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Commissioning: Who Does That?  

In today’s process, the old boundaries don’t apply, yet coordination is as critical as ever.

One of the keys to the success of any complex endeavor involving multiple people is to clearly define roles and responsibilities for each individual and to make sure that each aspect of the endeavor has an individual assigned to it. This is a logical process for making sure that there is no duplication of effort and that there are no holes in the process.

In the design and construction industry, roles and responsibilities are typically more casually assumed, often based on historical precedents and almost always divided along the lines of the standard CSI specification sections. Past precedents are no longer good enough because today’s buildings are not like those built in the past, and blind reliance on CSI specification sections denies the inherent integrated nature of buildings and building systems.

Assigning Roles for Maximum Success

The vast majority of the “problems” that buildings have today are not due to poor quality individual components or components that do not meet their specified requirements. The biggest challenges faced by just about every building constructed in the past 10 to 20 years have been in how these individual components fit together and who is responsible for those interfaces. This applies to mechanical, electrical, life safety, and general construction systems alike.

A fully functional building is more than the sum of its parts. It is all of the parts installed properly in relationship to each other, communicating with each other as required, and documented as systems instead of just components. How do we assign roles and responsibilities for these interfaces?

When thinking about this question, my first answer was, “include detailed roles and responsibilities charts in the contract drawings or specifications.” Then I remembered that designers in the traditional D-B-B industry are not allowed to define who will do what. I think this is perceived as taking on responsibility (and liability) beyond the design engineers’ skill set. Doing so would also constrain the general contractor’s ability to obtain the best price for the owner by limiting which of the various subcontractors could be assigned which parts of the work.

Contractually, it is almost always the sole responsibility of the general contractor to deliver the specified building, using whatever means and methods and subcontractor assignments the general contractor believes will provide the best value. My experience is that many general contractors are not equipped to take on this sole responsibility, and they rely heavily on their subcontractors to do their jobs with the expectation that if each subcontractor does his part, then the building will be whole and functional. That is simply not true with today’s buildings, and the end-of-construction woes experienced by many project teams (owners, designers, and contractors alike) are manifestations of this fact.

Defining and Documenting

I think one significant step that could be taken by general contractors to avoid many end-of-construction challenges would be to spend more time defining and documenting the roles of all parties responsible for the successful completion and operation of the integrated building. This would involve understanding how the integrated systems are intended to function and defining the subcontractors’ “jobs” in terms of the interfaces between them.

For example, who is responsible for providing duct-mounted smoke detectors? Who is responsible for installing them? Who is responsible for wiring them to the fire alarm panel? Who is responsible for wiring them to the fan starters, etc.? This is just one potential interface between the HVAC system and the fire alarm system. There are many more systems with multiple potential interfaces and, therefore, an elevated potential for problems. These include security and lighting control, lighting control and HVAC, building envelope and HVAC, window openings and windows, etc. These days, the possibilities seem endless.

Commissioning prefunctional checklists may be a tool that the general contractors can use to help with this process. The commissioning professional will have already thought through key interfaces required for the systems to be functional and documented them in the checklists. Although I do not believe the prefunctional checklists should be the sole source of information regarding the integrated building systems, they could help the general contractor start thinking in terms of systems instead of components.

The commissioning professional can also be an ally to a general contractor who wants to clearly document roles and responsibilities for the subcontractors. The commissioning professional can help identify (even beyond the prefunctional checklists) what the various system interface tasks are so that the general contractor can both understand the importance of each task and assign the appropriate responsible party. The earlier this occurs in a project, the better, and next month’s column will address how such a roles and responsibilities chart can help expedite the end-of-construction commissioning process.

 

Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, August, 2008

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