Balancing O&M input with designers’ work can be delicate but worthwhile.

How much influence should the future facilities management staff have in how a system is designed? Although this is a design engineering issue, it can easily affect the commissioning process. The bottom line is that proper long-term operation of the commissioned systems (i.e., one of the fundamental purposes of commissioning) will depend primarily on the O&M staff after the project and commissioning are complete.

I have always advocated for the O&M staff to be actively engaged in the design process. By participating in design planning meetings and articulating preferences with respect to system types, equipment selections, and control sequences, the future operations professionals have an opportunity to contribute their real-life, in-the-trenches experiences to benefit a new construction or major renovation project.

This can, however, be a double-edged sword. Bringing the facilities group to the design table should be seen as a valuable opportunity for facilities professionals to feel involved and to develop buy-in for the new systems. However, if the design team does not agree with or otherwise does not incorporate requests from the operations staff, the result could be the opposite. It could be the beginning of feelings of resentment that could be carried through the rest of the project.

I do not want to suggest that all O&M requests are appropriate or affordable. On the other hand, I have seen times when reasonable requests from facilities have been rejected by design engineers who prefer their own ways of doing things and respond with an attitude of, “We know what is best for you.”

In the traditional world of design, construction, and commissioning, it is imperative that the design engineers have the final word on system design throughout the formal project. Building owners, especially smart and conscientious owners, have to be very careful not to step over the line of directing the design team and thus taking on liability for the design. Large institutional owners with in-house facilities engineering departments struggle with this all the time.

With this column, I want to advocate that the design team do three things in order to enhance the potential of long-term success from the systems they are designing: 
  • Sincerely and very open-mindedly request input and feedback from the facilities operations staff.

  • Consider specific requests very carefully.
    1. If there would be no harm done by granting the request, why not incorporate the owner’s wishes?

    2. If the request does not make sense technically, take the time to explain this to the operations representatives so that they understand and can learn from the explanation. If the design team cannot explain to the satisfaction of the facilities staff, the designers need to reconsider their position or reconsider how they are presenting the explanation. Operations people are not idiots and typically have experiences that design engineers do not. Ideas they choose to proactively pursue are meaningful to them for a reason.

    3. If the request is outside of the project’s scope or budget, the design team should request that the owner’s project manager explain the decision. The design team is not typically responsible for setting the budget, just for adhering to it. If the owner cannot afford to address the issues raised by their in-house facilities staff, that situation might best be treated as an internal issue without setting the design team up as the “bad guys.”
  • Incorporate operations-based requests to the extent that they will function technically within the scope of the project’s mandate and budget.
 All of this, of course, takes time and effort. Nevertheless, it is imperative that if the operations staff wants to contribute to the discussion of design options (and many times they do not, in which case there are other issues to deal with when it comes to commissioning), the project team needs to respectfully and thoroughly address their concerns. This cannot be viewed as an unexpected burden but should be seen as an opportunity to better understand and meet the owner’s needs.

Next month, I will address what can happen at the end of construction if the owner’s operations staff feels like their requests have fallen on deaf ears.ES