A late-project logjam on the consulting firm’s side isn’t fun for anyone. Here’s how to avoid it.

After spending a few months talking about existing building commissioning at the end of 2007, I want to shift back to new construction commissioning with a tricky and delicate topic. The situation is one which is rare but not non-existent. When it does occur, it is extremely frustrating for all involved.

Dealing With Design Engineers

What should be done in the case where achieving the owner’s project requirements (design intent) is held up at the end of the project by the design engineers? This may happen when FPT demonstrates that the systems are performing as specified in the contract documents but do not meet one or more of the performance metrics initially defined by the owner for the commissioned systems. In the design-bid-build project delivery model, the contractors have fulfilled their obligations, and yet the commissioning professional has identified acceptance criteria which have not been achieved.

It is typically the responsibility of the designers to define what drawing and specification modifications are required (perhaps through a changeorder) in order to meet the owner’s criteria. This is a relatively infrequent situation, less likely to occur the earlier commissioning is introduced to a project. In most cases, the design engineer is actively involved in evaluating the problem and working with the project team to identify the least disruptive, most effective solution in a timely fashion. Of course, if the solution is easy and costs nothing to implement, this situation almost never escalates into a bigger problem.

Completing The Work

In the few cases which cause the most pain (and thus motivated this column), the design engineers will not readily engage in problemsolving, instead leaving the rest of the project team hanging with no resolution. This occurs at a time when the team is anxious to be finished with their work, released from further obligations, and approved for final payment. Realistically, if the problem is identified as being a design issue (i.e., the design was implemented as specified and it did not meet the owner’s acceptance criteria), the contractors should be paid for their work and the owner needs to have the design engineers work out a solution.

As we all know, however, design and construction issues are hardly ever black and white in this era of integrated building systems. Even if an independent commissioning professional identifies a problem as being a design issue, the design engineers can put off active engagement for weeks while they direct the contractors to “check this” and “check that” without a clear plan for resolution and action. If the designers finally come to the point of agreeing there needs to be a design change, it can be another lengthy period of time before that design change is produced. The more costly the change, the longer it will take to materialize. In extreme cases, a satisfactory design solution may only come after a series of less expensive trial solutions.

The Waiting Game

This worst case scenario adds up to months of time during which the owner has most likely moved into the facility, the contractors have not been paid, and everyone is spending too much time discussing and managing the situation. The less budget each team member has remaining (and most projects end up with designers, contractors, owner’s representatives, and commissioning professionals out of money at this point, since it is the end of the project), the less quality working time is spent on the problem and the more accusatory and/or impatient any written correspondence becomes. To those of us working on behalf of the owner, there is a sense of a waiting game to see when the owner will tire of the effort.

The following are some tips on best practices that should help minimize the risk of this worst-case scenario on commissioned projects.

Start commissioning early in the design phase:
  • Document unambiguous and measurable owner’s project requirements.
  • Perform commissioning design reviews starting no later than the design development submission.
Require written responses from the design engineers to the commissioning professional’s feedback and findings, including:
  • Design reviews.
  • Submittal reviews.
  • Construction site observations.
  • Functional test results.
When a problem is identified:
  • Hold face-to-face team meetings with everyone represented.
  • Have the independent commissioning professional facilitate the problem resolution process, especially if there is disagreement between the designers and contractors.
  • Require firm action commitments and timelines from each team member. ES