Commissioning for Design-Build Project Delivery

by Nick Baker, P.E., CCP, GPCP, LEED AP BD+C and Jeff Yirak, P.E., CCP, GPCP, LEED AP BD+C

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

A few years ago, Nick Baker wrote an article outlining how different project delivery methods affect the commissioning provider’s relationships with the project owner, design team, and contractor. We looked at third-party commissioning, where the commissioning provider is contracted directly through the owner, as well as situations where they are contracted under the prime design firm or the design-build contractor.

We want to expand this topic and focus on how commissioning works within the design-build project delivery model. This delivery method has become even more common in the last few years; we’re seeing it used more and more for military, higher education, transportation, and other publicly-funded projects.

Ideally, commissioning services are provided in a true third-party fashion, with the commissioning provider contracted directly to the owner, separate from the design firms, the general contractor, and the subcontractors. When that isn’t the model, the commissioning provider must walk a tightrope between fulfilling their role as an owner advocate (making sure the owner’s project requirements are met) and working within the bounds of the contract methodology. Design-build delivery can create a real or perceived conflict of interest to the commissioning provider, and it also creates both unique strengths and challenges for the commissioning process that we’ll explore.


One of the major strengths we’ve encountered providing commissioning for design-build projects involves team communication. Communication is more natural, since everyone is on the same team. The general contractor shares draft schedules and other documents with their subconsultants and subcontractors more readily than I’ve experienced during construction of design-bid-build projects. This gives the commissioning team the ability to provide input and also gives the full team a better up-front understanding of the project because everyone gets the information at the same time.

The benefit of information sharing can also go the other way, with the commissioning team providing valuable up-front information for the designers and the contractors, especially for remodel/renovation projects. Functional testing and field verification experience makes commissioning providers excellent field data-gathering agents. They can also use the existing building commissioning process to help mitigate surprises. This is not your typical pre-design assessment—it can include site surveys, field investigations, and facility analyses to validate as-built conditions and design assumptions. At the least, the commissioning team can capture “as found” data about systems that are not part of the renovation scope of work.

We’ve seen this effort work well with control system upgrade projects, where new controls are installed on existing HVAC equipment. We recently used this strategy for an industrial control system upgrade project for the Navy, as well as with a district-wide direct digital controls upgrade for a local school district. The commissioning team conducted a survey exercise prior to controls installation and identified failed or failing equipment. This benefited the owner by giving them a clear picture of their facility’s existing conditions, and protected the contractor when that equipment didn’t work after the controls upgrade, since it had already been identified as failed.

A stronger design review process is another outcome of the great teamwork and communication in the design/build environment. In a typical design-bid-build project, the commissioning provider contributes reviews at set design milestones, and potentially during any value engineering/redesign effort that is needed to bring cost estimates within budget. With design-build, the commissioning provider and the general contractor are both more involved in the design process, enabling more frequent feedback from the commissioning provider and continuous cost monitoring from the contractor, both of which support maintaining the project budget.

An example of a successful design/build project commissioning design review was when Wood Harbinger provided commissioning for a new Boeing manufacturing facility. We reviewed the 60% design documents and discovered a major discrepancy regarding the controls systems—the owner’s project requirements specified a BACnet system to be compatible with their other sites, however, the controls vendor had proposed a LONworks system. Once discovered, this completely changed the course for the DDC system design, including requiring offshore parts and expertise to take over the development, as this manufacturer did not have a domestic BACnet product offering. The design-build team dynamic, with the commissioning team providing design review and the controls vendor already on board, resulted in this issue being caught early enough and resolved before anything had been purchased or installed.


One of the major challenges with design-build delivery commissioning relates to contractual relationships. The owner holds one contract with the prime contractor, and all subconsultants and subcontractors are procured and contracted under them.  It’s the same with being contracted under a prime design firm. Whenever the commissioning provider doesn’t have a direct relationship with the owner, there’s the potential for conflict of interest in passing information through the prime firm.

The classic conflict of interest example that we have experienced occurs when there’s an issue with something that was designed properly but installed incorrectly, and will incur a cost to the prime contractor to fix it. During construction, the commissioning provider discovers the issue but is told not to note it in the issues log if they want to get paid and/or continue the working relationship. By design, the commissioning provider’s role is to reveal issues and recommend solutions to those issues; pressure to not to log an issue creates a tense environment for the commissioning provider to fulfill their role. This conflict doesn’t exist when the commissioning provider is directly contracted through the owner.

Commissioning providers must have the strength and fortitude to ensure that the team does what is right for the owner, even if it creates tension with the contractor and/or the design team. The same goes if the commissioning team is part of the same firm providing some or all of the project design. This is something we encounter a lot, since Wood Harbinger is a multidiscipline MEP engineering firm as well as a commissioning firm. This again takes strength and fortitude to “fight” for the best interest of the owner.

Taking this stance isn’t always easy and requires a different set of skills than the rest of the commissioning role. It all comes down to communication and interpersonal skills. Roosevelt said it best: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” A soft, steady voice, a firm stance, direct eye contact, understanding all sides of a disagreement, and actively directing the conversation toward a compromise all help move difficult conversations to a reasonable conclusion. The Jedi have these skills down to a science.

There are contractual solutions to potential conflicts of interest. Agreements can be made so that even when the commissioning provider is contracted through the general contractor, they are given authority for direct communication with the owner’s team. We have had this arrangement for projects with the Navy at Naval Base Kitsap, as well as with Boeing, when we provided commissioning for one of their manufacturing facilities. For Boeing, the arrangement was made so to support meeting LEED’s third-party commissioning requirement. Having the unfiltered ear of the owner’s representative is a major benefit (for the commissioning provider as well as the owner) regardless of the project delivery method.

Working Toward the Same Goal

Ultimately, the full project team has the same goal: a completed project with systems designed and installed as intended to meet the owner’s and the end-users’ needs. Each member of the team provides a piece of the puzzle to achieve this goal. It’s not always perfectly clear how the pieces fit together while the project is in progress, but with good communication, respect, and cooperation, we can all see the big picture come together successfully.

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