Commissioning: Teaching New Dogs the Old Tricks
I have been commissioning building systems for 30 years, and that is starting to feel like a very long time. One of the startling manifestations of that passage of time is the fact that buildings I commissioned back then are now being demolished or completely gutted and retrofitted. The topic of this month’s column, though, is about something less predictable that I’ve begun to notice recently.
For the most commissioning-committed building owners, e.g., higher education, government, health care, there is a new generation of owner representatives and project managers who have never been through a major design and/or construction project without commissioning. This distinction hadn’t been obvious while their senior mentors were running the show, but now those senior project managers are retiring, and some building owners only have the new generation.
That new generation, like all owner’s representatives before them, are challenged with obtaining the best value from the limited capital project budgets with which they are asked to work. This is leading to the resurfacing of 30-year-old questions about the value of commissioning and why they need to pay for it.
Those of us in the older generation of commissioning professionals remember very clearly the following ubiquitous arguments against commissioning from skeptical building owners and capital project managers:
- The design engineers are supposed to do that;
- That’s what I pay the contractors to do; and
- The facilities staff commissions the equipment over the first one to two years of occupancy.
However, the project managers who embraced commissioning first were those whose institutions/companies/government entities were continuously doing multiple design, construction, and major renovation projects. Sometime in the mid-1980s, these projects started to consistently go bad. It was an epidemic of poor system performance (mostly HVAC and anything else controlled by direct digital controls and/or failed exterior enclosures), unhappy building occupants, angry facilities operators, and C-suite frustration with the results of major capital expenditures.
Out of pure desperation, strong encouragement from management, and/or threats from facilities operations, these project managers tried third-party commissioning. They learned that a well-planned and diligently implemented commissioning process went a long way toward avoiding new system performance problems or, at least, minimizing the negative impacts when problems did occur. This is how commissioning became business as usual for so many owners of large building portfolios.
Fast forward 30 years, and those enlightened project managers are retiring and leaving the capital projects work to their proteges and/or green new hires. As such, this new generation has never lived through the potential nightmare of designing and constructing an uncommissioned building. As much as their mentors may have explained why commissioning was important, they have never felt the pain themselves.
The new project managers are asking all of the old questions and positing all the old arguments for why commissioning shouldn’t really be necessary. It feels like we’re going in reverse in some cases and being asked to scale back on the commissioning process because the design and construction team should be doing “all that.” It would be lovely if they did, but they don’t (usually) without additional compensation. And, then, even if they did, the conflict of interest concern gets little to no traction.
Conflict of interest might be more of an issue these days when seasoned commissioning professionals attempt to educate the new generation and “justify” commissioning. We are taken with a grain of salt because we are selling commissioning services. I would love to have a holograph of the retired project managers telling their nightmare stories, because it would be easy to explain how most of those horrors could have been avoided with a design-through-occupancy, third-party commissioning program. Instead, I’m afraid we may be in for a market “adjustment” while this new generation — privileged to have been trained with business-as-usual commissioning — learns their own lessons.