Because no group effort should begin without a clear understanding (by all members of the group) of the objectives of the endeavor, No. 1 on my list of Top 10 Elements of Commissioning is the owner’s project requirements (OPRs). The more people involved and the more complex the project, the more important it is to define the goals before starting. New facility construction and major renovation projects fall squarely into this category.

Commissioning is a process by which third-party professionals work with the design and construction teams to meet owners' (their customers') needs and expectations for a building. The first step of the process needs to be documentation of those needs and expectations. This documentation is most commonly known as an OPR.

OPRs are intended to document, in clear, concise, and verifiable terms, the definition of success for projects. A commissioning OPR typically focuses on the objectives for the systems being commissioned. At a minimum, it needs to define the performance expectations for each system. The OPR is often also used to articulate the owner’s expectations for project closeout deliverables, such as O&M manuals and training. It can also include parameters for how the project is delivered.

With respect to HVAC systems performance, the OPR will define quantitative objectives for temperature, relative humidity, building pressurization, IAQ, air changes, etc. These are actual numbers, such as 70ºF space temperatures in heating mode, 75º space temperature in cooling mode, humidities between 30%-55% relative humidity (RH), 0.02 inch of water column (in. wc) positive building pressure, etc. Simply stating the building will be safe and comfortable is not good enough to verify compliance. The owner’s definition of safe and comfortable needs to be clarified for each individual project and, often, for different types of spaces within a single project.

Electrical system OPR goals could be lighting levels, power redundancy, extent of backup power service, etc. Plumbing systems objectives may include maximum and minimum system pressures, domestic hot water delivery temperature(s), the maximum length of time to reach that temperature at all fixtures, etc.

OPRs are also an opportunity for owners to stipulate sustainable objectives for the project, including such things as a maximum energy use intensity (EUI), a minimum recycling target for construction materials, etc.

From a project closeout perspective, the contents, level of detail, organization, and format of systems documentation is critical for future O&M staff to maintain performance of the commissioned systems throughout the life of the building. In addition, the owner may want to define the type and level of desired O&M training. This will vary, depending on the O&M staffing plan for the new systems, e.g., in-house building engineers, outsourced service contractors, or a combination of each. OPRs are a perfect place for owners to detail what works for their O&M programs before these requirements are captured in the project specifications.

It is best for owners to establish their OPRs prior to the beginning of any design work. If the design process starts before the design team and owner are on the same page regarding the owner’s expectations, there is a risk of needing to backtrack and redesign if misunderstandings surface in the future.

The OPR is my No. 1 element of commissioning partly because it allows for a focused and efficient design and construction process. Most importantly, though, an OPR is necessary to have quantifiable and verifiable performance goals upon which to base commissioning design reviews and functional performance testing. Otherwise, the end of the project could devolve into a debate between the owner, designer, and contractor about what the objectives actually were. That’s a particularly unfortunate time to realize there was a misunderstanding.

The OPR is the owner’s criteria and requires active input from the owner. The owner cannot delegate full responsibility for developing the OPR to others and expect to be fully happy with the systems in the end. The commissioning or design professional (or design-build contractor) can provide input regarding pros and cons of various criteria and can put the OPR criteria in writing, but the owner is responsible for understanding and approving the document.