Commissioning is far from being “business as usual” in the design and construction world. I was reminded of this fact recently when a building owner expressed the expectation that the commissioning professional would be responsible for subcontractor coordination, workflow planning, and installation start-up scheduling. In normal project delivery processes, these activities are the responsibility of the general contractor or construction manager (GC/CM), with input and cooperation from all of the subcontractors. Many large GC/CMs employ mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) coordinators specifically to perform these tasks.

Never before had I run into a client who expected the commissioning professional to direct and coordinate the multiple trades responsible for the commissioned systems. This was not one of the myriad things I had on my list to clarify with clients when negotiating a commissioning scope and fee (but it will be now).

In this particular case, the commissioning professional raised early coordination concerns through submittal review comments and controls integration meetings. Soon after that, the commissioning professional started asking the age-old commissioning question about when systems would be completed and ready for functional performance testing. No one could answer such system-level questions.

It quickly became clear that the individual subcontractors were only interested in installing their components and moving on to other things. No one took charge of determining which components would be installed first, second, third, etc., in the same physical space. The general contractor was responsible for providing this coordination, but the owner did not enforce that contract requirement.

There was no construction schedule with any detail regarding the HVAC, piping, plumbing, electrical, and life safety system subcontractor activities, and it was chaos on the job site. The first subcontractor in a particular space “won” the space for as long as they were in it, and any other subcontractors who had planned on working in that space at that time needed to find something else to do.

When the commissioning professional raised concerns about the lack of subcontractor coordination and skepticism about the construction team being able to successfully meet the substantial completion deadline with properly functioning systems, the building owner blamed the commissioning professional. The building owner believed that by hiring a third-party commissioning professional, he was hiring someone who would coordinate, schedule, and direct the subcontractors.

That is absolutely not what third-party commissioning professionals should or can be expected to do.

  • Commissioning professionals have no contractual authority over subcontractors and, as such, the subcontractors will not and should not take direction from them.
  • Commissioning professionals will lose “third-party” status if they give the subcontractors direction; only the GC/CM and/or design professionals can do that.

It is critically important to building owners that they keep roles and responsibilities clearly delineated between all parties. If systems do not perform in accordance with the owner’s project requirements, the commissioning professional cannot be culpable for decisions made or directions given. That would further confuse the owner and void one of the most valuable elements of third-party commissioning: an unbiased owner’s technical representative who can impartially help identify parties responsible for technical problems.

Of course, commissioning professionals should participate in technical coordination and share their professional opinions, but that is not the same as making final decisions and giving direction. There is a distinct difference between participating in coordination and scheduling and being responsible for initiating, facilitating, and driving those key construction phase processes.

One of the most valued benefits of successful commissioning, i.e., systems which perform as required at the end of construction, cannot be achieved without coordination and planning between general construction, sheet metal, piping, electrical, plumbing, insulation, fire alarm, and controls contractors. The commissioning process assumes that someone who is not the commissioning professional will be responsible for that coordination. Commissioning will happily integrate into and cooperate with that team coordination, but a third-party commissioning professional should never be asked to or expected to serve as the project’s MEP coordinator.