

Recently, commissioning has come to include whole building commissioning, sometimes referred to as WBCx. As a profession, we have talked about WBCx for years without a recognized single definition. But that is not as important as the movement behind the expanding portfolio of integrated commissioning practices. 

Buildings are owners’ physical assets. Years ago, when executives toured buildings for acquisition or new leases, they ensured good temperature control and sufficient lighting. These days, they’re looking for things like cellular signal availability and Wi-Fi connectivity everywhere.  

Commissioning still focuses on the core MEP/FP systems but, from an owner’s risk management and operational perspective, the whole building must function as a single unified asset, including the fire life safety, information technology, cellular, audio-visual, renewables, enclosure and ever-important air quality monitoring.  

The uptick in building enclosure commissioning  

In the past, building enclosure commissioning, or BECx, was often considered an alternate or specialty service, but it is now officially mainstream. U.S. Green Building Council LEED v4 vaulted BECx onto projects by doubling LEED points for BECx from LEED v3 and making it one of two possible paths for achieving “enhanced” commissioning credits. Even projects not seeking LEED certification often include BECx within systems to be commissioned — a significant change from five years ago. BECx is gaining momentum for existing buildings as stakeholders see the attractive rate of return for enclosure-related upgrades (less than five years in many cases).  

The value of BECx reaches well beyond simply improved energy performance. It is an established, proven process to reduce enclosure-related problems and can often reduce construction schedules. The enclosure is an integral part of WBCx and the interdependencies between the enclosure and the other primary commissioning systems are extensive. Enclosures don’t just separate interiors from exteriors — they also play a vital role in separating interior spaces and are often important in achieving desired performance for acoustics and healthy air quality.  

Like all core commissioning processes, BECx is here to stay. It is expected that a higher percentage of projects will include BECx going forward and that the “mystery” around BECx testing will fade as the industry becomes accustomed to the practice. In addition, the first accredited certification for BECx professionals will be available soon, which will clarify the activities and requirements of this profession.  

What to watch for: Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the enclosure, which is typically static performance (once built). New materials and stakeholder expectations are changing buildings in ways that can react to occupants’ needs (e.g., dynamic glazing that operates with capabilities like variable thermal insulation or solar shading). Count on myriad new materials and challenges as the world continues to reopen. And modular construction is anticipated to strongly affect tomorrow’s building enclosures.  

“HEA has seen an increase in BECx over the past three years. We pride ourselves on the continuing education to clients on the benefits of BECx for their projects as the cost will always outweigh the potential for high-cost fixes after construction,” said Franklin Cedillo, building enclosure associate, Horizon Engineering LLP. 

Ongoing commissioning 

The distinction of ongoing commissioning, known as OCx, from other forms of commissioning lies in its application as the continuous, sustaining process of monitoring, diagnostics and implementation of changing or corrective facility performance measures over time. OCx is a persistence measure for buildings to ensure they continue to operate in keeping with the owners’ current facility requirements.  

The commissioning profession continues to evolve to meet the owner’s need to maintain performance by applying commissioning methods in an ongoing approach for longer-term performance results. Since the advent of direct digital controls, the building industry has had an invaluable data resource used in NCCx and EBCx.  

“In recent years leveraging information through data acquisition, storage and analytics, using increasingly available hardware and software solutions, has provided a vital tool for the industry enabling OCx,” said Jesse Sycuro, operations director, national technical services, McKinstry. 

As evidence of these advancements, over the past two years alone, the BCxA’s member surveys show a 15% increase in CxPs using commercially available software to help verify performance, troubleshoot projects and explain performance anomalies using data analysis (see Figure 1). These new skills within the commissioning profession parallel the growing availability and sophistication of commercial hardware and software to manage the commissioning process.  

Building owners are also taking note of advantages offered by accurate information delivered through OCx, such as detecting and mitigating operational risks using energy management and information systems and monitoring-based commissioning, MBCx. Fault detection and continuous diagnostics are important for maintaining a necessary or mandated level of energy savings, realizing savings due to extended equipment life and reduced maintenance costs and predictive analysis and proactive approach to potential problems. 

In response to industry interest in OCx and requests for further guidance on applying OCx methods, the BCxA published OCx Best Practices, in January 2020.  

Figure 1: A member survey shows a 15% increase in commissioning providers using commercially available software to help verify performance, troubleshoot projects and explain performance anomalies using data analysis. Courtesy: Building Commissioning Association

Figure 1: A member survey shows a 15% increase in commissioning providers using commercially available software to help verify performance, troubleshoot projects and explain performance anomalies using data analysis. Courtesy: Building Commissioning Association

Building the next generation to support current trends 

As an association aligned with the dynamic needs and trends of the commissioning profession, the BCxA is always seeking the next generation of CxPs. We are finding ways to inspire those who want a career in on-the-ground problem-solving and forensic science to advance commissioning.  

One of our priorities is to encourage youth to undertake the challenges of commissioning and increase the knowledge of engineers and other professionals currently engaged. BCxA University is undergoing improvements and adding education modules to meet this challenge. We reach out to students, provide scholarships, honor young professionals and offer opportunities to learn directly from experienced BCxA members.  

The future is full of career opportunities for current and incoming CxPs to make a difference every day in the health and safety of people at work by reducing our carbon footprint through building design and construction and delivering building improvements that endure long into the future.  

Comprehensive Cx is here to stay 

“If you think about where we were 20 years ago, the value of commissioning was a difficult conversation. At that time, we were only talking about HVAC systems. The pushback from owners was that there were already engineers and contractors on the job,” said Ryan Lean, president of the Building Commissioning Association 

“Today,” he said, “you can’t find any building in North America that doesn’t perform commissioning for the basic MEP/FP systems; it’s now pushback on the low-voltage and building enclosure commissioning.”  

Although saving energy and indoor air quality will always be a motiving factor for commissioning, recent events such as the increase in wildfires, hurricanes, the pandemic and the return to the office show clearly that a comprehensive commissioning approach is here to stay.  

“I see a not-so-distant future,” said Lean, “where we will commission everything in a building — during design, construction and beyond — and laugh about the times early in this decade when that wasn’t the case.”  

We salute this year’s Commissioning Giants and look forward to their continued pursuit of excellence.  

Author Bio: Liz Fischer has been the executive director of the Building Commissioning Association for the last 10 years and active in the energy efficiency, conservation and commissioning industry for more than 30 years. The Building Commissioning Association is a CFE Media content partner.

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