Why Commission?

Commissioning can make me a very unpopular person. My job entails going around and checking other people’s work for flaws and errors, but these errors can’t be fixed by simply using an eraser. No, these errors normally require much more time and effort to fix, not to mention more money. So, before your university’s new science building is complete and ready to be occupied, I have the pleasure of inspecting and testing every major component of the HVAC, hot water, and various other systems to find mistakes. While my job might spawn more work for others, it will benefit your building’s operations and, more importantly, the bottom line of running and maintaining your building.

With building owners seeking to reduce energy use in every square inch of a facility, commissioning is more important than ever. Commissioning can improve a building’s operations and is a requirement in the LEED Green Building certification process. Commissioning is an investment which can give university personnel peace of mind, knowing that the ventilation system is delivering the necessary air quality for occupants’ health and well being or that the HVAC system isn’t attempting to simultaneously heat and cool the same space.

The following list represents the top 10 things any college planner should know about commissioning before you build.

What is commissioning? Commissioning is a quality-based process of achieving, verifying, and documenting the performance of a building and its various systems so they meet the designer’s intent as well as the owner’s operational needs. In short, commissioning is putting systems to the test of real performance to uncover operational issues before occupancy. 

Commissioning of new construction (the focus here) involves reviewing design documents against an owner’s requirements, reviewing contractor submittal items against the engineer’s basis of design, verifying that equipment is installed correctly, and demonstrating that it performs as intended. It may also include ensuring that the operational staff receives the training and information necessary to operate the facility upon turnover.

Commissioning adds value. Nothing frustrates someone (especially dads out there) more than attempting to assemble their child’s brand new playhouse, only to discover that the screws don’t fit the holes. This same sentiment applies to a new building. Owners expect (and have every right to) that their facility will operate and function in the way it was designed. By assuring that the systems will work properly and efficiently, commissioning contributes to savings of operations, maintenance, and energy costs. When equipment is installed properly and operates correctly, it lasts longer, works more consistently, and requires fewer repairs and replacement parts. In addition, equipment that functions as intended results in energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

Different systems, same goals. The number and type of systems that are commissioned varies by project. If a project is seeking LEED certification, then HVAC and refrigeration systems and their associated controls, lighting and daylighting controls, domestic hot water systems, and renewable energy systems (e.g. wind, solar) must be included. In some cases, commissioning also includes the emergency power, building envelope, security/access, and specialty systems like high purity water in a research lab.

Commissioning should start early in the project.
Commissioning is most successful when it is integrated with the project’s design. This ensures that all parties involved have factored in the time and resources associated with the process. It also gives the commissioning consultant (known as the Commissioning Authority, or CxA for short) a chance to review the project documents and identify any issues before construction starts. The cost of making a change at this stage is significantly less than the cost of tearing out or changing a system component once installed. Commissioning also fills gaps in project coordination and communication between design, construction, installation, and operational team members. This increased level of communication helps a project run smoothly.

Commissioning requires a collaborative effort. Commissioning is a collaborative practice. Early in the design process a commissioning team is identified, which may include representatives of the owner, the design firm, the contractor, and various sub-contractors and the operators, in addition to the CxA. All of these parties take part in commissioning activities. The communication necessary to make this happen improves project coordination.

You may be wondering: How do all these parties work together? Doesn’t your job involve finding mistakes? Actually, in speaking with contractors, they see the value in commissioning. Early discovery and resolution of problems, while they are still fully engaged in the project, reduces their corrective costs when compared to similar issues found post-occupancy.

Commissioning isn’t a fix-all.
Commissioning cannot fix poor project delivery. Excellence in design and the selection of qualified contractors are fundamental components of a successful building project. However, commissioning does identify issues and correct deficiencies. Issues include poorly defined or incorrectly implemented building control sequences, poor system response time, and improperly installed equipment.

Quality air = quality work. Proper ventilation is critical in university research facilities. When air quality is high, so is comfort and productivity. Commissioning ensures HVAC systems operate properly to improve the quality of the air and improve the health and well being of those inside the building. 

Commissioning provides peace of mind. Whenever a new building is complete there are concerns over whether everything will work, especially for a university building that might be opening for students after a summer of construction or renovation. For example, at Indiana University’s Briscoe Quad Residence Hall, the construction team was under a tight timeline to complete the first phase of the project before the arrival of students in the fall. My firm provided commissioning services to ensure the chilled water system, air distribution system, and domestic hot water and lighting control systems were all working. The testing and verifying of these systems alleviated any worries that University officials had about the building, and students were able to move in on time.

Commissioning impacts the bottom line. When equipment is installed properly it lasts longer, works more consistently, and requires fewer repairs over the life of the building. Not to mention that equipment that functions as intended results in energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

Having said that, some building owners see commissioning as paying for something twice. A common question I hear from owners is, “Isn’t it the contractor’s responsibility to verify the system is installed right and operates as intended?” Yes, it is. However, reduced project budgets and shortened timelines are a reality of today’s construction projects. Often this results in an incomplete or an insufficient checkout of critical system components. Although engineers perform site visits to review completed work, typically design agreements do not allow for quality control beyond field observations. Commissioning fills this gap by demonstrating the performance of systems prior to turnover. In the long run, verifying system performance will save your facility money.

Efficiency is more than just energy savings. A thorough commissioning approach includes using a comprehensive, functional testing program of systems and building controls to identify and correct issues before the building is occupied. This ensures that staff can concentrate on their workday rather than on-the-job training. This also reduces the occurrence of post-occupancy issues and contractor callbacks.

The efficiency of a building isn’t just measured in its energy use; it also needs efficiency from its people. Commissioning ensures that the operational staff receives the training and information necessary to operate the facility upon turnover. Efficient operations from move-in day onward are very important for the smooth transition into a new building. 

Scott Weaver P.E., LEED-AP BD+C, 
is director of Commissioning at BSA LifeStructures, Inc.. He can be contacted at [email protected].