Heapy Engineering is commissioning Aileron, the Center for Entrepreneurial Education’s new $30 million home, a LEED®-NC (new construction) project. Commissioning services include peer reviews related to LEED credit EAc3. (Rendering courtesy of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership.)
Approximately 3% to 4% of new building construction is undergoing the LEED® process. As of mid-2005, there were approximately 2,200 LEED-registered projects in various states of design or construction. Conservative projections show that LEED registrations will eclipse 12,000 by 2010, a seven-fold increase in LEED projects in only five years. Further projections estimate that nearly 25% of all new building construction in the future will be built using the LEED rating systems as a design and construction guideline.

Commissioning all building energy systems is a prerequisite for every LEED project. These LEED "market" projections beg for commissioning service providers to become intimately familiar with the overall goals and concepts associated with sustainable design that the LEED rating system measures. One of the best ways to accomplish this is for commissioning authorities (CxAs) to become LEED-accredited professionals (APs).

At Heapy Engineering, incorporating sustainable design concepts (such as efficient energy and water systems) is central to our design philosophy for all projects. We believe our clients should benefit from the positive effects of owning and operating cost efficient buildings that are healthier to work in and are conducive to improved productivity.

Each of our design teams have at least one, if not several, LEED APs who assist in guiding the team through the process of including practical sustainable design concepts on every project. Our goal is to maintain at least one-third of our design staff with the LEED AP designation. This company philosophy and staff training strategy will ensure that all design teams are well qualified to incorporate sustainable design practices, as well as follow the LEED rating systems for our LEED-registered projects.

We require that the CxA project manager on our LEED projects is a LEED AP and has LEED project experience. As the CxA is involved with the project from the design stage through the construction phase, we feel that it is vital to the project's certification outcome that our personnel have more than just a cursory level of knowledge of the goals of the various LEED rating systems and the owner's sustainable project requirements.

Since the CxA is on-site, he is also in a position to assist with the management, tracking, and progress of the LEED credits associated with the construction phase of the project, and he can quickly identify and solve problems as they develop. Assumption of these additional responsibilities can represent significant cost savings for the owner while adding to the services provided by the CxA.

In-house capability to provide both LEED project management and commissioning services allows a firm to "package" services and provide considerable added value to the owner. If the consultants (CxA and LEED PM) are members of the same firm, internally the organization can package a more cost-effective delivery and streamline the overall LEED process (reduce costs) for the owner. For instance, if the CxA is already at the construction site, the LEED management services costs could be reduced by as much as 10% to 15% while increasing the cost of the CxA's services typically by less than 5%.

Energy and Maintenance Cost Avoidance

Heapy Engineering Headquarters is one of the first LEED certified (Silver) projects in Ohio. The project design realized an annual energy cost reduction of 35% over ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1 standards and avoided an estimated $17,900 in annual energy costs due to solving construction installation and operational issues found during the commissioning process. In building the Heapy Headquarters, we found as an owner that some benefits of planning for LEED certification were hard to measure. Cost savings and innovation went beyond the building process. For example, how do you place a value on the improved health/well-being of employees which, of course, leads to better productivity?

Our experience of commissioning numerous buildings, including our own facility, has shown unequivocally that utility bills will be lower over the life of the building. Also, our maintenance costs are lower, because we specified quality, highly efficient systems and then ensured with a thorough commissioning process that they were set up properly from the start.

Other benefits are not as easily quantified as the energy and maintenance cost reductions. Employees have comfortable spaces with zoned lighting controls and an expanse of windows that provides an open feel to the building. Over 100 trees were planted outside to enhance the view for our employees. These are substantial contributors to the quality of life in our workplace.

Similar cost savings can apply to all sustainable design/LEED projects. According to an analysis of recently designed and built "high-performance" school buildings, we found that the energy cost savings in commissioned vs. non-commissioned facilities is quite significant:

  • Commissioned school buildings: $1.10/ sq ft
  • Non-commissioned school buildings: $1.90/ sq ft

For one of our local school districts with nearly 3.5 million sq ft of school buildings, this could translate into an annual cost avoidance of nearly $2.8 million.

The now well quoted Greg Kats study from October 2003 titled, The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings, A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force, identified the cost savings resulting from pursuing LEED certification on 33 projects. His analysis shows a financial benefit of $50 to $70/sq ft over a 20-yr life of these LEED-certified buildings. This translates into the investment made for the sustainable design concepts incorporated into these buildings producing a 10-to-1 payback. O&M savings over the life of these buildings resulting from the commissioning process was estimated to be $8.47/sq ft. This is a significant result, considering that the commissioning process for a typical building is approximately an upfront investment of only $0.50 to $1.25/sq ft.

Financial Data Pays Off On The Next Job

Actual experience and good project management practices are convincing to prospective building owners, and tracking costs of the commissioning aspect of a LEED project is a major selling point for our prospective clients. We track costs and benefits derived from the beginning to the end of each project. This includes the costs to create the documentation required for the LEED certification submittal, and the costs associated with the various steps we employ along the entire commissioning process.

A specific, yet non-LEED project that can be used as an example is the commissioning work we have been performing for a large local school district. This is a $102 million upgrade and expansion to 13 separate school facilities within the district with only one of the projects involving a completely new ($8 million) school building. Heapy is also the design engineer for all of the projects, working with six different architects. Initially, the district and its owner representative were adamantly opposed to commissioning. After many discussions on the benefits of the commissioning process, the district cautiously approved a limited commissioning scope for only the first four buildings. After seeing the results of this initial commissioning effort, with Heapy's CxAs documenting over 200 construction deficiencies on one 55,000-sq-ft elementary school project alone, the district approved the go ahead to fully commission the entire project.

We conducted a survey after the initial four buildings were completed to capture everyone's (superintendent, business manager, construction manager, facilities staff, owners representative, etc.) original and current thoughts about commissioning. This survey showed that the belief level of all of the participants dramatically changed regarding the value of commissioning. To this day, the construction managers actually sell their future clients our commissioning services at the start of the job by telling them that their project will be commissioned to ensure successful building startup and occupancy at the end of the project.

Heapy Engineering is commissioning the University of Cincinnati’s Van Wormer renovation project. At 106 years, this oldest building on campus is a LEED-NC project. (Photo courtesy of the University of Cincinnati.)

Typical Commissioning Findings on LEED Projects

We find that with a well contemplated and written commissioning plan, the commissioning process can be easily managed. The plan defines the goals of the commissioning team, the commissioning team members and what their specific responsibilities are, and the schedule of commissioning activities.

Under the recently adopted LEED (version 2.2) Rating System, there are six fundamental commissioning items that must be followed as a prerequisite (EAp1) before you can attain any level of LEED certification:

1. Engage a commissioning authority (CxA).

a. The CxA shall have documented CxA experience in at least two building projects.

b. The CxA can be an employee of the firms providing design and construction services, but must be independent of the project's actual designers or contractors. The CxA can also be a qualified employee or consultant of the owner.

2. The CxA shall review the owner's project requirements and the basis of design document.

3. Include commissioning requirements in the construction documents.

4. Develop and utilize a commissioning plan.

5. Verify installation and functional performance of the systems to be commissioned.

6. Complete a commissioning report.

Typical commissioning findings that have been observed by our CxAs on LEED projects include the following:

  • The design intent and basis of design were not well-developed by the design team and owner.
  • Data documenting the completion of the LEED credit requirements is not assembled appropriately or in a timely manner by the design team at the end of the design phase.
  • Contractors don't submit reports documenting LEED credit compliance, or are reluctant to do so.
  • The project manager's ability to enforce LEED credit requirements is often reduced by the contractor's lack of understanding that this needs to be managed.

Securing the Enhanced Commissioning Credit (EAc3)

In addition to fundamental building commissioning being a prerequisite of the LEED rating system, an additional commissioning related point could be achieved. The enhanced commissioning credit (EAc3) is gained when you perform six extra steps in the commissioning process. These include:

1. Prior to start of the construction documents phase of the design process, engage a CxA per the following:

a. The CxA shall have documented CxA experience in at least two building projects.

b. The CxA, for items 2, 3, and 6 below, cannot be an employee of the design firm, but may be contracted through them.

c. The CxA cannot be an employee of or contracted through a contractor or construction manager holding the construction contracts.

d. The CxA can also be a qualified employee or consultant of the owner.

e. The CxA shall report directly to the owner.

2. The CxA shall conduct at least one commissioning design review of the owner's project requirements, the basis of design, and design documents prior to the mid-construction documents phase, and back-check the review comments following design submission.

3. The CxA shall review the shop drawings of the equipment to be commissioned.

4. Develop a systems recommissioning manual.

5. Verify that training of operating personnel and building occupants is completed.

6. Conduct a 10-month review of building operation with O&M staff and occupants. Include a plan for resolution of outstanding commissioning related issues.

The intent of the enhanced EAc3 is to spend additional time focusing on the review of the design and the review of equipment submittals prior to their approval for purchase. If something is found to be incorrect, it is much easier to correct at this point in the project's progress, which will assist in the reduction of costly change orders during the construction phase. Therefore, the investment an owner makes in pursuing EAc3 has the ability to pay for itself very quickly.

Using Commissioning To Ensure Completeness

With fundamental building commissioning a prerequisite in the LEED rating system, it is vitally important that CxAs understand what is required and establish ways to ensure that they are contributing members of the LEED project team.

Experience and real-life data from several of our LEED projects offer valuable insight into the certification process. For example, organizing information for the documentation of each of the LEED rating system credits and prerequisites was important for the design team, project team, and construction team. With the LEED rating system so new, it required that everyone contend with a steep learning curve. As a result, some communication and coordination "disconnects" occurred during the design and construction phases of early LEED projects.

The commissioning process Heapy now uses continually proves to be an effective internal management tool. We developed this tool through the "lessons learned" debriefings of our projects and the feedback we received from our clients. We created a 14-tab reference binder of flow charts, tracking, and cost information for our CxAs to have a consistent project delivery process for successfully commissioning LEED as well as non-LEED projects.

Heapy Engineering designed and is commissioning several projects for the University of Cincinnati - including the $21 million Student Life Center and the $71 million Student Recreation Center. These early LEED projects have served as great laboratories to learn from and to develop both a program management process and commissioning process for LEED projects.

Our engineering design team used the LEED rating system as a design guideline on these projects. However, when contractors came on board, most of them did not know much about the LEED program or the requirements of the LEED credits affecting their work. Since there are important LEED credit points to be attained during the construction phase, and with relatively little buy-in from the contractors, our CxAs started to observe a potential for deviation from the project's sustainability/LEED goal. Immediately, our CxAs began to hold regular progress meetings to assist the contractors in meeting the project goal. This adaptation, although not rocket science, will be necessary for these initial years of LEED projects until a majority of contractors possess the management and technical knowledge to construct successful LEED projects.

Another modification we made in our approach to commissioning LEED projects included the assignment of project responsibility. For these initial university LEED projects, although our CxA was involved in the design and construction phases, he was also serving as our project leader on all LEED-related activities. Ideally, we determined that the CxA should not be the primary point person for a project's LEED process. A project-specific LEED program manager should be assigned to oversee the entire LEED documentation and certification process. This keeps the CxA (and designers, et al.) from being distracted from the primary role they are serving on the project. The CxA would then be in a better position to provide the commissioning services required for the project in an active supporting role.

Although only a few LEED credits affect the construction effort, the LEED documentation process tends to bog down once construction begins. Our solution is regular progress meetings with the CxA and contractors. Our internal LEED team worked closely with the construction team to come up with best practices that could facilitate the reporting process. In addition, the university requested that the construction manager include an agenda item on the weekly job-progress agenda.


Commissioning for LEED-certified projects is a fast-growing market segment for the foreseeable future in the design and construction industries. The LEED rating system, with its prerequisite for the fundamental building commissioning of all energy using systems in buildings, provides a great opportunity for commissioning services firms.

The LEED rating system implicitly requires the use of an integrated design approach (bringing together the entire design, commissioning, and construction team at the start of the project) to design and construct a building that can attain LEED certification. This truly holistic approach to building design and construction is assured success with CxA involvement in the project. The role of the CxA is vital in this process, since the CxA is the extra set of eyes during the design phase and functionally tests the building systems to ensure they operate at their designed high-performance levels.

However, developing and using good design and commissioning processes to construct high-performance and sustainable buildings will not guarantee success for all sustainable design/LEED projects. If the project partners involved (designers, contractors, and CxAs) do not carry with them the understanding of the goals and concepts behind what the LEED rating systems are measuring, then carrying out the processes can become more of a distraction to the primary role of each project partner.

We have seen that possessing basic knowledge of the LEED rating system, and especially becoming a LEED AP, enhances each project partner's ability to contribute to the successful completion and certification of LEED projects. ES