When Building Commissioning Is Not Commissioning
I have been reminded recently that building systems commissioning, as it has evolved and been defined in the North American building industry over the past 25 years, is not universally understood by all facility owners or design and construction professionals. This has clarified the importance of defining the term “commissioning” for all new project teams in order to clearly define expectations and roles and responsibilities.
In some industries and in some other countries, “commissioning” still carries the connotation of something the contractors and equipment suppliers need to do in order to make all of the equipment and controls work together as a system. I believe industrial plants and shipbuilders were using the term long before the building design and construction market adopted it for our purposes. As such, the industrial default of commissioning by the contractor needs to be respected; it just needs to be understood as something different than commissioning in today’s new building projects.
Therefore, special care must be taken when introducing commissioning to an industrial building project. The building owner (industrial firm) might think the intent is for the commissioning professional to be responsible for coordinating all of the installation and controls contractors in startup, troubleshooting, point-to-point checkouts, and fine tuning of control strategies for the commissioned systems. In fact, building commissioning is only a third-party confirmation that the installation and controls contractors have successfully integrated their work to achieve the owner’s systems performance requirements.
If the systems are found to be non-compliant with the owner’s requirements, it is not the building commissioning professional’s responsibility to correct the problems. This critical but subtle distinction needs to be clearly understood by all parties at the beginning of the project in order to avoid serious confusion and disappointment at the end of the project. If other project team members believe the commissioning professional is responsible for the systems integration and final performance, then no one else will be assigned responsibility for that work.
Lost in Translation
I ran into the same mindset on a new building construction project overseas. When we proposed our third-party commissioning services, we were informed that others on the project team were already providing commissioning services. This resulted in an in-depth comparison of what the foreign project team considered to be commissioning and the North American definition of building commissioning. It did not take long to realize that their definition of commissioning was essentially quality control and systems integration to be provided by the contractors.
Clearly, the contractors needed to perform their quality control processes and coordinate the various elements of each system and their controls. That was essential to achieving the desired systems performance at the end of the project. If they called that “commissioning,” who were we to tell them they were wrong? We needed to call what we were doing something different and ended up referring to it as “LEED Commissioning” because the project was pursuing LEED certification. Again, it was a subtle but critical differentiator that helped clear the air about roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
As commissioning commercial, institutional, and government building systems in the United States and Canada has become increasingly business-as-usual over the past 15 years, it is tempting to believe that everyone knows what we’re talking about. However, we still need to remember there are plenty of projects where owners and/or project team members have never participated in a project with third-party commissioning as defined by the NCBC, ASHRAE, ACG, etc. As I have advocated for years, every conversation about “commissioning” needs to start with at least a brief sharing of interpretations as to what that term means.