I understand there are some commissioning providers who deliver commissioning differently than I have been writing about for the past 24 years. This alternate approach is called “process commissioning,” whereas the industry standard commissioning process is called “technical commissioning.” Dave McFarlane, a now-retired building performance professional and long-time ASHRAE member, has written and presented about the differences between process commissioning and technical commissioning.

The earliest mention I could find was an article authored by McFarlane in the June 2013 ASHRAE Journal. There, he writes, “Technical commissioning is based primarily on hands-on inspections and functional testing and verification of building systems performance. This form of commissioning does not rely on observing or reviewing inspection and testing processes performed by others. The technical commissioning approach ensures that the commissioning authority is the final expert that actually performs or observes proper testing on all building systems.”

And, according to McFarlane, “Process commissioning manages project quality by observing and reviewing the inspection and testing processes that are followed by the project’s designers, engineers, and contractors. In this form of commissioning, engineers and contractors serve as the project’s technical experts and provide the testing expertise for building operations and testing. Under process commissioning, the commissioning authority provides the outline of the commissioning process, which is then implemented by engineers and/or contractors."

Technical commissioning is the process defined, standardized, and promoted by mainstream professional commissioning organizations, including, but not limited to, the Building Commissioning Association, ASHRAE, the Associated Air Balance Council (AABC) Commissioning Group (ACG), and National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB). It is also the process required by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. As far as I know, these organizations do not formally recognize process commissioning as a thing.

I am writing about it, though, because process commissioning apparently is a thing. I have personally never run into it, either in requests for commissioning proposals or informally speaking with building owners, engineers, and/or contractors about their commissioning experiences; however, I thought this column would be a good place to acknowledge it, in case readers do encounter process commissioning in their professional lives.

Process commissioning sounds like an administrative function that defines what the design and construction team needs to do for “commissioning” and then collects paperwork documenting the tasks are completed and, hopefully, recording some critical system parameters. It sounds like the design team and contractors are expected to follow the process to document that all systems perform as required.

However, we all know that building systems, especially complex ones, often do not function properly when they are first started up and programmed. In addition, there are too many schedule and budget pressures on the design and construction team at the end of construction for them to be completely objective when it comes to the project’s quality. Without a third-party commissioning authority (CxA) actively participating in and observing systems performance testing/demonstration along with the designers and contractors, the validity of their documentation can be suspect.

This defeats one of the primary purposes of commissioning, i.e., for the building owner/operator to be confident the new systems perform as required and are comprehensively and accurately documented. Process commissioning could be fine if the systems are perfect at the end of construction, but if the owner/operator has issues after building turn-over, finding and resolving the root causes of the issues and the responsible parties will be little-to-no different than they would be for a noncommissioned building.

Technical commissioning almost always involves a third-party professional CxA with no ties to the design and construction teams. The CxA is solely interested in confirming, on the building owner/operator’s behalf, that the building systems perform as required and that the owner/operator has the documentation and training required to sustain that performance over the life of the systems. These professionals document what they have seen with their own eyes and do not primarily collect paper documenting other people’s experiences.

Process commissioning is not “commissioning,” according to industry leaders who have worked hard for the past three decades to define and standardize a strong and meaningful process. It may be a process some building owners choose, for whatever reasons, but those building owners should understand the difference between it and industry-standard technical commissioning.