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Keeping the Fire Alive

In the October, 1999 Getting it Right column we looked at the importance of documenting and quantifying the benefits of commissioning for “selling” the concept either as a consultant providing Cx services or as a building operator trying to convince “decision makers” to implement a Cx program. We are now discovering that there are some projects where the “selling” of commissioning needs to be on-going throughout the duration of the design and construction.

On particularly large projects with long (multi-year) schedules, the probability of personnel turnover on the owner’s management team is high. Therefore, the possibility of having strong proponents of commissioning leave the project mid-way can lead to a dilution of the owner’s commitment to the commissioning process. Without strong, consistent support for commissioning from the owner, the rest of the project team may start cutting corners, missing deadlines, and more or less ignoring the requirements of their contract with respect to commissioning.

The commissioning consultants can only identify areas in which the contractors are not adhering to the specifications; they can not force the contractors to do anything, because it is the owner who “holds the purse strings.” If the owner is willing to accept the project without complete adherence to the commissioning requirements and pays off the contractors, there is nothing the commissioning consultant can do to motivate the contractors otherwise.

In order to keep commissioning on-track with a project whose owner’s management team is changing periodically, it is absolutely critical for the remaining commissioning proponents to be in a constant educational mode as they bring new team members up to speed on the commissioning process, why all steps are important, the benefits of commissioning in general, the particular benefits accrued so far to the job in question, and the reason why fully executing the commissioning plan is good for the project. Without this constant input, the owner’s representatives may see commissioning as an easy place to cut costs and, perhaps, save a project which is threatening to go over budget due to change orders.

As an example, we’re currently in the midst of a large commissioning project that we were awarded over three years ago. During the commissioning consultant selection process, the owner had a team dedicated to defining commissioning for the project and selecting the consultant to implement their plan. The team that conducted the interviews consisted of approximately five people who were enthusiastic believers in commissioning and who were in positions of authority on the project team. Not one of those interviewers is currently employed by the owner, much less involved in the project being commissioned.

As the project has been handed off from one person to the next, an understanding of and enthusiasm for commissioning has had to be kindled in each new owner’s representative. The departing representatives have provided what support they can when passing the torch, but that’s a one time endorsement. Once the new person gets on the job, s/he is bombarded with everyone’s opinions, including contractors who consider commissioning to be painful burden and accountants who see the cash flowing out of the project without realizing the financial benefits of commissioning.

We have learned, as the last of the original proponents have departed into the sunset, that it’s now up to us, the commissioning consultants to “sell” commissioning to the incoming owner’s project manager. We’re well prepared and happy to do this, but there is a perceived conflict of interest on our part: of course we want commissioning to continue as originally planned; we’ll make money doing so. Therefore, having the commissioning consultants as the sole proponents of the process is not necessarily enough.

What I believe needs to be done in anticipation of this scenario on long-term projects is the on-going documentation of ‘benefits’ realized due to the commissioning process, starting at the beginning of the project. I presented ideas on how to identify and quantify those benefits in the October, 1999 column. In that column I suggested that this tracking of benefits would probably be outside of the contracted scope of work for a particular project – used primarily as ‘marketing’ data for future work. However, given the propensity for owner staff turnover on large projects, we can make a point that such tracking of benefits should be part of the commissioning consultant’s contracted scope of services.

We assume that during contract and scope negotiations the owner’s representatives are extremely enthusiastic about commissioning and they want to see that it survives through to its successful completion. We can present the case that in order to help ensure that commissioning’s longevity matches project longevity, even if the initial proponents move on, that the continuous tracking and reporting of benefits is a critical part of the process. Therefore, it needs to be part of the consultant’s compensated scope of services. I can just about guarantee that the cost of the consultant’s time documenting the benefits will be infinitesimal compared with the financial results of the benefits analysis, i.e., the financial savings directly resulting from commissioning activities will far outweigh the cost of identifying and reporting them.

This doesn’t change the fact that the commissioning consultant will probably end up being the party responsible for educating incoming owner project managers as to why commissioning is a part of the project and why it should continue to be so. It simply gives the consultant an objective reporting tool to help in that training so that it feels less like a conflict of interest.



Engineered Systems, March, 2000

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318