Bonds have recently been passed in California for $15 billion in school construction. With schools being used for 20 to 40 years before their next major renovation, it is absolutely essential that this construction meets or exceeds the expectations of the school district and all key stakeholders. In order to improve the likelihood of success, California's Division of the State Architect (DSA) has instituted a requirement that all of these new schools follow the Collaboration for High Performance Schools (CHPS), of which the commissioning process is a requirement.

With significant confusion over what the commissioning process is, and the wide variety of experience and knowledge of the different school districts, DSA developed, under contract, a guideline on the commissioning process for school districts. This guideline is titled Adopting the Commissioning Process for the Procurement of Schools - Receiving Value for the Community's Investment.

An owner's responsibility

As with any quality-orientated process, the commissioning process focuses on the responsibility of the owner in order to ensure a successful project.

Even with the most talented professionals in the world, if the owner is not involved and does not take responsibility for their actions, the project will not be successful.

The key owner responsibilities include:

  • Clearly define, document, and convey success criteria;
  • Review design for achievement of success criteria;
  • Hold design professionals responsible for the level of quality expected;
  • Review construction throughout project for achievement of success criteria;
  • Provide key personnel for interface and training; and
  • Make decisions based on all affected factors, not just cost.

A school's uniqueness

A school is unique in that it does not belong to one person, but to the community as a whole. Therefore, not only is the principal and administration involved in the project, criteria from teachers, students, parents, O&M, community groups, financial officers, the school board, and neighbors must be documented and used.

In addition, for design purposes, schools have a high proportion of people per area. This can complicate maintaining comfort and IAQ. Finally, while energy and operations are measured in dollars, the true performance of the school is how well the children learn and progress. Measuring this performance and relating it to the facility has been very difficult.

Adopting the commissioning process

The commissioning process has well-defined activities that a school district can adopt and integrate into how it procures facilities. The intent of the commissioning process is to clearly define what the owner's success criteria are and then continually verify the design professional's and contractor's process in achieving them.

It is essential that the commissioning process be perceived and implemented as the "owner's process." The activities accomplished during the commissioning process cannot be abdicated to the architect, engineer, or contractors, as it is these individuals that are being evaluated. The owner must take responsibility for their actions and be involved for the project to be successful.

The commissioning process is composed of four primary phases, with key activities in each phase: predesign phase, the design phase, the construction phase, and the occupancy and operations phase.

Predesign phase

It is critical that the commissioning authority (CA) be one of the first entities identified at project inception.

Form commissioning process team. The commissioning team includes the CA and the owner, and if present, the architect and engineers.

Develop project intent. The commissioning team develops the project intent with the CA as a facilitator. The project intent clearly conveys to all project participants the key success criteria of the owner. These criteria are used throughout design and construction to evaluate if success is being achieved.

Develop designer checklists. Designer checklists are created by the commissioning team to communicate the project intent to all design team members and to simplify documentation of the project basis of design by the design team members.

Develop commissioning plan. A commissioning plan is developed by the CA to provide a roadmap for the activities to be completed during the project in support of the commissioning process. The commissioning plan should be organized so that as information is added during the project, the plan becomes the final report at the completion of the project.

Design Phase

The design phase is where the majority of savings from implementing the commissioning process are received; it is cheaper to identify and resolve issues on paper rather than in the field.

Predesign meeting. A formal meeting with the owner and the design professionals (two to three layers), facilitated by the CA, is convened to review the owner's project intent. The purpose of this meeting is to convey the project intent to all key design professionals, not just the top two or three, and to build team cohesion over the goals of the project.

Design reviews. The CA accomplishes focused design reviews using statistical techniques to evaluate if the design submittals achieve the owner's project intent. The purpose of this review is not to criticize the decisions made, but to evaluate if those decisions are clearly documented and support the project intent. Part of the design review includes verifying the basis of the design document created by the design professionals to convey how they achieved the project intent, what their assumptions were, and what the limitations on the facility are.

Specification development. Achieving a successful facility requires that certain activities be accomplished by the construction contractors. These requirements need to be included in the project specifications, including commissioning team meetings, completion of construction checklists, specialized training program, systems manual development, specialized testing, and first year involvement. The CA works with the design professionals in inserting these requirements in the project specifications.

Construction phase

Between 45% and 65% of commissioning activities and efforts are typically expended prior to the construction phase, with only 25% to 35% of effort expended during the construction phase. The primary reason for this distribution of efforts is that once construction starts, it is more expensive to change - therefore, it is best to resolve as many issues as possible during planning and design to simplify the construction process.

Preconstruction meeting. Similar to the predesign meeting, the preconstruction meeting is intended to build team cohesion and inform the construction team of the success criteria. This meeting is facilitated by the CA and includes a review of the project intent, basis of design, and commissioning process activities.

Submittal review. Concurrent to the design professional review, the CA will accomplish a focused review using statistical techniques. The intent of this review is to verify the project intent is being achieved and to identify and resolve issues prior to ordering of materials and equipment. All CA comments are provided to the design professionals for use and inclusion with their comments.

Site visits. Periodically throughout construction, the CA will complete site visits. The intent of the site visits is to evaluate how well the contractor's process is achieving the project intent. This is accomplished by reviewing construction checklists completed by the contractor, verifying record documents, and meeting with key individuals and team members. The construction checklists cover the life of the equipment, system, or assembly, from delivery to startup. Upon completion of all construction checklists, the facility should be fully operational.

Testing. Specific testing is completed by the contractor prior to occupancy to confirm achievement of the project intent. This testing can be considered the report card of the commissioning process. If the process works, very few problems should be identified during this testing. Contrary to popular belief, this testing is not "commissioning," but the culmination of all the previous activities in the commissioning process.

Training. Training occurs throughout the construction phase by bringing the O&M staff through the facility periodically. The CA evaluates the successfulness of contractor training through attendance, evaluations, and review of materials.

Occupancy and operations phase

The first year of operations is important, as this is when occupants provide feedback on the success of the project. The CA must be involved for at least this first year of occupancy to aid the owner in maintaining optimal operation and provide guidance on resolving any issues.

Training. As the staff learns the facility, remedial training is often required. This can be provided through the CA, the contractor, or others.

Site visits. The CA periodically visits the facility throughout the first year to evaluate how O&M is achieving the project intent and maintaining documentation. In addition, any unresolved issues are addressed.

Seasonal testing. As most systems cannot be fully tested in their off season, additional testing is required during the first year to fully evaluate achievement of the project intent. This testing is typically completed by the CA and the O&M staff.

Warranty verification. Prior to the expiration of warranties, the CA and the O&M staff accomplishes a detailed evaluation of all warranties to identify items to be fixed by the manufacturer.

Lessons learned workshop. As the commissioning process is quality based, it is essential that all key players reconvene to identify what worked, what did not work, and what should be changed on the next project. This is one place where the CA is a participant and not the facilitator. A third party or an uninvolved member of the CA firm often acts as the facilitator.

Final report. The final activity is to document and publicize the results of the commissioning process. This final report needs to include a clear description of the benefits of the commissioning process. The primary reason for this is that if the commissioning process is properly implemented, few problems occur. Then on the next project, the owner will ask why pay for this extra firm if there won't be any problems?

A new guide

California's newCommissioning Process School Adoption Guidehas been developed to provide school districts throughout California clear and concise information on what the commissioning process is, how it will reduce issues, and what school districts must do to have a successful facility. Copies of and additional information on the guide can be obtained by contacting California's Department of General Services - Division of the State Architect.

The key sections of the guide are an introduction, commissioning process activities list, key milestones, and an implementation guide.

Introduction. Includes who the owner of a school is, what the owner's responsibility is, what a quality process is, and what a commissioning process - an owner's quality-based procurement process - is.

Commissioning process activities. A detailed presentation of the activities to be completed during the predesign, design, construction, and occupancy and operations phases.

Key milestones. Contains the key milestones of the commissioning process.

Implementation guide. This section provides a seven-step program for adopting and implementing the commissioning process for a specific project or school district. These steps are:

1. Understand your current procurement process. Since most do not fully comprehend the current procurement process for schools, the first step is to clearly define this process to help understand the missing all ready implemented elements.

2. Form a commissioning process team. Form an owner's team composed of a CA (internal or external depending on internal knowledge and skill level), O&M, contracting, programming, inspectors, and users to review the current procurement process and identify opportunities for the inclusion of commissioning process activities (CA as the teacher).

3. Identify projects. Identify either existing buildings that do not work (retrocommissioning process) or a project currently in design (or one for which the construction is not more than 25% complete) for application of the commissioning process utilizing the team as your core resources.

4. Document resolved issues. Using an agreed on format, document the issues identified and resolved by using the commissioning process. Make sure that values are associated with each issue.

5. Accomplish lessons learned workshop. Convene the key project players and the commissioning process team on the completed project to identify what worked, what did not work, and how to do it better.

6. Develop/modify guidelines. Based on the lessons learned and knowledge of the commissioning process team, modify or develop guidelines for the planning, design, construction, and operation of facilities based on the commissioning process principles.

7. Annual review. Reconvene the commissioning process team on an annual basis to review the results of all project lessons learned workshops for changes to implement in the commissioning process. Document and incorporate changes into the guidelines.

Roles and responsibilities. Includes CA, owner, design professionals, contractors, O&M personnel, and the community.

Electronic Tools. Includes the commissioning process facilitator (generating and tracking all commissioning paperwork electronically) and the systems manual creator (tool for developing systems-based O&M documentation with access through the Web).

Appendices. Contains examples and expanded materials for reference in implementing the commissioning process for schools:

A: CHPS Program Summary.

B: Project Intent Workshop.

C: Project Intent Example.

D: Design Submittal Expectations.

E: Issues Log Value Report.

F: Basis Of Design Sample.

G: Design Review Procedure.

H: System Manual Scope Of Work.

I: Example Functional Performance Test Structure.

J: Division 1 Specification Changes.

K: Site Visit Procedure.

L: Example Construction Checklist.

M: Qualification Based CA Selection.

References. List of references used in the guide.


California's newCommissioning Process School Adoption Guideprovides school districts with clear, concise information on how to adopt and implement the commissioning process. It is intended to reduce the time required to fully adopt and to significantly reduce the lifecycle cost of school buildings throughout the state of California. Further, the use of this guide in concert with the CHPS program will provide affordable, healthy, and sustainable schools for future generations.ES