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Commissioning Construction Phase Scheduling

The commissioning process during construction requires the cooperation and coordination of all parties associated with a design and construction project. This includes, at a minimum, the general contractor, subcontractors, owner’s project manager, owner’s operations and maintenance personnel, and commissioning consultant. The commissioning consultant is usually the expert in the commissioning process and will help each of the other team members understand their responsibilities and how those responsibilities fit into the overall construction project.

With proper planning early in the construction phase, commissioning activities do not need to significantly impact the critical path of construction. There are certain tasks added to the construction phase because a project is being commissioned, and it needs to be the general contractor’s responsibility to incorporate those tasks into the master construction schedule. The commissioning consultant can help the general contractor identify what those tasks are but can not dictate what the commissioning schedule is. It is the general contractor’s job to define and expedite the construction schedule, including commissioning tasks, in order to complete the project on time.

It is important to specify in the contract documents that the general contractor is responsible for the commissioning scheduling. Typically, it makes sense to require that the general contractor prepare a master construction schedule first and then insert the commissioning milestones into it. A good commissioning specification will “tie” the required execution of commissioning tasks to standard construction milestones. For example, Operation & Maintenance Manuals could be specified to be submitted 90 days following approval of the system shop drawings.Training could be specified to be conducted no later than 30 days prior to substantial completion. This should make inserting the commissioning tasks into a master construction schedule very simple.

The very surprising and, honestly, appalling finding of our practical experience in commissioning is that many (but certainly not all) general contractors are extremely poor at preparing and maintaining master construction schedules. Although many, many Division 1 specifications require that the general contractor submit a master construction schedule within a relatively short period (2-6 weeks) following notice to proceed, we have waited months and sometimes years (i.e., the entire project duration) for such a schedule to be produced.

This obviously creates problems for commissioning scheduling when we want to base the commissioning schedule on the overall execution plan for the project. Without such a master plan, we don’t even get started on commissioning planning with the contractors and the commissioning process is unnecessarily hard to track.

Without getting too far afield in contractor-bashing, I need to vent my frustration with contractors who give lip service to meeting an aggressive construction schedule but can never produce a clear plan for how they’re going to achieve it. There is so often a back and forth dance between the contractor and owner about the preparation and submission of the construction schedule. While this dance is taking place, time passes and, pretty soon, there is very little time left in the contractual schedule duration. At some point, as late in the project as possible, the contractor finally says they won’t be done on time and comes up with myriad reasons why. If a schedule is unreasonable, waiting until the end of the project to deal with that fact does not help the project or anyone associated with it. There is a lot of denial in the construction industry these days with regards to the ability of builders to complete projects faster and faster.

When this scenario is played out, which it has been on many of our commissioning projects to date, commissioning tasks are left out there in limbo with the rest of the project milestones. The commissioning consultant doesn’t know when certain tasks should be expected to be completed, so it is hard to enforce the commissioning specification in a timely manner.

An inevitable result of this situation is getting to the end of a project and the contractors claiming not to have enough time to perform verification tests prior to substantial completion and owner occupancy. They may be contractually required to successfully complete testing prior to occupancy, but at this point they simply throw up their hands and say they can’t do it, “Sorry.” They know that the owner’s occupancy dates are usually cast in concrete, and the owner will have no choice but to accept the fact that testing will have to be done after occupancy.

This result may or may not be consciously deliberate on the part of contractors, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that more emphasis on enforcement of project scheduling requirements is necessary whether a project is commissioned or not. One of the benefits of commissioning can be to increase the pressure, through the commissioning consultant, on the contractors to meet their obligations for preparing both a master construction schedule and a schedule enhanced with commissioning tasks.

However, the commissioning consultant typically has no authority to direct the contractors to do anything. Therefore, it is imperative that the owner’s project manager take the scheduling requirement seriously and hold the contractors accountable. I hate to say it, but based on our experience so far, the only way to get the contractors’ attention may be to withhold payment pending adherence to their contract requirements. Similarly, specifying and enforcing special liquidated damages associated with successfully completing verification testing prior to substantial completion will also undoubtedly get some attention.

This is an ugly approach to problem solving and there may be more palatable solutions, but we have been surprised by how something as basic as project planning and scheduling is so poorly executed on many construction projects. The scheduling issue is larger than a commissioning-only problem; however, it dramatically influences the successful and smooth commissioning of a project.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, February, 2000

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
President
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318
rteesmag@QSEng.com