Play Nice: “Dealing with” Your Commissioning Authority

By Keith Johnson, AIA, LEED AP, dowa-IBI; Paul Johnson, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, Wood Harbinger; and Jeff Yirak, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, O+M, Wood Harbinger

This article adapted from a panel discussion presented at CEFPI’s 2014 Annual Conference in Portland, OR.

Imagine the scene of a typical project: from the A/E perspective, the design team is working hard, devising innovative and efficient designs on a tight budget and schedule, keeping the project Owner happy. Now, out of left field as construction begins, some commissioning guy comes in swinging, criticizing the design, saying it’ll never work.

Now let’s turn the tables to the commissioning authority’s (CxA) perspective: construction is beginning, and the CxA has only just come on board to ensure the Owner’s project requirements are met through the design, and that the equipment is installed and operating at its optimum level. He’s playing catch up to review the designs and understand intent, observe construction, conduct functional testing, and make recommendations to ensure the Owner gets what they need, but often feels like no one respects his input, or is even listening.

Has this Ever Happened to You?

It doesn’t have to be this way! When an architect, engineer, and commissioning authority are all on the same project, we need to act like we’re all on the same team. We’re all working for the same entity and towards the same goal, but often we find ourselves at cross purposes. We must ensure we understand each other’s motivations, investments, and directions, and by doing so can improving this relationship to benefit the project with better functional, cost, and schedule performance.

Our panel will share our individual perspectives and driving philosophies on commissioning and its application to K-12 projects, the challenges commissioning authorities face, and how we can each help to overcome these challenges and enhance the value of the commissioning process. Our discussion will illustrate to our audience how they can improve team collaboration on their project by synergizing the relationship between the design team and the commissioning authority.

What is Commissioning?

Though nuanced in our interpretations of commissioning’s definition, our panel agrees that it is a process of review by which a project’s design, construction, and systems operation (typically mechanical and electrical systems, but now including the building envelope as well) are aligned to the Owner’s expectations and needs. Commissioning provides quality assurance through the life of the project and into occupancy, and a third-party viewpoint that is valuable throughout. It helps ensure that as-built building systems operate with proper functionality, within the engineered parameters and expectations of the design team and Owner. The process ideally starts in pre-design and continues all the way through design and construction and into turnover to ensure the Owner’s project requirements are met. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and some of the benefits of a rigorous and holistic commissioning program are lost.

How do you apply the commissioning process to a K-12 new construction project?

Commissioning supports LEED/WSSP credit achievement, and depending on an Owner’s project requirements and whether LEED or WSSP credits are involved, commissioning has a couple paths to follow. If the project pursues LEED certification, there are credits available for engaging Enhanced Commissioning, whereby commissioning starts with design review and comment early in the process. Without this prescription, commissioning typically starts at construction, though we find there is added value if the CxA is onboard early in the project as we consider alternative systems and equipment selection, and to provide design review. If the CxA is retained by the Owner only for construction/closeout services, we lose some of that expertise on the design side. As designers and commissioning authorities, we advocate for this earlier start for commissioning, whether or not guided by implementing LEED Enhanced Commissioning.

Regardless of when the commissioning process begins for a K-12 school project, a rigorous and holistic commissioning program should include Owner’s Project Requirements/Basis of Design review, commissioning process planning, construction observations/inspections, systems testing and trend logs, operation and maintenance training review, seasonal testing of systems such as heating and air conditioning, post-occupancy follow-up, and possibly measurement and verification for LEED and Energy Code requirements, depending on the contract.

What are the Challenges Faced by the Commissioning Authority?

Our panel’s perspectives on this item are varied, identifying the multiple challenges the CxA faces. If the CxA is not engaged during the design phase, they face the barrier of playing catch-up when brought on at the beginning of construction. Compounding this, the construction schedule and commissioning schedule are often disjointed, causing the commissioning process to drag on well after the scheduled construction completion date.

In a role as the Owner’s advocate, purposefully designed to provide critical, disinterested review, the CxA typically find themselves in a position that can lead to a climate of confrontation involving the design engineers, the contractor, the subcontractor(s), or some combination thereof. Coupled with that is the ironic and often frustrating fact that with no contractual authority over anyone, the commissioning authority has no ability to direct changes, but can only provide recommendations during design and report observations during construction. We have found that collaboration facilitates the process much more smoothly than confrontation, and work hard to ensure respectful and inclusive communication of commissioning subject matter.

How Can the Architect Help Overcome these Challenges?

In its current language, the AIA Owner-Architect contract identifies the architect as the “initial decision makers.” Being fair and responsible in this role is huge. We collectively recommend that architects advise their clients to start thinking about commissioning early on, and guide the team’s mindset towards a collaborative end. Think of a CxA as a continuous constructability and value engineering review, if started early.

Figure 1_small

Crowded mechanical interstitial spaces require precise design and close field coordination. Figure 1: Systems and piping chase above admin office with curved wall framing, Sandy High School, 2012. Courtesy of Keith Johnson. Photograph courtesy of dowa-IBI.

How Can the Engineer Help Overcome these Challenges?

Again, our first recommendation is to advocate for early CxA engagement, the aspect here ensuring that the CxA understands the design intent. Secondly, as part of encouraging a collaborative environment, make communication easy and frequent, and be open to input during the design phase (from the architect as well as the CxA). It is also important to be knowledgeable about construction tolerance realities and the inevitable changes that arise and influence the actual performance of a system versus engineering calculations. We acknowledge that the CxA provides valuable review comments during design, and their ability to make the system function during testing is ultimately a reflection of the design.

The end results are well worth the effort. Figure 2: Completed curved wall framing at admin office, Sandy High School, 2012. Courtesy of Keith Johnson. Photograph courtesy of dowa-IBI.

The end results are well worth the effort.
Figure 2: Completed curved wall framing at admin office, Sandy High School, 2012. Courtesy of Keith Johnson.
Photograph courtesy of dowa-IBI.

What Makes a Good Commissioning Authority?

The primary attributes that a successful CxA will have are broad systems experience; being personable, organized, and reliable; a commitment to comprehensive and objective observation; and an ability and willingness to provide pertinent suggestions when issues arise. A strong background in engineering is also a plus towards understanding design intent, and experience with the construction process is also helpful to build a realistic view concerning an acceptable range for system performance tolerances. Certifications like the Building Commissioning Association’s Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP) may also be an indicator of ability.

How Does the Commissioning Authority Help During Design?

By now you’ve surely realized we all support the early involvement of the CxA in design for the input and independent third party view they are able to provide. We’ve all experienced instances where the CxA provided great input during design, catching system foibles, recommending remedies, and helping to incorporate the commissioning requirements and Owner’s project requirements into the contract documents. Without substantial extra project cost, the CxA can serve like a continuous QC presence, also able to provide constructability reviews, value engineering recommendations, and even another set of eyes on substitution requests during bidding.

Field conditions necessitated the addition of an unplanned piping soffit. Figure 3: Piping soffit, Sandy High School, 2012. Courtesy of Keith Johnson. Photograph courtesy of dowa-IBI.

Field conditions necessitated the addition of an unplanned piping soffit.
Figure 3: Piping soffit, Sandy High School, 2012. Courtesy of Keith Johnson.
Photograph courtesy of dowa-IBI.

How Does the Commissioning Authority Help During Construction?

“Well, the architect’s drawings are only a suggestion of what the building is to be like.” This telling comment Keith Johnson once heard from a general contractor confirms why we value commissioning during construction. Commissioning is a quality check on workmanship and a means to ensure the general contractor’s compliance with design intent. The CxA provides oversight and a second set of eyes on the systems from a more detailed perspective, which also allows the systematic testing procedures to confirm that operation is as intended. Commissioning is a code requirement in Washington State; the contractors know that commissioning is going to be completed and they have to cooperate.

An ability to recognize and deftly address the subtleties in the team dynamic and flexibly progress towards a resolved outcome is crucial; a good CxA becomes the binding “force” that pushes the issues to completion while maintaining a progressive and collaborative environment.

But while the CxA is “out there testing things and making it work,” they can’t work in a vacuum, and require the ongoing presence and support of the design team to provide input on identified issues so that the design intent in maintained.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, the Owner’s, end users’, and the maintenance staff’s experience with their facility governs the perception of project success; it in everyone’s best interest that the project team as a whole meets their goals, and that the goals align with the Owner’s needs from the get-go. Our panel agrees that commissioning is valuable effort in ensuring a project results in systems that work exactly as designed with optimized performance. We advocate that the commissioning process start early, with commissioning activities integrated into the design, construction, and post-occupancy phases of a project. We encourage our colleagues to consciously create a project atmosphere of collaboration and open communication, enabling and empowering each other to meet the Owner’s goals and deliver a successful project together.

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  • By 2014 CEFPI Annual Conference and Expo on October 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    […] My colleague Paul Johnson and I had the opportunity to present on Sunday afternoon, with an architectural peer of ours, Keith Johnson of Dull Olson Weekes Architects-IBI Group, on the topic of project team collaboration and commissioning. Our panel discussion, “Play Nice: ‘Dealing with’ Your Commissioning Authority,” addressed the disconnects that sometimes occur between the Owner, designer, contractor, and commissioning authority on a project team, and we looked at methods of improving collaboration and the team relationship dynamics to benefit projects with better functional, cost, and schedule performance. You can read the full content of our presentation in the article adaptation. […]

  • […] Read the full article on our website, posted in October 2014, or view a PDF of the printed version. […]

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