Adapting the commissioning process in d-b projects is easy if everyone is on the same page. Up until now, commissioning has been defined, applied, and evaluated, for the most part, for very traditional design-bid-build construction projects. These are projects where there is a clear differentiation between the designers (architects and engineers) and the builders (contractors) and between the design phase and the construction phase.

Over the past several years, for various reasons, the design-build (D-B) project delivery method has become more popular and, in fact, actually in vogue. Facility owners who wouldn’t consider such an approach ten years ago (including the federal government) are now open to trying a D-B approach. Does the commissioning process have a place in a D-B project? If so, how?

Inviting A 3rd Party

I believe commissioning is at least as important, and probably more so, to D-B as to the traditional project delivery process. This is primarily due to the concern that owners have about D-B, “Do we really want the fox watching the hen house?” No, of course not, but with commissioning we have a process which introduces a third party professional to do the “watching.”

Clearly, one the of the key differences between traditional and D-B projects is that the designer and the builder are the same entity (contractually) with D-B. However, there is little difference in the fact that design must precede construction. Therefore, the commissioning process is fundamentally the same for both approaches, i.e., there are design phase activities, construction phase activities, and warranty phase activities.

Another key to D-B, but not unique to D-B, is the fact that D-B projects are often also “fast track” projects. This means that the design of certain parts of the project are completed and construction begun prior to completion of the design on other parts of the project. For example, footings and foundations are often designed and under construction prior to the building envelope design being completed and long before design of interior systems such as hvac, electrical, elevators, etc., are very far along.

Again, the fundamental aspects of commissioning do not change with a fast track/multiple bid package project. The difference is that the commissioning consultants need to be intimately familiar with and must contribute to all bid package reviews and specifications, making sure that required construction phase commissioning activities and expectations are clearly defined for each package.

In addition, of course, the commissioning consultant will be involved in design phase activities for some bid packages while participating in construction phase activities on other packages. This requires a high level of coordination and staffing flexibility from the commissioning team. It may also mean that commissioning fees will be somewhat higher for D-B projects than for traditional projects.

The DID Does It

Another perceived (and often real) aspect of many D-B projects is the absence of well-documented design and/or as-built drawings. This is not always the case, but owners need to be educated on the importance of requiring accurate and comprehensive as-built documentation from their D-B contractors. The commissioning process can include spot checking of the development and submission of this documentation, which is so critical to the life of the building after the D-B contractors are gone.

The ideal role for commissioning in a D-B project is for the commissioning consultant (or the owner’s commissioning representative, if commissioning is performed in-house) to be involved at the earliest stages of project development and before the D-B contract is finalized. The commissioning consultant can prepare or help the owner prepare the project Design Intent Document for inclusion in the contractor procurement package. By defining the quantitative objectives of the project, the D-B contractor and the owner can have a clear understanding of what the contractor is required to provide.

Avoid the Fingerpointing

The commissioning process can then be used to verify throughout the entire project that the contractors are holding up their end of the bargain. The danger in ill-defined D-B projects is arriving at the end of construction only to discover that the owner’s needs have not been met. This is usually the “fault” of the entire team: the owner’s for not clearly articulating what was required and the D-B firm’s for not asking the right questions and making assumptions that worked to the contractor’s advantage. This is a bad situation for everyone that can be avoided with a well-planned commissioning process from the beginning.