Evaluation, inspection, review, verification, checking, confirming, acceptance, approval: these are all words that have similar, yet different, definitions.

If you were asked to inspect, approve, or evaluate something (such as a product, system, or installation) what would you need to know in order to accomplish that task? You would need to have some idea of the criteria used to make that thing. It is the same with product specifications. Unless the product specification is written in a manner that has measurable results, one cannot evaluate the product to ensure that it has met the desired results and original intent.

For purposes of discussion in this article, the word evaluation will be used. In all building projects, a four-step model (vision, planning, implementation, and evaluation) applies.

Vision, planning, and implementation

During a building project, someone (usually the building owner or other interested party) has a vision about how a building can serve a purpose. This vision is then formalized on paper (or digital data source) in the planning stage (design). After the design is completed, the plan is then implemented in the construction phase.

When construction is complete, the project, and building, enters an evaluation phase (occupancy). Actually, parts of the evaluation phase start at the end of the planning and design phase with pre-bid meetings, substitution evaluations, and bid reviews.

In projects where commissioning is used, the evaluation phase begins as soon as the commissioning agent is brought on board, usually early in the pre-design and design phases. The sooner that evaluation begins, the more likely it will be that the vision is realized in its fullest form.

This is one reason why building commissioning is growing and becoming an essential part of the building industry. Commissioning in its fullest form is a process of continuous evaluation that starts at the beginning of a project, extends into the useful life of a building, and ultimately, to the end of the life of the building.

Evaluation and design intent

In order to do any form of evaluation, it is necessary to have some sort of idea of what benchmark will be used to make the evaluation. In the building industry, the professional specifier attempts to communicate the design intent to the contractors who will be bidding and building the project.

The Construction Specifications Institute's (CSI) Project Resource Manual suggests that this communication via the contract documents should be clear, complete, concise, and correct. In this manner, the evaluation of the end result should be fairly straightforward. ASHRAE Guideline 1, "The HVAC Commissioning Process," defines acceptable performance as "a component or system that is able to meet the specified requirements under all ranges of actual loads" It further defines verification as the "full range of checks and tests carried out to determine if all components, subsystems, systems, and interfaces between systems operate in accordance with the contract documents."

In order to accomplish verification and confirm acceptable performance, there must be a benchmark by which to measure. Again, Guideline 1 offers a couple of definitions to help clarify where to find these benchmarks. The basis of design is defined as "all information necessary to accomplish the design intent ... ." The design intent is defined as "a detailed explanation of the ideas, concepts and criteria that are defined by the owner to be important."

Notice how ASHRAE zeroes in on putting the responsibility on the owner for defining design intent. In the practice of architecture and engineering for building design, the owner generally hires an architect and/or engineer to develop the design intent in the design phase of the project.

In many building construction projects, points of dispute stem from misunderstandings about how a product, system, or the entire building is evaluated prior to, during, and after construction. Formal ways to handle these disputes range from meeting minutes to requests for interpretation (RFIs) to mediation, to arbitration, to a trial. The speed and degree of acceptability of the resolution of these disputes generally are affected by the manner and degree to which something has been evaluated.

If, in the perfect world, the contract documents were clear, concise, complete, and correct, these disputes might not arise. In reality, suffice it to say that the communication of a vision during the planning phase of a project is essential if the implementation is to be completed in a manner that will result in a favorable evaluation. It is in the best interest of a building owner to understand how important his role is in clearly defining his vision.