The construction project team needs to understand the difference between the commissioning consultant and the design engineer. Misunderstandings of their roles can cause unnecessary friction within the project team. Misunderstanding often leads to the questions: “Who is in charge?” and “Who is responsible?”

Appearances can be Deceiving

The commissioning consultant’s activities are tightly integrated with the contents of the design documents. The commissioning consultant verifies that construction proceeds in accordance with the design documents. The verification process addresses general and detailed specification requirements, and it generates questions and discussions about the intent of the specification requirements.

Many of the discussions are between the commissioning consultant and the contractors. The discussions often start because the commissioning consultant reports that the contractors are not adhering to the specifications. The commissioning consultant references the specifications and presents the specific requirement to the contractors. This specification presentation can give the appearance that the commissioning consultant is promoting a document that the consultant has generated him/herself. But of course, the design engineer wrote the specification.

The commissioning consultant observes the installed configuration of systems and tests the systems. The commissioning consultant’s reports indicate whether or not the systems meet the specifications. These reports give the impression that the commissioning consultant is accepting or rejecting the installed systems. However, the design engineer accepts or rejects the installed systems, not the commissioning consultant.

The commissioning consultant reports should request corrective action only for problems that are clearly deficiencies. Problems that may involve interpretation of the design should be referred to the design engineer (typically by a request for information). The design engineer needs to review the problem and make a determination: fix the problem, or accept the condition “as is.”

The commissioning consultant spends a significant amount of time at the worksite. The commissioning consultant is often an experienced professional engineer who speaks, thinks, and probably even looks like an engineer. Some contractors may have a question in the back of their mind: “Why would an engineer be at a worksite if he/she is not the design engineer?” Thus, the commissioning consultant’s presence at the worksite and his/her demeanor can cause the appearance that the commissioning consultant is the design engineer.

Where the Buck Stops

The boundary line between the commissioning consultant and the design engineer may become blurred if the design does not function (during testing) as intended, or if the design is incomplete. During verification testing, the commissioning consultant may recognize the need for a design change or a design improvement. The commissioning consultant has an obligation to the owner to pursue any perceived deficiency. Thus, the commissioning consultant would be discussing design issues with the design engineer and the rest of the project team.

Most design issues involve engineering philosophies and interpretations of the design intent. The commissioning consultant can present his/her point of view and recommendations, but the design engineer has the responsibility for final design decisions and direction to the contractors. During the construction phase, design alterations would usually cause a changeorder by the design engineer not the commissioning consultant.

The design engineer produces a product (design documents) that directs the actions of contractors. Because the design engineer has this authority, the design engineer also bears responsibility for consequences of any improper directions. The commissioning consultant does not have the authority to direct anybody to perform any action. On a project organization chart, the commissioning consultant is in a box without any boxes below his/her box.

The commissioning consultant produces a product (verification test procedures and test reports) that directs the actions of contractors for testing purposes only by reference to the design engineer’s product (design documents). The verification test procedures are a repeat of the design documents in the format of a test. Commissioning reports may require corrective actions to be implemented, but the corrective actions are based on the design document requirements.

In brief, the commissioning consultant observes and reports without the authority to direct actions taken by other persons. The design engineer has authority and responsibility to direct actions of other persons. The design engineer stamps the design documents and is the engineer of record.