By Timothy A. Warren, PE, LEED AP BD+C

When Owners look at project design fees, they often compare the design fee to the overall cost of construction.  While this comparison may be useful for some general benchmarking, the reality is that the overall operations and maintenance cost for a building dwarfs both the cost to design and build it.  Industry metrics show that design accounts for only 2% of the cost of a building, while construction accounts for 34% and operations and maintenance represent the remaining 64% of a building’s cost.

For decades, engineering firms have been trying to focus the Owner’s attention on life cycle costs instead of first costs (the cost of designing and constructing a building).  “Value Engineering” can be a useful practice, yet it often results in small reductions in first costs and substantial increases in expenses over a building’s life cycle.

One of the areas most often neglected is Commissioning.  ASHRAE defines commissioning as “a quality-oriented process for achieving, verifying, and documenting that the performance of facilities, systems, and assemblies meets defined objectives and criteria.”  When Commissioning is utilized, it is typically the energy-consuming systems that are Commissioned, and the process is viewed merely as a post-construction activity to ensure that systems are performing as designed.  However, true Commissioning is a more holistic approach that spans the entire design and construction process, connecting the Owner Project Requirements developed during the initial stages of a project to the final stages of start-up and occupancy.

The Whole Building Design Guide outlines the goals for a collaborative Commissioning process:

  1. Define and document requirements clearly at the outset of each phase and update throughout the process
  2. Verify and document compliance at each completion level
  3. Establish and document commissioning process tasks for subsequent phase delivery team members
  4. Deliver buildings and construction projects that meet the owner’s needs, at the time of completion
  5. Verify that operation and maintenance personnel and occupants are properly trained
  6. Maintain facility performance across its life cycle

The Commissioning process typically entails the following activities:

  • Design reviews
  • Specification reviews
  • Submittal reviews
  • Site inspections
  • Pre-functional testing
  • Functional testing
  • Maintenance plans and operator training
  • Ongoing operation / performance validation

While it is easy for Professional Engineers to make a case for having their project Commissioned, it is the Owners that must ultimately decide if they perceive that the process has value to them.  It may be possible that Design Professionals have failed, in part, to adequately educate building Owners on the commissioning process and its value.  Not all building Owners have extensive knowledge or experience with the construction process; therefore, it is reasonable for them to surmise “Am I not supposed to be getting that as part of my construction project?”  or “Am I not supposed to get a building that performs in the manner in which it was intended?”  Well, yes, you are, but in today’s competitive construction environment, the general checkout and startup phase of a project has proved insufficient.  This is a result of many factors that range from complex systems and controls to fast track construction schedules.  A formal and extensive quality control program of commissioning is typically a value-added service.  So instead of focusing on the process, we would like to demonstrate the value of Commissioning, which is best made by showcasing projects that were not Commissioned – and what happens when good projects go bad:

The first case study is a biomedical manufacturing company that constructed a new facility.  After it had been operational for six months, JDB Engineering was retained to help determine why the new building was not meeting the Owner’s requirements.  Because of the medical nature of the product being produced, a highly controlled clean room environment was required.  However, the spaces suffered from a triple whammy of temperature, humidity, and pressure control issues.  The building operators were confused as to how the systems should be operated and several control sequences were proving problematic.  So why should the Owner care?  In this case, the company contended with six months of production delays that impacted their profitability.  JDB Engineering ended up essentially going through the Commissioning process a half-year after occupancy.  We found several problems, including incorrect control settings that were made worse by the lack of operator training.  Furthermore, shortcomings with the original design and installation were uncovered during the process.

The second case study is a medical office and outpatient surgical center.  Though the Owners should have been enjoying a new building that would help to expand their growing business, their new facility couldn’t meet temperature requirements.  The original design called for two hot water boilers – one for daily operation, and the second to provide system redundancy.  Both were operating, and together they still could not meet the load.  To the Owner, this meant that their operating rooms sat empty because surgeries were regularly cancelled.  Adding to the lost revenues was the hit that the Owner was taking in the reputation department.  When JDB Engineering was called, we were asked to review the building heating loads and design a third boiler to meet the high demand; however, this was no minor expense or quick fix.  Because the mechanical room was at space capacity, a building addition would be required.  After calculating the building loads, we were not surprised to find that indeed, one boiler should be capable of handling the load.  So instead of initiating the design of the third boiler, we decided to take a step back and analyze the control system to determine the root of the problem– something that should have taken place during the Commissioning process, which unfortunately did not occur when the building was constructed.  In less than two hours, we were able to confirm that there was actually plenty of capacity with the existing boilers – incorrect airflow settings within the control system were found.  A quick and simple change of settings was all it took for the building to be instantly under control.

Our final case study is for a biomedical research facility involved with vaccine production.  A newly-built research environment required an extremely low setpoint of 5% relative humidity.  However, the system was unable to achieve any level below 30% relative humidity.  This meant that critical research space was unusable for a period in excess of nine months.  This is the point when JDB Engineering was brought in to find the problem.  In analyzing the design, we agreed that the system should be performing as required.  But once we got into the systems onsite, we found that a rooftop unit with factory-installed and programmed controls was not operating properly.  While the Owner, engineer, and contractor all held a realistic expectation that the packaged system could be set upon the roof, connected, and ready to go, the reality is that the unit was not.  We found the small control box on the side of the unit, and as soon as we opened it, the culprit was revealed:  the factory-wired control system was not connected – wires were dangling.  It took an electrician less than an hour to land the wires on the terminals and shortly thereafter the system began performing as anticipated.  Again, had the project been Commissioned, this problem would have been identified and the Owner would not have had to endure almost a year’s worth of downtime caused by the unusable space.

These are but three examples that clearly demonstrate how saving a few dollars on the front end of a project – skipping Commissioning – caused worst-case scenarios for the Owners.  Unusable space, production downtime, lost profits, and negative public relations all resulted from removing this critical step from the process.

The reality, however, is that most Owners simply don’t realize to what extent the lack of Commissioning is impacting them.  Their equipment and systems may be operating with no perceived problems; however, they also may be operating ineffectively, leading to system inefficiency and higher energy costs.  Often, the real value of Commissioning is that it identifies and negates these hidden costs that add up to huge operations and maintenance expenses over the life of a building.

Questions about the Commissioning process?  Issues with your system performance?  Contact Timothy A. Warren, PE, LEED AP BD+C at [email protected] or 717-434-1566.


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