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Aren't We Paying For This Already?

When approaching most facility owners for the first time about commissioning, invariably one of the first questions they have is, “Aren’t we paying for this already?” Technically, they believe they are, but in reality there is a significant break down in communication among the members of a project team.

If commissioning can be defined in a nutshell as making sure building systems work, there really isn’t anyone on the traditional project team assigned with that responsibility. There seems to be an underlying belief that if the designers put the design on paper and the contractors build it, that everything will work. The traditional punchlist process, which designers are still typically expected to do at the end of the project, is a process can “catch” construction-related problems which can be observed during a walkthrough of the new or renovated building. These issues tend to be hardware installation items, e.g., missing insulation, incorrectly placed thermostats, pumps piped backwards, etc. Unless the systems being observed are of the simplest type, e.g., light switches, fan on/off switches, most designers do not get into the actual operation of the installed systems.

15-20 years ago most building systems were of the “simple” variety and verifying their proper operation was easily done during a punchlist walkthrough. For example, the designer could flip a fan switch on or off and physically observe the proper response. The designer could raise a thermostat setpoint and observe that the furnace started and hot air was delivered to the occupied space. Over the past 15 years, the introduction of direct digital controls (DDC) have complicated (and greatly enhanced) HVAC system operation and efficiency. Similarly, addressable, computer-based fire alarm systems have led to much improved, though much more complex, life safety systems.

Unfortunately, the normal project delivery method has not been updated to reflect the introduction of these “smart” building systems. No one has contractually been assigned the specific responsibility of making sure that all computerized building systems operate properly and operate interactively as intended. The designers are still getting the same “percentage of construction cost” fees they were getting 15-20 years ago (or lower) and claiming that this does not cover any efforts to delve deeply into the “black box” computers set up to control HVAC, fire alarm, lighting, and/or other building systems. Their percentages may be enough to cover the traditional punchlist walkthrough during which the designers will confirm that the computers are installed in the proper location. However, to go any further than that into exactly what those computers are doing is an effort which was never before required and, to date, not figured into budget for typical projects.

Clearly, one can understand owners’ assertions that they should be getting buildings that work when they pay for new or renovated projects. Anyone paying substantial amounts of money will expect close to perfection for the services rendered. Unless commissioning is mentioned up front with the owners in the early planning and budgeting stages, the owner’s consultants (designers, construction managers, etc.) will not admit to any potential “holes” or missing services in the normal process. No one expects or wants to predict poor performance in a new building.

The reality, however, over the past 10-15 years is that large facility owners are receiving non-functional building after non-functional building. They understand that the traditional project delivery method does NOT work with today’s buildings and have moved beyond the, “Aren’t I already paying for this?” question to proactively identifying the commissioning process as a key part of the solution to their problems. They realize that they can “pay for it” up front with commissioning or “pay for it” for the first 1-2 years of occupancy while building operators try to “straighten things out and make them work the best they can.” It is also possible with poor communication of design intent and energy conservation goals that the owner will “pay for it” for throughout the life of the building if energy conservation measures are not properly commissioned.

In summary, along with the advent of sophisticated computer-based building control systems has come the need for sophisticated checkout and commissioning of those systems – over and above the traditional punchlist process. Unless owners are paying for commissioning, they should not expect to receive such services from their design and construction team in the traditional project delivery mode of operation.


Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, April, 1999

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