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Building Success

What is the definition of a great building? One of the keys to success for a great building project is achieving the intended performance (design intent) of the building systems at the end of the project. However, owners don’t usually undertake the effort and expense of a capital project in order to simply say that the project was great. Owners want buildings that stay great and meet the needs of the people and programs for which the buildings were designed and constructed.

That means that one definition of a great building is a facility whose systems continue to perform as intended for as long as the owner needs them to perform. Two of the cornerstones of commissioning, documentation and training, are focused on this goal. Systems will not have a prayer of functioning as intended if the people responsible for maintaining and operating them are not provided with the tools and knowledge necessary to do so.

A less tangible, but equally important, aspect of long term building success is operator belief in and sense of ownership and responsibility for the systems. Some of this desired attitude can be fostered and encouraged through the participation of the future operators in the design and construction process. That, however, may only be good for one “generation” of facilities personnel. Staff changes will dilute the impact of the original commissioning process on the knowledge and personal commitment to the systems.

A sustained sense of ownership and responsibility comes from an organization-wide culture of quality, service, and appreciation for what each member of the organization contributes to achieving the organization’s mission. Properly functioning facilities promote employee productivity, consistent research results, patient healing, high quality products, well-preserved cultural and historic collections, etc. As such, the role of the facility operations staff needs to be respected and appreciated. If the people responsible for maintaining proper systems performance are empowered and appreciated, they are much more likely to take personal responsibility and pride in the systems.

One of the interesting mind-sets of some building owners is their apparent belief that new building systems, and especially systems that are controlled by computers, should run themselves. There’s a sense that when an owner spends “so much” money on sophisticated building systems, the reward is lower operation and maintenance effort and cost. The concept that a computer is “in control” leads these owners to think that human intervention is not required.

This is simply not the case. Although some of the complexity of today’s building systems is intended to result in lower energy consumption, human intervention is still important in order to sustain reduced energy consumption over time. In addition, maintenance (preventive, predictive, and repair) efforts probably increase with system complexity, as there are more components which need to be maintained and which have the potential of failing. What’s different, however, is the type of human intervention required and the diagnostic tools available with computer-based control systems.

My definition of a great building is not a perfectly performing building that never has problems (well, that would be “great” but not something we’ll see in this life). Instead, a great building is one whose problems are easily diagnosed and resolved and, ideally, predictable and resolvable before they negatively impact the mission of the facility. This is where the power of computer-based controls and monitoring comes in.

Before the days of direct digital controls (DDC) for HVAC systems, for example, it was excruciatingly hard to know when you had a problem (typically through a call from an unhappy building user) and then very time consuming to diagnose the root cause of the problem so that it could be corrected. With local pneumatic or electric controls, technicians need to be touring all of the controllers on a regular basis to confirm calibration and proper operation in order to reduce the potential for trouble calls. However, due to the expense (always overhead) of this type of proactive maintenance, operations and maintenance of these types of systems has evolved into reacting to problems after they have become bad enough for someone else to notice.

The beauty of DDC systems is the ability to redirect maintenance efforts into proactively monitoring and evaluating system performance for problems that could result in occupant complaints, increased energy costs, or equipment damage if not corrected quickly enough. Of course, exploiting the potential of DDC systems requires a new set of skills from the operations technicians. However, that skill set is not necessarily more technically demanding than what was required before, just different.

Training and attitude is the key to success in shifting the paradigm from reactive to proactive operation and maintenance. No amount of training will help the maintenance department that doesn’t believe in the new approach. The required cultural change needs to be embraced and supported at the highest levels of the organization. Corporate leadership needs to have an appreciation for the enhanced level of performance achieved not only from the new system hardware and software but also from the human beings tasked with making the most of it.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, March, 2006

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