This Thing Called Commissioning: Part II

Welcome back! In Part I, we learned about some of the history of Commissioning (Cx) and that Cx means different things to different people and to different projects. We’ll explore some more specifics in this Part II.

The current norm as expressed by industry-recognized contracts is for the construction team to perform its work consistently with the construction documents. There is a reasonable process within those contractual norms to review the construction performed by the contractors; that is, what I call the static elements of the work. However, there is little process in these contractual norms to review and verify proper operation of the dynamic systems built by the construction team.

Why is that? I believe there are a couple of primary reasons. First, historically, the systems were generally straightforward, and their operation was limited and reasonably well understood by building operators. Secondly, the above mentioned contractual industry norms evolved with a general focus on low first cost, including that for the design professionals.

The problem with this model is that as dynamic building systems (e.g. M, E, P) became more sophisticated, the operational verifications and fine tuning that were necessary didn’t occur, and buildings were delivered incomplete.  The industry contractual norms stayed with the low first cost model, so this thing called “Commissioning” moved into the building industry to fill the gap.

And how is that gap being filled today? In many cases, it is not. Owners’ positions can state “why should I have to pay for extra work to get the constructed product I am supposed to be getting anyway?” A fair question, no doubt. The answer lies in some mix of the model of low first cost in construction and professional services contracts no longer being compatible with the sophisticated dynamic systems needed to meet today’s expectations of safety, comfort, air quality and efficiency.

In those cases where the gap is being filled, to one degree or another, it is most often being done with a new set of service providers known as the commissioning authority (CxA). This third party (not on the construction team, not on the professional A/E team) is retained by the owner in a support role intended to verify the project is delivered complete and ready for occupancy. The CxA, however, generally has little authority to tune and adapt engineered systems and little contractual responsibility (liability) in the performance result. In addition, there is considerable redundancy in the CxA’s services with those provided by the professional design team. And while an overlap is not a bad thing, neither is it an inexpensive thing.

Even with the CxA on the project, however, an important gap remains: the sophisticated systems are not all verified and tuned together to get the operation (efficiency, safety, reliability, air quality, etc.) intended by the design and deliverable by the systems. What, you say? Not all verified and not tuned? Correct.

The role of the CxA is generally limited to installation and control details prescribed in the documents. It does not include verifying all the engineered systems work together and are properly adjusted and tuned. Doing that would be engineering, and that role is limited to the engineers, but it is not contracted to the engineer. Why, you say? Reasons most likely vary. My experience suggests it is some mix of not wanting to pay additionally for these services which are not in the base engineering contract, and the (mis)impression that the CxA is able to direct this adjusting and tuning.

The solution? In the immediate term, owners, the A/E community, and the CxA community need to recognize the current model delivers neither the owners’ expectations of readiness nor the engineer’s intent on performance. Owners need to be open to the reality that their design engineers should be tasked with and paid for performing integrated systems verifications and for directing construction forces to provide proper adjustments and tuning.

In the near term, it is believed the current third party CxA will evolve to including this responsibility in the design engineer’s scope and compensation, at least for those firms experienced and adept  in providing those services. The reasons for this forecasted evolution are simple- the redundancy/overlap between the CxA and the A/E is removed; hence, the costs are reduced, and the construction and design lines of responsibility (liability) are not muddied with the insertion of a third party. Both of these reasons benefit the owner.

It is true that currently some engineering firms are not as qualified to perform this CxA role as others, but then neither were many of the CxAs when they first began. As with any project, the engineer’s selection should be a proper fit for that project, including Cx where it is included. As engineers more routinely provide commissioning and commissioning verification services, their qualifications will grow just as has occurred with the CxA community. And in the process, the overall costs to the Owner will shrink.

So, there you have it. A summary on Cx from one who has seen it developing, all the way to where its “full circle” will (I predict) take it. Your thoughts and questions will be welcomed. Best to all. – Tom Green, P.E., LEED AP – Principal Engineer