FM Frequency: Commissioning, Shmishioning….Who Needs It? We All Do!

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the August 2003 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Commissioning is a quality assurance process for buildings from predesign through design, construction, and operations. It involves achieving, verifying, and documenting the performance of each system to meet the building’s operational needs within the capabilities of the documented design and equipment capacities, according to the owner’s functional criteria. Commissioning includes preparing project operational and maintenance documentation and training operation and maintenance personnel. The result should be fully functional systems that can be properly operated and maintained throughout the life of the building.

My local ASHRAE chapter recently hosted a panel discussion on commissioning. The panel consisted of two architects, two mechanical engineers, and two mechanical contractors. The discussion turned into a pretty spirited debate, especially when one of the mechanical contractors objected to the group consensus and stated that if designers were doing their jobs properly and if contractors were doing installations properly, commissioning wouldn’t even be necessary!

To me, that sentiment seems like an enormous simplification of the design and construction process. Let’s be serious for a moment; even if architects and engineers never made mistakes, and even if contractors always followed plans and specs to the letter, that still wouldn’t guarantee a perfect project. Why not? Because facility managers are a fickle bunch!

In many years of working in and on facilities, I have never been involved in a construction or renovation project where there were zero design “issues.” I have never experienced complete adherence to plans and specs. Even the most rock solid facility manager will change something through the course of the project. And changes aren’t necessarily bad things!

With major, multi-million dollar projects requiring multi-year schedules from conception through completion, it’s probably reasonable that staff planning and space needs will evolve. And even with a small project, it’s usually a good thing when a contractor approaches the design team with a big grin and asks a question like, “Are you really sure you want me to do what you put on the plans?”

When cooperative relationships are in place and all parties share the same expectations around results, minor changes can be done with a conversation and an e-mail confirmation. It won’t take a five figure change order and a two week project delay.

But I digress. Let me get back to the feisty panel discussion/debate. Noticeably absent from the panel were the facilities managers-people like us who get to approve pay requests for (and then attempt to manage) components that the architects, engineers, and contractors design and install. When I think about it, it’s sort of appropriate that an owner’s representative wasn’t on the panel, because one of the primary reasons commissioning is so incredibly important is because owners’ interests are not always the primary consideration.

Think about the facilities you manage (or any other projects under construction) and then consider the following questions:

  • Did your design team get “outside the box” and take advantage of new or sustainable technologies that could have reduced life cycle costs and lessened your environmental footprint? Or did it prefer quick, familiar, and easy approaches?
  • Did your building’s architect give much thought to the amount of space needed in your mechanical and electrical rooms or accessibility to areas that require frequent or infrequent service?
  • Did your building’s design engineers consider or communicate options related to the cost or expertise required for maintaining the systems they specified? Are any of your systems too complicated for your maintenance staff?
  • Is your facility as flexible as it should be? Can you easily grow into additional space or can you sublease if staffing levels drop?
  • Did someone confirm that your systems performed as intended after you moved in and your building was fully loaded with equipment and people?
  • If you took occupancy in the summer, did someone return to confirm system performance in the winter? (Or vice versa?) Does your building now have different seasonal operating characteristics? Should it?
  • Was your most recent new construction or renovation project engineered by experienced professionals combining best practices with actual field knowledge? Or did junior engineers or designers use rules of thumb to “cut and paste” prior designs on your organization’s investment?

Buying in to the importance of commissioning can get facility managers, designers, and contractors sitting at the same table before, during, and after construction to confirm common understanding of space intentions, operational goals, technology use, and maintainability. As the facility manager, you can also get to know the people involved and develop a sense of confidence around individual participants’ ethics and commitments to the final product.

Depending on the nature of a project, the merits of bringing in a third party commissioning agent are debatable. Designers and contractors usually prefer to check and balance themselves. But a third party can provide you with the benefit of an unbiased perspective that might be less reluctant to question design or construction decisions, results, or mistakes.

Of course, this third opinion isn’t without cost. It’s true that third party consultants may feel compelled to dig deep for trivial problems to justify their fees. This should come down to a judgment call by an informed facility manager after considering the pros and cons of each option.

As facility professionals, we wear a lot of hats when providing safe, comfortable, productive workplaces for our organizations. Commissioning is another important and complex topic where we need to be able to speak the language not just to survive, but to thrive. Properly operating architectural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems pay huge dividends when occupant comfort and productivity are maximized and when energy consumption is minimized.

But commissioning doesn’t end when a project is over. As we make operational changes to our spaces and systems, we can drastically influence the overall facility performance. And since most of us are unable to monitor the performance of every individual system and its impact on the rest of the facility continuously, it’s probably a good idea to consider budgeting for “re-commissioning” in our preventive maintenance plans. It’s never too late to make sure “all systems are go!”

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.