If someone is special enough to spend millions of dollars to have a building custom-designed and constructed for their use, it is understandable that they would expect perfection. They would probably feel entitled to complain about anything that is not exactly as they like it after the building is completed. This can be deflating to a project team who has endeavored to understand the owner’s priorities and expectations throughout the design and construction process.

The best project team will attempt to engage the owner in unglamorous discussions about temperature control, light levels, systems redundancy, relative humidity, ventilation, etc. This will happen at the same time the owner is asked to select more obvious aspects of the building, such as marble versus stone, tile versus terrazzo, wood versus carpet, etc. Where is the owner likely to focus most of his/her time and attention?

Unglamorous as it may be, I believe the owner has a responsibility to invest time and effort into an early and rigorous understanding and definition of how they want the mechanical and electrical systems to perform. My experience has been that most lay people assume all building systems have essentially the same capabilities and that everyone has a common understanding of what is expected. They are content to simply direct the design team to, “Make it comfortable and safe.”

Those of us in the industry know that is not a good enough criterion against which to design. The design team will have no choice but to make decisions on behalf of the owner and to do so under budget, schedule, and space constraints. If there are no owner-backed quantifiable performance metrics to defend, design engineers often have their chosen criteria whittled away over the course of the design phase. For example:

  • If the designers’ original intent was to maintain summer indoor conditions of 72°F and 50% rh, budget and space constraints may eventually move that to 75°F and 55% rh, a criterion which will require a smaller and less costly HVAC system but which may be considered “uncomfortable” by the owner after move-in.

  • If the designers’ intent was for active space pressure control in critical spaces such as surgical suites, laboratories, or patient isolation rooms, budget constraints may lead to a “balanced” solution which relies on one-time air balancing to maintain the desired pressure relationships throughout the life of the facility.

Design engineers would be more successful at preserving and defending the owner’s interests if the owner would actively engage in and support quantifiable and verifiable metrics for system performance. For example, if the owner truly understood and actively supported a specific space temperature and rh goal or the long-term importance of active space pressure control, the design engineers would be less likely to surrender the fight for system performance goals in favor of other project priorities.

Active owner engagement in building systems and not just building optics is an educational process, and a third-party commissioning professional is the best facilitator of this process. Traditional design teams are often internally conflicted between engineers and architects, and because engineers usually work for architects, we know how those conflicts typically resolve themselves. The commissioning professional is part of the team solely as the owner’s technical representative, and it is critical that the commissioning professional understand the owner’s needs and expectations in measurable ways. I recommend letting the commissioning professional facilitate the development of the owner’s project requirements with the owner and the design team.

The commissioning professional will then be the “keeper” of the performance requirements and hold the design team’s feet to the fire with respect to meeting those requirements. If budget, schedule, or space constraints threaten the potential achievement of the owner’s goals, the commissioning professional can present a clear and unbiased statement of the issues to the owner for consideration. The owner can then make educated and unemotional decisions regarding performance criteria changes, if needed.

In this way, at the end of construction the owner’s expectations will be the same as the design and construction team’s expectations, and any deviations will be deficiencies the design or construction team will need to rectify. Without the owner’s understanding and detailed articulation of performance metrics early in the project, any owner unhappiness after move-in may be partially the owner’s responsibility. ES