Thanks to The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its contract templates for all things related to design and construction, there are industry standards for closing out a construction project. After more than 25 years of commissioning being incorporated into some design and construction projects, the industry has yet to address how commissioning fits into an owner’s contractual acceptance of a project.

The traditional project closeout process includes two major milestones: substantial completion and final completion. Substantial completion is the stage at which the contractor’s work is sufficiently complete such that the owner can occupy or utilize the building for its intended use. Final completion is the point at which the owner agrees all contract requirements have been met, and the contractor is paid fully for the construction work.

It is expected at substantial completion that there will be some outstanding contractual obligations the contractor still needs to fulfill, and it's a standard practice for the contractor to prepare and submit a full list of items to be completed or corrected before final completion. This list is commonly referred to as the punchlist, and the owner needs to agree to the items on the punchlist as part of the substantial completion process. This typically involves the design team and the owner working with the contractor to prepare the punchlist to everyone’s satisfaction.

Punchlists are typically comprised of physical items identified during a “punchlist walkthrough” of the project (e.g., missing signage, damaged finishes, broken door handles, missing components, site cleaning, etc.) and yet-to-be submitted closeout deliverables, such as O&M manuals, training, record drawings, etc. In short, these are items easily identifiable by a design team member and/or owner’s representative. Final completion and, more importantly to the contractor, final payment is not due to the contractor until all items on the punchlist have been signed off as completed by the owner.

The punchlist process can work well for static installation and documentation items but almost never includes dynamic or operational issues at the time of substantial completion. That is where the commissioning action list (CAL) comes in for commissioned projects. The CAL is essentially a punchlist for invisible operational issues that cannot be seen during a punchlist walkthrough.

The CAL is developed and maintained by the commissioning professional separate from the punchlist and, like the punchlist, is tracked through issue resolution. However, it is almost never mentioned in the project closeout requirements, either in the bid specifications or in the construction contract with the owner. Therefore, the building owner has no clearly defined contractual “teeth” to require the contractors to correct deficiencies listed in the CAL before final payment.

This can result in CAL items lingering and being ignored long after the substantial completion milestone, and this situation is one of the most frustrating aspects of commissioning for all project team members. Tracking open CAL items is time-consuming for the contractor; the commissioning professional; the building owner; and, even when design intent questions arise, for the design team at a time when everyone should be moving on to their next project.

I recommend construction contract writers (including the American Institute of Architects [AIA]) incorporate the CAL into a broader definition of the “punchlist” that needs to be fully closed-out before final completion can be declared and final payment made. Until that happens, commissioning professionals can address this on a project-by-project basis with their building owners and design teams as project closeout specifications are written and contracts are executed. It is easy enough to include language regarding the CAL but not so easy to change decades of the way things have always been done.