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Commissioning: Substantial Completion and Knowledgeable Owners  

In my December 2012 column, I solicited reader feedback regarding substantial completion and the trend of owners accepting buildings as substantially complete when the mechanical and electrical systems are not complete, fully integrated, and functioning properly. This presents problems for the commissioning process, because awarding substantial completion status to a building project before the commissioned systems are functionally tested makes scheduling and enforcing those functional testing requirements especially challenging. It also puts the owner’s operations and maintenance staff at a disadvantage of being responsible for operating unfinished systems.

Last month I shared some of the potential reasons why owners are accepting incomplete buildings and systems as “substantially complete” when they have contractual rights to delay acceptance until the work is more fully finished. This month I begin sharing readers’ ideas regarding what can be done about it.

Owner Education

One common theme in reader responses pertained to limited owner knowledge and understanding of the construction process and of how mechanical and electrical systems work. One insight was, “Owners are not interested in details, they just want results.” While I know from experience that this is not true for all owners, it may apply to most owners for whom buildings are being designed and constructed. In this context, we are talking about the owner’s decision makers.

One building owner actually wrote, “While the owner, A/E firm and GC all play a role in delivering successful substantial completions on projects, I suggest that the owner plays the biggest role in determining the outcome.” The same owner went on to say, “It usually takes about two years for the HVAC system to be fully tweaked and operating as needed, which may not necessarily be as designed.” Finally, this building owner promoted functional testing prior to substantial completion as being desired but very difficult to achieve.

It sounds like owner education and awareness training may be very beneficial in helping owners help themselves. Owners are fully aware of the risks associated with missing a substantial completion deadline but typically do not have a well-defined understanding of the risks associated with premature substantial completion. If owners better understood the long term risks associated with taking beneficial occupancy of a building with incomplete systems, they might be better equipped to assertively push for system completion and testing prior to substantial completion.

This education can come in many forms and, perhaps, is best received on multiple fronts to have the most impact. The following are three ways in which owners could improve their level of understanding.

  1. Formal training sessions covering at least the following topics:

    • Mechanical/electrical systems fundamentals and the coordinated installation/startup processes which need to be accomplished in a particular order.

    •  Standard design and construction contracts, processes, roles, and responsibilities.

  2. Case studies, either articles or presentations, from other building owners regarding their experiences with new buildings accepted prior to systems completion. These may not be so easy to come by, however, because few owners are willing and/or allowed to publically air their dirty laundry. Off-the-record discussions between peers is probably the best source of this very effective “training.”

  3. Face-to-face sessions with operations and maintenance veterans regarding their past experiences receiving incomplete systems. These stories will anecdotally address costs in terms of time, money, and poor building reputation due to inadequate system performance.

A building owner’s staff most likely understands some or all of the above, but the actual owner/decision maker is the one that needs to know. The owner/decision makers may not feel like they have the time or need to learn anything new and they trust their hired advisors (architects, construction managers, owner’s representatives, etc.) to watch their backs. However, these advisors are all about delivering a building that stands up, has all of its finishes complete, is secure, and whose life safety systems pass the local code inspections on time and within budget. Often none of these advisors have building operations experience and do not personally know the pain the owner/decision maker will feel if systems are accepted too soon.

The owner/decision maker either needs to educate him/herself on the full building life cycle experience – from dream through operations – or add his/her operations manager to the list of trusted project advisors. The voice of operations must be heard and respected, even if it doesn’t cost the owner/decision maker consultant-level fees.

Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, February 2013

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