Commissioning Relationships Across the Project Delivery Landscape

As the Owner’s advocate, the Commissioning Authority’s primary objective on any project is to ensure that the Owner’s project requirements are achieved and that they receive building systems that work, as intended, at project completion and for the long term. They do this by employing a standard process of observation, verification, testing, and documentation to ensure the correct and optimal operation of mechanical and electrical systems.

When commissioning a project, the Commissioning Authority becomes an important resource to the Owner and an integral member of the project team during design and construction. The Commissioning Authority’s relationships with the Owner and project team are extremely important to project success, but contractual nuances can jeopardize the perceived objectivity and independence of the Commissioning Authority.

The Effect of Different Project Delivery Models

Project delivery models have expanded in variety, where the differentiating factors between are the contractual relationships between parties—the agreements regarding what each entity is responsible for providing to the other. These contractual relationships can affect the team dynamic, including the Commissioning Authority’s ability to objectively fulfill their role. The Commissioning Authority’s input may not always be taken kindly if it questions design intent and functionality, or if it requires additional expenditure from the contractor. An ability to recognize and deftly address the subtleties in the team dynamic and flexibly progress towards a resolved outcome is crucial.

Third-Party Commissioning within Design/Bid/Build, IPD, or GC/CM Project Delivery

In the traditional Design/Bid/Build project delivery model, Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), and the General Contractor/Construction Manager model, the Owner typically holds three direct contracts: one with a Prime Design firm (typically an architectural firm), one with a General Contractor, and one with the Commissioning Authority. In the General Contractor/Construction Manager model, the Owner’s second contract is with a Construction Manager, an entity that serves essentially as an intermediary between the Owner and the Contractor. These entities have a Tier 1 relationship with the Owner; the Prime Design firm and the General Contractor will have various Tier 2 relationships with subconsultants and subcontractors.

In the traditional Design/Bid/Build project delivery model, the General Contractor is procured after design is complete; the team relationship between the Prime Design firm, General Contractor, and Commissioning Authority begins late in the project. The Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) model works similarly to the traditional model, except that the Owner’s contractual relationship with the General Contractor begins in the early stages of design, so the team relationships kick off earlier, too.

Traditional Design/Bid/Build and IDP Delivery Model Relationship Chart

Traditional Design/Bid/Build Delivery and IPD Model Relationship Chart

GC/CM Delivery Model Relationship Chart

GC/CM Delivery Model Relationship Chart

When the Commissioning Authority’s contractual relationship is directly with the Owner, they are providing “third-party commissioning,” and they answer directly to the Owner. It is a logical dynamic because, at the end of the day, the Owner is the lasting beneficiary of the commissioning service. The Commissioning Authority can engage in a team relationship with both the design and construction teams on equal footing; there are no conflicts of interest that could influence the objectivity that commissioning is intended to provide. Third-party commissioning is required by many project rating systems, including LEED.

Commissioning within Prime Design Firm Contracts and Design/ Build Project Delivery

In other scenarios, the Commissioning Authority is contracted through the Prime Design firm in these delivery models. The Commissioning Authority now has a Tier 2 contractual relationship with the Owner and a Tier 1 contractual relationship with the Prime Design firm, creating a potential conflict of interest. The Commissioning Authority must maintain the integrity of the contractual relationship with the Prime Design firm, while providing objective observations and documentation in the best interest of the Owner. In any scenario, the Commissioning Authority’s job is to find issues and recommend solutions. This might take the form of questioning design intent or functionality and recommending modifications, which it can create tension in both the team relationship as well as the contractual relationship.

Commissioning Contracted through Prime Design Firm

Commissioning Contracted through Prime Design Firm

In a Design/Build project, the Owner has only one contractual relationship, typically with a General Contractor. The Commissioning provider, like all other entities, is contracted through the General Contractor and is under their direction. They have a Tier 2 contractual relationship to the Owner, resulting in a similar conflict of interest as being contracted through the Prime Design firm. Throughout the commissioning process, in design and in construction and regardless of delivery method, the Commissioning Authority’s purpose is to document potential issues and communicate this information to the party that can rectify it, whether that’s the design firm or the contractor.

Design/Build Delivery Model Relationship Chart

Design/Build Delivery Model Relationship Chart

Most often, the Commissioning Authority’s documentation goes through the party to whom they’re contracted, not directly to the Owner. Ensuring proper systems functionality is in the best interest of the Owner but, depending on the issues present, it can involve redesign or installation modifications at the expenditure of the contractor, resulting in a conflict of interest. To alleviate this, it is possible for the Owner to have a third-party contract with the Commissioning Authority under the Design/Build model.

Third Party Commissioning under Design/Build Delivery Model

Third Party Commissioning under Design/Build Delivery Model

The Benefit of Independent Verification

The most effective contractual relationship between a Commissioning Authority and an Owner is a direct contract allowing the Commissioning Authority to be an independent third-party representative to the project. In this way, the Commissioning Authority can truly remain impartial and focused on the Owner’s best interest, and can work with the design and construction teams solely through a team relationship to provide the Owner with the best possible product. In the end, regardless of how the contracts are arranged, the team works together toward the end goal of a successful project with all systems working as intended and meeting the Owner’s standards of performance. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure this is achieved. Earned trust, understanding, respect, and cooperation are the keys to improving the team relationship to benefit the project.

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