Commissioning: On Time Keeps Things On Target (February 2000)
The Contractor’s ResponsibilityCommissioning 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 is the general contractor’s responsibility to incorporate those tasks into the master construction schedule. The commissioning consultant can help identify those tasks but cannot dictate what the commissioning schedule is.
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, O&M manuals could be specified to be submitted 90 days following approval of the system shop drawings. Training could be specified to be conducted no later than 30 days prior to substantial completion.
The very surprising finding of our practical experience in commissioning is that many (but certainly not all) general contractors are extremely poor at preparing and maintaining master construction schedules. In some cases, we have waited months and sometimes years (i.e., the entire project duration) for such a schedule to be produced.
This obviously creates problems. Without such a master plan, we don’t even get started on commissioning planning with the contractors, and the process is unnecessarily hard to track.
The Time FactorWithout getting too far afield in contractor-bashing, I need to vent my frustration with contractors who give lip service to meeting an aggressive construction schedule. There is often a back-and-forth dance between the contractor and owner about the preparation and submission of the construction schedule. Pretty soon, there is very little time left in the contractual schedule duration. As late in the project as possible, the contractor finally says they won’t be done on time and comes up with myriad reasons why. If a schedule is unreasonable, waiting until the end of the project to deal with that fact does not help the project or anyone associated with it. There is a lot of denial in the construction industry these days with regards to the ability of builders to complete projects faster and faster.
If this scenario is played out, commissioning tasks are left in limbo with other project milestones. The commissioning consultant doesn’t know when certain tasks should be completed, so it is hard to enforce the specification in a timely manner.
The inevitable result is the contractors claiming not to have enough time to perform verification tests prior to substantial completion and owner occupancy. Despite contractual obligations they simply throw up their hands and say they can’t do it, “Sorry.” They know that the owner’s occupancy dates are usually cast in concrete, and the owner will have no choice but to accept that testing will have to be done after occupancy. enforcing scheduling requirements.
This result may or may not be consciously deliberate on the part of contractors, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that more emphasis on enforcing project scheduling requirements is necessary, whether a project is commissioned or not. One of the benefits of commissioning can be to increase the pressure on the contractors to prepare a master construction schedule enhanced with commissioning tasks.
However, the commissioning consultant typically has no authority to direct the contractors to do anything. Therefore, it is imperative that the owner’s project manager take the scheduling requirement seriously and hold the contractors accountable. I hate to say it, but based on our experience so far, the only way to get the contractors’ attention may be to withhold payment pending adherence to their contract requirements. Similarly, specifying and enforcing special liquidated damages associated with completing verification testing before or after substantial completion will also undoubtedly get some attention.
This is an ugly approach to problem solving, and there may be more palatable solutions, but we have been surprised by how something as basic as project planning and scheduling is so poorly executed on many construction projects. The scheduling issue is larger than a commissioning-only problem; however, it dramatically influences the successful commissioning of a project.