If a third-party commissioning professional is not introduced to a design and construction project until the end of construction, it’s not “commissioning;” it’s “testing.” That’s why the next in my list of Top 10 Elements of Commissioning is No. 4: begin early. Commissioning is a process that should begin as soon as possible in a project’s life, because the earlier commissioning starts, the more value it will bring to the building owner and entire project team.

Regardless of when commissioning is started, one of the first activities should be the development of the owner’s project requirements (OPR) document. At a minimum, from a commissioning perspective, the OPR should identify the performance requirements and/or acceptance criteria for the systems to be commissioned. This is critical, even at the end of construction, to ensure the design team, contractors, and commissioning professional are on the same page regarding the owner’s expectations.

If the OPR isn’t documented until the end of construction, there is a fairly good chance there will be some owner requirements not addressed in the design documents and/or implemented in the construction phase. This is because verbal communications between an owner (often nontechnical) and the engineers and contractors can easily be poorly articulated or misunderstood. In some cases, there is little to no verbal communication over the course of the project, with the owner simply expecting his or her professional team to “know best.” The end of construction is a uniquely bad time for a project team to learn the owner is unhappy with some of the results.

Even introducing the commissioning professional in the mid-design phase has its risks. If the OPR isn’t documented until after the design team has put substantial time into their calculations and drawings, there is a chance they will need to redo some of that work after learning unanticipated things about the owner’s expectations. Similarly, if early project cost estimates have been based on a project scope that will not meet the owner’s requirements, the owner’s budgeting and funding process could be set back.

The best time to introduce third-party commissioning is in the pre-design phase of a project. If the commissioning professional can work with the owner to prepare an OPR before the design team is selected, the OPR can be incorporated into the designers’ contract. In addition, the first version of the commissioning plan can also be included in the contract. In this way, the designers have unambiguous technical objectives for their design and a clear understanding of their role in the commissioning process.

If commissioning is not introduced predesign, the next most important milestone is before the design is complete and put out for bid. Two significant design phase activities include commissioning design reviews and customization of a commissioning specification. Clearly, the earlier the commissioning professional can review design documents and provide feedback on compliance with the OPR and other commissioning-centric issues, the less potential rework the design team may need to do. Having a customized commissioning specification is critical, because, if the bidding contractors do not understand their role in the commissioning process when bidding and contracting their services, the door is open to future change order requests when the commissioning process is introduced to them later.

Commissioning is a team sport, and, like any sport, the rules of the game need to be clearly understood before the game starts. The technical objectives (OPR) need to be communicated and all players’ roles and responsibilities must be defined in enforceable terms. The later commissioning is introduced into a design and construction project “game,” the more challenging it will be to integrate into the project.