We’ve all heard that most design and construction projects have the following three primary objectives.
Goal No. 1: Complete the project within budget;
Goal No. 2: Complete the project on time; and
Goal No. 3: Produce a building that meets the owner’s expectations.
We’ve also heard the adage that an owner can realistically expect to achieve two out of three of these but not all three. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that belief, but it’s not the point of this column.
My point is that commissioning has always been a process focused on achieving Goal No. 3, but failure to plan and manage Goal No. 2 can derail the commissioning process, especially at the end of construction. That is why next in my list of Top 10 Elements of Commissioning is No. 3: Scheduling.
Last month’s Top 10 Element was No. 4: Begin Early, which means commissioning should start in the design phase. Therefore, incorporating commissioning into the project schedule should start in the design phase as well. This will help ensure commissioning reviews are planned and executed at meaningful points in the design process and that commissioning requirements are incorporated into the construction specifications before they are issued for bid. This is not a particularly challenging scheduling effort and should simply take a little coordination, communication, and mutual respect between the design and commissioning teams.
There are often long-lead equipment purchases to be made, especially these days during the supply chain crisis, prior to the official start of construction. One of the first scheduling challenges is how to involve the commissioning professional in equipment submittal reviews for early procurement packages. This often happens before construction contracts are awarded, sometimes before the design is complete, and always before the construction phase commissioning kickoff meeting has been conducted. Therefore, the contractor/designer/commissioning lines of communication and submittal review process have not been worked out yet. It’s easy for the design and construction team to forget to include the commissioning professional in these critically important submittal reviews.
Once contracts are awarded and the construction phase is officially underway, the commissioning process requires the cooperation and coordination of all parties associated with the project. This includes, at a minimum, the general contractor, subcontractors, owner’s project manager, owner’s operations and maintenance personnel, and commissioning professional. The commissioning professional is usually the expert in the commissioning process and helps each of the other team members understand their responsibilities and how those responsibilities fit into the overall construction project.
With proper planning early in the construction phase, commissioning activities do not need to significantly impact the critical path of construction. There are certain tasks added to the construction phase because a project is being commissioned, and it’s the general contractor’s responsibility to incorporate those tasks into the master construction schedule. The commissioning consultant can help identify what those tasks are but cannot dictate what the commissioning schedule is. It’s the general contractor’s job to define and follow the construction schedule, including commissioning tasks, in order to complete the project on time.
It’s important to specify this in the contract documents. Typically, it makes sense to require that the general contractor prepare a master construction schedule first and then insert the commissioning milestones into it. A good commissioning specification will tie the required execution of commissioning tasks to standard construction milestones. For example, operation and maintenance manuals could be specified to be submitted 90 days following approval of the equipment shop drawings. Training could be specified to be conducted no later than 30 days prior to substantial completion. This should make inserting the commissioning tasks into a master construction schedule very simple.
Of course, having milestones on a schedule does not mean that’s when they will occur. Owners' project managers need to believe the contractors will follow the schedule, because completing the project on time is Goal No. 2. It’s typically very painful for owners to have buildings turned over late. This is because new buildings are invariably tied to other plans and commitments that will be negatively impacted if the building is late, often in a domino fashion. Contractors know this and sometimes do not take the scheduled commissioning milestones very seriously.
A common contractor perception is that the owner will be fine as long as the building is able to be occupied on the construction phase completion date and that commissioning milestones, such as air and water balancing, functional performance testing, and operator training, can be pushed out into the occupancy phase. The closer to the end of construction, the more likely the owner’s project manager will be “forced” (in the interest of achieving Goal No. 2) to agree with that and allow the commissioning work to slip beyond the scheduled construction completion date.
Postponing key end-of-construction commissioning activities into the occupancy phase almost always results in a major degradation of the value of commissioning, extends the commissioning activities indefinitely, is a major disservice to the building owner and operators, and delays the contractors’ ability to close out their contracts. The level of effort required to coordinate and staff functional testing and address deficiencies when the contractors are no longer engaged full time on the project and the building is occupied by people and/or processes is exponentially more than it would be if the work were completed before the owner moved in and the contractors moved on.
Top 10 Element No. 3: Schedule, therefore, is not just about putting commissioning activities on the project schedule but abiding by that schedule to allow the owner to move into a commissioned building and be prepared to operate and maintain it at the end of the construction phase. Although the commissioning professional will monitor and track the construction schedule and the commissioning milestones in it, only the owner’s project manager can hold the contractors responsible for achieving both Goals No. 2 and 3. That is not an impossible task if all elements of the schedule are thoughtfully planned early and taken seriously throughout construction.