The state of commissioning

Commissioning providers are optimistic about the immediate future, while continuing to focus on existing buildings.

By Ray Bert, AABC Commissioning Group, Washington, D.C. October 17, 2011

Building commissioning (Cx) has come into its own in recent years as an accepted aspect of building or retrofitting facilities, fueled by both growing understanding of its benefits and its inclusion as a requirement in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED criteria. As a result, Cx providers are spending less time making the case that Cx should be done at all and more time advocating that it be done properly.

Who is providing these services? What types of buildings and systems are being worked on? How much of the work is driven by the LEED rating system? What role does retro-commissioning play?

To find the answers to these and other questions, the AABC Commissioning Group (ACG) conducted a survey of 350 Cx services companies in July 2011. Of the 350 companies surveyed, 150 responded, sharing information on the mix of Cx work they are currently providing, their biggest current challenge, their outlook on 2012, and trends they expect to see in the near future.

All of the companies surveyed are professional firms who are not engaged in any kind of contracting or manufacturing work. The makeup of the firms that responded provides a snapshot of who is providing Cx services in today’s industry.

Commissioning revenue

As shown in Figure 1, for nearly half of the companies responding, Cx represents 20% or less of their business (including 25% for whom Cx was 5% or less). For approximately 25% of respondents, Cx is 85% or more of their revenue.

There is a significant divide between companies doing Cx as a sideline to engineering and other consulting work and those committed to it as a primary focus of their business. CSE’s 2011 MEP Giants survey shows a similar picture (see Figure 2), especially when taking into account the selection bias in the companies responding to the two surveys.

Additional services and subcontract work

More than half (59%) of the companies responding indicated that they also provide design-engineering services, and the survey asked how design and Cx personnel are separated within those companies. Half (50%) indicated that the firm maintains different departments or divisions, 35% said that different teams are established on a per-project basis, and 19% said there was no formal separation.

When asked “What aspects of commissioning do you subcontract?” 55% of the firms said that they do subcontract some aspect of Cx. Of the 55%, the most common service subcontracted was building envelope Cx. Additional responses included testing and balancing, electrical Cx, LEED-enhanced Cx (for companies serving as the design firm on a project), and very large projects.

Delivery of services

There is general agreement among experienced providers that Cx works best when the provider is an independent third party, preferably hired directly by the owner in the earliest stages of a project.

According to the survey data (Figure 3), 45% of survey respondents are hired as an independent third party, with no other role on the project, 85% or more of the time (this includes 26% that said they are always hired as an independent third party).

Taken together, survey respondents report that approximately two-thirds of the time, they are being hired directly by the building owner or the architect—both of whom represent effective advocacy on behalf of the building owner (see Figure 4). On most of the remaining projects, Cx providers are subcontracted to a general or installing contractor.

The most discouraging responses concerned the time line during which companies are typically retained to begin providing Cx services—in the predesign, design, or construction phases. On average, respondents are not brought on until the construction phase nearly half (46%) of the time. This is unfortunate, because waiting so long to involve the Cx provider saves comparatively little time and money, but can significantly reduce the benefits of Cx to the owner by sacrificing the upfront reviews and communication that pay dividends later in a project.

Cx and LEED

Three years into a very difficult economy, ACG asked a series of questions to find out what kind of projects are currently driving the Cx industry, beginning with questions related to projects pursuing certification through the USGBC’s LEED program.

It came as no surprise that projects pursuing LEED certification make up a significant portion of the total number of buildings that are commissioned. More than half of responding companies said that LEED projects made up 65% or more of their Cx projects (see Figure 5).

A more interesting set of results is the percentage of those LEED projects that pursue the optional credit for enhanced Cx, which requires an expanded scope and stricter rules on the independence of the Cx provider (see Figure 6).

The survey results reflect a wide range, with the overall average showing that providers pursue credit roughly half the time. Given the belief that the points earned for the credit are somewhat low for the additional effort, this may be an encouraging marker that Cx is valued on LEED projects for more than just meeting expectations and notching points toward a plaque.

Building types, sectors, and Cx scope

Since the U.S. economy came to a screeching halt in 2008, shelving many commercial building projects while the general upward trend in energy prices has continued, there has been a persistent expectation that existing building Cx would increasingly drive the industry. That wave may be growing, but it has not crested yet based on the data. The survey data show new construction still accounting for nearly 80% of the Cx work done by the companies surveyed.

In terms of the types of facilities, commercial office buildings represent the most common building type commissioned, accounting for 26%, followed by higher education (16%), K-12 schools (15%), and healthcare facilities (10%).

The private sector as a whole accounts for 33% of respondents’ Cx work, followed by military projects (23%), state governments (18%), and municipal and federal nonmilitary projects accounting for approximately 10% each.

The scope of Cx can change dramatically depending on which systems are commissioned on any given project. In the past, the HVAC system was frequently the only one commissioned, but that has been changing (see Figure 7).

Though HVAC remains by far the most common system commissioned—nearly 95% of all projects—others are growing in prominence. Two other systems—domestic hot water and lighting controls—crack the 60% mark, largely because, like HVAC, these systems must be commissioned to satisfy the current version of the LEED Cx requirements. For the variety of other systems in the 10% to 20% range, it will be interesting to see to what degree they grow in subsequent years—such as building envelope, which may become a required element of the LEED 2012 requirements.

Challenges and looking ahead

Survey respondents were asked an open-ended question about their biggest Cx-related challenge in 2011. Five themes emerged:

5: Getting the other members of the Cx team to buy into the process. This primarily took the form of general cooperation and communication, as well as compliance with correcting deficiencies identified by the Cx process.

4: Getting building owners to buy into the Cx process. In particular, a number of respondents noted the difficulty convincing owners to employ Cx on non-LEED projects, or to do more than the bare minimum required by LEED.

3: Scheduling and system readiness. Probably best described as the “herding cats” problem, the most common complaints here were slipping construction schedules, and systems declared ready for functional testing that are not.

2: Finding qualified personnel. Despite high national unemployment levels, Cx companies are generally in need of at least a few good men and women.

1: Price and competition. Unsurprisingly for a field that has seen tremendous growth and many new players entering the field, respondents noted that securing a reasonable fee for an appropriate level of Cx scope and effort is frequently a challenge. Many specifically cited inexperienced companies providing an insufficient level of service as a key pressure on fees.

Despite these challenges, and in the face of a still-sputtering economy, Cx companies are remarkably optimistic about the immediate future. Asked about their expectations for 2012, 69% said they expect their firm’s amount of Cx work to increase, 25% expect it to stay about the same, and only 6% expect a decrease.

Asked about any trends they see on the horizon, the vast majority of responses fell into three categories. Overwhelmingly, Cx providers still expect to see existing building Cx become more popular. A secondary theme was the prediction of increased demand for building envelope Cx. The third trend worth noting concerned LEED, but showed a curious split: Essentially the same number of respondents predicted fewer LEED projects as those who forecasted more. Those predicting decline noted the cost associated with LEED certification and the rise of other systems and state-based requirements.


The strength of the Cx market is clear, but questions remain. Key questions about the future center on how services will be procured and delivered, by whom, and how those answers will affect the value that the process actually delivers to building owners.

Bert is executive director of the AABC Commissioning Group (ACG), a nonprofit association of certified commissioning providers headquartered in Washington, D.C.