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Commissioning & Design Build Projects

Up until now, commissioning has been defined, applied, and evaluated, for the most part, for very traditional design/bid/build construction projects. These are projects where there is a clear differentiation between the designers (architects and engineers) and the builders (contractors) and between the design phase and the construction phase.

Over the past several years, for various reasons, the design/build project delivery method has become more popular and, in fact, actually in vogue. Facility owners who wouldn’t consider such an approach ten years ago (including the federal government) are now open to trying a design/build approach. Does the commissioning process have a place in a design/build project? If so, how?

I believe commissioning is at least as important, and probably more so, to design/build as to the traditional project delivery process. This is primarily due to the concern that owners have about design/build, “Do we really want the fox watching the hen house?” No, of course not, but with commissioning we have a process which introduces a third party professional to do the “watching.”

Clearly, one of the key differences between traditional and design/build projects is that the designer and the builder are the same entity (contractually) with design/build. However, there is little difference in the fact that design must precede construction. Therefore, the commissioning process is fundamentally the same for both approaches, i.e., there are design phase activities, construction phase activities, and warranty phase activities.

Another key to design/build, but not unique to design/build, is the fact that design/build projects are often also “fast track” projects. This means that the design of certain parts of the project are completed and construction begun prior to completion of the design on other parts of the project. For example, footings and foundations are often designed and under construction prior to the building envelope design being completed and long before design of interior systems such as HVAC, electrical, elevators, etc., are very far along.

Again, the fundamental aspects of commissioning do not change with a fast track/multiple bid package project. The difference is that the commissioning consultants need to be intimately familiar with and contributing to all bid package reviews and specifications, making sure that required construction phase commissioning activities and expectations are clearly defined for each package. In addition, of course, the commissioning consultant will be involved in design phase activities for some bid packages while participating in construction phase activities on other packages. This requires a high level of coordination and staffing flexibility from the commissioning team. It may also mean that commissioning fees will be somewhat higher for design/build projects than for traditional projects.

Another perceived (and often real) aspect of many design/build projects is the absence of well documented design and/or as built drawings. This is not always the case, but owners need to be educated on the importance of requiring accurate and comprehensive as built documentation from their design/build contractors. The commissioning process can include spot checking of the development and submission of this documentation which is so critical to the life of the building after the design/build contractors are gone.

The ideal role for commissioning in a design/build project is for the commissioning consultant (or the owner’s commissioning representative, if commissioning is performed in house) to be involved at the earliest stages of project development and before the design/build contract is finalized. The commissioning consultant can prepare or help the owner prepare the project Design Intent Document for inclusion in the contractor procurement package. By defining the quantitative objectives of the project, the design/builder and owner can have a clear understanding of what the contractor is required to provide.

The commissioning process can then be used to verify throughout the entire project that the contractors are holding up their end of the bargain. The danger in ill-defined design/build projects is arriving at the end of construction only to discover that the owner’s needs have not been met. This is usually the “fault” of the entire team; the owner for not clearly articulating what was required and the design/builder for not asking the right questions and making assumptions that worked to the contractor’s advantage. This is a bad situation for everyone that can be avoided with a well-planned commissioning process from the beginning.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, September, 2000

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