To Self-Commission or Not, That Is the Question
Skill set, staff availability, and staff interest are three considerations to contemplate before outsourcing process management work.
The biggest beneficiary of new construction commissioning is the building owner/operator. Who cares more about having a thorough and meaningful commissioning process than the owner/operator? That is one of the most compelling reasons for owner/operators to “self-commission” their capital projects.
A number of large institutions, especially colleges and universities, have in-house programs that do just that. These owner/operators are continuously constructing new buildings, adding to existing buildings, and renovating/updating other buildings. Their commissioning groups are full-time professionals in charge of defining commissioning for their organizations, enforcing standards, and facilitating the execution of all phases of commissioning projects.
What does an owner/operator need to consider when deciding between self-commissioning his or her projects and outsourcing the commissioning process management to an outside consultant? I believe there are three primary considerations:
- Staff skill set;
- Staff availability; and
- Staff interest.
Acceptance Criteria Development — Does the owner/operator have in-house staff that is knowledgeable, confident, and capable enough to translate the owner’s expectations for a system’s performance into a clear and verifiable set of owner’s project requirements (OPR) for all systems to be commissioned? Preparing an OPR, arguably the first step in commissioning any project, requires a combination of skills. First, team facilitation and negotiation skills are needed to bring multiple owner factions together to agree on the acceptance criteria. It also involves deep technical expertise in order to convert layperson requirements into quantifiable and verifiable performance parameters. Finally, the commissioning staff needs to be comfortable with preparing and maintaining documentation, as the owner’s criteria is only valuable if it is written down and understood by the entire project team.
Technical Expertise — Beyond preparing the acceptance criteria, the owner’s commissioning team should have a full spectrum of technical expertise. This means a breadth that covers all of the different types of commissioned systems and a depth that spans design, installation, startup, controls, and operations. Clearly, this will almost never be found in a single person, so I use the term “team” very deliberately.
Testing Proficiency — The commissioning team needs members who are experienced and knowledgeable in designing and executing tests that are unambiguous and repeatable with clearly defined pass/fail criteria for each step. This comes with training (perhaps even going back to high school science lab experiments) and on-the-job opportunities to work with a mentor.
Documentation — The documentation skill set cannot be over-emphasized. Design reviews, submittal reviews, site observations, and field testing are of little-to-no value if the project team is not made aware of the findings and the need for corrective action. The commissioning team must be comfortable writing, being concise but clear, and presenting findings in a format that is easy for the entire team to sort, track, update, and perform follow-up procedures.
Tracking and Follow-Up — The owner needs at least one person on the commissioning team who is outgoing, friendly but firm, and endlessly persistent in encouraging the project team to address its assigned commissioning action items in a timely manner. In addition, someone (maybe the same person) will need to be empowered to work with the owner’s project management team when it comes to balancing the owner’s priorities of cost, schedule, and quality.
Commissioning a new construction project is not something the facilities staff can be expected to do in its spare time. Facilities staff who are part-time commissioning team members need to be available to support projects as their top priority. This means having enough other staff to back-fill their normal responsibilities when the commissioning team needs to attend meetings, review documents, or perform testing. The project team will not wait for the commissioning team (schedule is typically nonnegotiable), so the commissioning team needs to accommodate the project schedule and all its erratic twists and turns.
Commissioning team members need to have a passion for their work. Some people love it, some people hate it, and everyone else doesn’t really care. Perhaps not everyone the owner assigns to the commissioning team needs to love it, but the leader must. The more team members that care, the easier the leader’s job will be and the more successful the self-commissioning program will be.