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Commissioning: When Substantial Completion is Insubstantial  

In the past, and probably in this column years ago, I was a passionate proponent of making functional performance test execution a prerequisite for Substantial Completion. This seemed to be an obvious way of integrating the new commissioning processes into the standard project delivery model. Although successful completion of functional performance testing could be reserved as a Final Completion requirement, it seemed appropriate that all dynamic system testing should at least be attempted in order for any outstanding performance issues to be included in the project’s official Substantial Completion Punchlist.

The pre-Substantial Completion schedule also seemed to be a meaningful milestone for getting people’s attention. Everyone on a project is focused towards the all-important Substantial Completion date, because so much – sometimes even liquidated damages – rides on the contractors meeting that date. Tying functional performance testing to that milestone was one way of motivating contractors to take functional test scheduling seriously and not wish it away.

I have recently been asked to revisit this position based on real-life project situations. Over the past few years we have run into multiple projects where Substantial Completion is really Just-Barely-Completed. Owners, for whatever reasons, are accepting projects as Substantially Complete long before all of the contractors’ work is even pretended to be done. It almost seems as if, in some cases, the definition of Substantial Completion has turned into “the minimum required to obtain a temporary certificate of occupancy.” The Substantial Completion Punchlist in these cases is truly “substantial” with a long list of things still needing to be completed, not a handful of things that need to be redone or touched up.

One of the commonly left-to-be-completed items are architectural finishes such as drywall sanding and painting, wood staining and varnishing, tiling, carpet laying, etc. The idea of performing air handling system functional performance testing with that work still going on in the building gives us pause. Deliberately circulating dust-, fiber- and fume-laden air through the new ductwork, filters, coils, fans, and other devices is not good practice.

Even before functional performance testing of the air handling systems, those systems need to be balanced. The system fans should not be started for air balancing with dirty air any more than they should be started for commissioning testing.

So, where does that put us in our quest to test and validate air handling system performance for the building owner? Does this need to be another reason to defer functional performance testing, along with seasonal, project phasing, and core-and-shell/tenant fit-out issues?

Air handling system testing - whether it is a central variable air volume system or multiple individual heat pumps, fan-coil units, cabinet unit heaters, etc.  – is a significant part of a project’s HVAC system functional performance testing. These systems could consume well over 70% of the entire functional performance testing time. Even natural convection systems such as finned tube radiation might be deferred until the airflow is reasonably clean in order to avoid coating the finned tube elements with a layer of dust that could limit heat transfer efficiency and effectiveness.

If this testing and its test and balance prerequisites are deferred until post-Substantial Completion and, further, after completion of the “dirty” architectural finishes, successful completion of the balancing and testing would still need to be a requirement for Final Completion. The commissioning concept of deferred testing evolved as a mechanism for dealing with situations over which the project team had no reasonable control, i.e., weather, phased construction schedule, etc. It was not intended to be a mechanism for putting off 70% of the acceptance testing until after most of the contractors are off the project and working on their next assignments. That is a recipe for frustration on all sides.

What is the solution? It could be a new approach to functional testing being performed post-Substantial Completion and pre-Final Completion. This would need to include all kinds of contract language about availability of contractor personnel, timeliness of problem resolution, withholding of significant amounts of money to encourage compliance, liquidated damages associated with not successfully completing functional testing before the Final Completion date, etc. Maybe if I was a lawyer I would advocate for this approach.

Instead, I think we need to go back to the root causes of why owners are accepting their new buildings as substantially complete when the buildings are not. I am interested in reader feedback on why this might be, and if you agree that it is happening more often now than five, ten, or fifteen years ago.

In summary, I have not (yet) changed my mind about functional performance testing belonging in the list of Substantial Completion prerequisites. The question is what do project teams need to do in order to make that possible?

Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, December 2012

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