Design-Phase Commissioning from Day One

By Bruce Pitts, CPMP, CSBA, LEED AP BD+C & Jeff Yirak, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, O+M

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

Commissioning actually begins during (or prior to) the design-phase of the project. There are tangible and sustainable benefits to including the Commissioning Authority (CxA) when project design begins to provide design-phase commissioning, which we will explore below.

The Riddle of the OPR

During our commissioning projects, we find that the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) are not documented. Developing and reviewing the OPR is a good practice and a requirement of many building rating systems, including LEED certification. If it’s required, why isn’t it being provided? The responses to this question vary from “we don’t know what it is” to “we don’t use it” to “we don’t know who’s supposed to write it.”

As an entity providing over-arching continuity throughout design and construction, the CxA is a good person to maintain the integrity of this vital document. The OPR should answer the question “What story do I want this building to tell?” It should contain the priorities of the Owner, such as cost factors, schedule requirements, architectural elements, and mechanical and electrical system preferences or restrictions. This document then brings these priorities to the forefront of the schematic design to assure that the design team considers these factors early in the project, which will save time and effort throughout the rest of the design phase. The OPR then becomes a living document whose currency is maintained throughout the project and serves as a reference for future design and construction decisions. This information primarily comes from the Owner, but the CxA can help distill the critical elements listed above into a simple document for the design team’s use.

Commissioning Design Reviews

The activity of greatest tangible value in the design-phase commissioning process occurs during the design review periods. Ideally, design reviews happen three times during the design phase:

  • • During schematic design, were the SD or Basis of Design documents are reviewed against the OPR
  • • During design development as systems are selected and control sequence conceptions are developed
  • • As the contract documents are generated

The CxA’s comments should be reviewed by the Owner and design team, and these responses should be documented. The CxA owns this process – it should be in their fee, along with everyone else’s. Items caught in the design are much easier to implement, and cost less, than items caught on the eve of occupancy.


As time goes on, the ease of implementing a change decreases, and the cost of implementation increases.  Catching a change during design review will save time and money.

The CxA owns the commissioning design review process, but the Engineer of Record is ultimately responsible for the project design and makes the final decision regarding the design. The CxA comments should reflect a consulting, not a directing, role. The CxA limits their comments to their scope, which is generally commissioning facilitation, and operation and maintenance issues.  The commissioning design review is not a peer review or value engineering exercise. Should any conflicts arise, the Owner arbitrates designer/CxA issues. The goal of the commissioning design review is for the CxA to provide their experience and perspective to the proposed design to move issue resolution to the left of the above graph.

Commissioning Plan During Design

The commissioning plan is a powerful coordination tool that interweaves contract and schedule requirements in plain language. If you don’t think they’re effective even in construction, then you’d better really pay attention to this part. The commissioning plan is a living document that outlines the commissioning process. It supplements the OPR during the design phase, and both are living documents. The commissioning plan captures the roles and responsibilities of the team members. This could include documentation reviewers, the number of reviews, pertinent review or delivery schedule information, etc. The commissioning specifications should then be generated from this content. All too often specific contractual commissioning requirements are not included in the Construction Documents. The CxA should provide commissioning specification language for Division 1, as well as the technical sections. The commissioning plan facilitates getting the commissioning subject matter into the Contract Documents.

Starting Early Pays Dividends

The above has outlined the commissioning tasks that, in our experience, should take place during design as part of a design-phase commissioning exercise.  These tasks facilitate the design process and help reduce the number of RFIs and Change Orders during construction, as well as deliver a building that tells the story the Owner wants it to tell (per the OPR).  Commissioning is fundamentally a quality assurance process whose benefits can also be leveraged during the design phase.

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