In 2005, more than $21.6 billion worth of school construction was completed, and we already know of another $20 billion that will start in 2006. (You can read more about this in the School Planning & Management 2006 School Construction Report found after page 34.) The majority of money went towards the construction of new buildings. The trend to build new is due to the age and obsolescence of our current school buildings and to the implementation of the“two-thirds” or“60 percent” rule in many states. Everyone expects that these new buildings are operating at peak efficiency, but underneath too many of the polished exteriors are building systems that aren’t making the grade.

Opening a school is a daunting task for any district administrator. Before construction is complete and the paint is dry, the students are knocking on the door. Too often, in the dash to open the doors, inspections focus on items critical to obtaining occupancy permits and opening schools, not on what seem to be “less important” items like making sure that systems are performing optimally. Unfortunately, the system checks that were put on the back-burner usually stay on the back burner, resulting in systems that do not operate efficiently, assets being put at risk and the district not getting what it paid for. This is where building commissioning comes in.

While not yet (and I emphasize “yet”) mainstream, commissioning is a growing field. In the state of Washington, all school facilities must be commissioned. In Ohio, it is optional but provided at a low rate to schools districts. Some states have adopted the commissioning of certain systems (i.e. energy-related), and others are following closely behind. Simply defined, the basic purpose of commissioning is to provide documented confirmation that building systems function in compliance with the criteria set forth in the project documents. The commissioning process can include: an analysis of the design, installation and operation of all building components; functional testing and verification of performance according to specifications, design intent and owner’s operational needs; documentation and training for staff on proper operation and maintenance procedures; and ongoing monitoring of the systems.

To take full advantage of building commissioning in new construction, the commissioning agent should be a part of the design process. Potential system problems can be identified early in the process and remedied. This type of cross-checking will ultimately lead to fewer change orders, fewer call-backs and fewer construction litigation problems. The commissioning agent can also help the district develop the design intent document. With this document in hand, the set of expectations is clearly defined.

On project completion, the commissioning agent will ensure that systems are “tuned” to work more efficiently and staff is trained in proper maintenance and operation procedures. Complete documentation and O&M manuals that can be easily understood by staff will be provided, and a schedule of maintenance activities is developed. A trained staff, complete documentation and proper maintenance and operations practices will prolong the life of the equipment and save the district money and headaches. As the demand for “crisis maintenance” lessens, and the need to replace equipment prematurely decreases, planning and budgeting become an easier task.

The cost of commissioning is based on the level of service requested. There is no fixed approach, and it is up to the district planning team to decide the level of commissioning it needs. Many schools look at commissioning as an extra, unnecessary layer in an already expensive construction process but when measured against the savings to the annual utility bill, the lower costs for maintenance and operations, and improvements to the learning environment, the cost of commissioning is small.