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Understanding Building and Systems Commissioning

By Samantha Davidson

Ensuring the functional needs and requirements set by owners and stakeholders are met, the commissioning process is much more than a final item to check off at the end of a project.

Why is commissioning important? In short terms, commissioning (Cx) is a structured quality assurance process intended to ensure a building or interior space meets the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) upon turnover. The OPR document can be seen as the holy grail for the Cx process. The document establishes the ideas, objectives, and criteria that the owner considers important to be required in the design of the project. The need for traditional Cx is more important than ever as a greater emphasis is placed on creating healthier, safer, and more environmentally friendly work environments.  Many building owners and managers are seeking the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED certification, WELL Building certification, net-zero energy, or other sustainable building options for new or existing sites, making commissioning an essential part of the short-term process.

In long term, Cx is much more. If commissioning is pursued, the process supports with helping the project to be both designed and built to satisfy the vision and requirements of the owner and stakeholders. A successful commissioning effort, initiated during the design phase of a project, can lead to a reduction in energy consumption, operating costs, and contractor callbacks, while improving occupant productivity, providing smarter building documentation, and verifying that the systems perform in accordance with the design intent and owner’s requirements. The Commissioning Authority (CxA) acts as a third eye for the owner by verifying the owner’s requirements are met in all phases.

What is commissioning?

Historically, the term “commissioning” may have roots in the shipbuilding industry where a vessel was required to pass a series of quality assurance inspections at specific points during construction before being “commissioned” as a seaworthy craft. Today, the building industry applies very specific meanings to various types of commissioning, including traditional new construction commissioning, retro-commissioning, re-commissioning, value re-commissioning, and ongoing commissioning. While each has unique objectives that go beyond the scope of this article, they all share a common general approach.

To better understand what commissioning is, it is important to note what it is not. Specifically, commissioning is commonly believed to be limited to the functional testing that occurs at the end of a project. In reality, proper commissioning is much more. While functional testing at the acceptance stage at the end of construction is important, Cx ideally starts much earlier in the process. Involving a CxA early can offer many benefits. Finding the right commissioning provider (CxP), independent of the contractor, is a critical step in establishing a third-party, unbiased set of eyes to help develop the OPR. Ideally, the CxA should be involved in virtually every step of the construction process from pre-design through occupancy.

Why is building and systems commissioning important?

The bottom-line best reason to include commissioning in a project is the very real impact it can have on a company’s financial bottom line. Cx usually addresses new or upgraded building systems such as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP), as well as renewable energy, building controls, security systems, and more. Making the assumption all these systems are designed and integrated as planned can be a costly mistake. Involving a qualified CxA early in the process can help avoid expensive and time-consuming problems and issues. Early collaboration with the owners, architects, engineers, contractors, and other key stakeholders helps the CxA close communication gaps and ensure a smooth-running project with a better chance of being completed on-time, on-budget, and within project specifications. A well-designed and constructed project is also more likely to be easier to operate, more energy-efficient, and easier to maintain in the future.

What are some popular examples of different commissioning tracks?

As previously noted, there are a number of different types of commissioning pursued for different reasons. Here are a few of the better known Cx approaches:

  • IECC-Required Cx: The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) Section 408 requires code compliance commissioning services. IECC Cx is a very basic commissioning track. It includes developing the commissioning specifications, the commissioning plan, developing and executing the functional performance tests (FPT’s), and compiling the final commissioning report. Although an issues log is maintained while testing, verifying issue resolution is not required by IECC. IECC Cx is a step in the right direction, but not seen as the most beneficial commissioning process to the owner.
  • LEEDv4 Fundamental and Enhanced Cx: LEED Fundamental Cx is recognized by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) as a prerequisite toward LEED certification. LEED Enhanced Cx can be pursued in the LEED certification process and may lead to achieving additional points.
    • Fundamental Commissioning is required as part of a project’s LEED pursuit and references ASHRAE Guideline 0: The Commissioning Process. Typically, the CxA is involved at the design phase of the project and maintains on board through construction and into occupancy. The CxA helps fill the gaps between the owner, design team, contractors, and sub-contractors for a more streamlined process. Some more involved tasks in the Fundamental Cx process are performing a design review, developing installation verification checklists to verify startup and installation, providing resolution of the issues log, and developing the Current Facilities Requirements and Operations & Maintenance Plan (CFR and O&M Plan).
    • Enhanced Commissioning, which may be pursued for additional LEED points, takes commissioning one step further and provides additional quality control. It encompasses a thorough commissioning process and is the most involved on this list. Additional tasks include performing a submittal review, verifying training for the operations staff, developing the systems manual, developing an ongoing Cx plan, verifying seasonal testing, and performing a 10-month warranty review. Performing both LEED Fundamental & Enhanced Cx provides the greatest benefit to the owner as the CxA is very involved on the project.
  • Customized Cx: In many cases, it is advisable that the commissioning process be more involved than IECC code-Required Cx, but not as intensive as LEED Fundamental & Enhanced Cx. This track includes tasks seen as most beneficial to the owner and meant to be a good commissioning process recommendation. This track can be altered to be owner-specific by performing the commissioning tasks the owner is interested in, similar to an a la carte option.

What is the main benefit of commissioning?

The fundamental goal of commissioning is to deliver a building or interior space that meets the functional needs and requirements set by the owner and stakeholders. Partnering with the right CxP provides a trained technical advisor at every stage of the project from design to construction and into occupancy. It also offers you and your business an independent advocate focused on your project’s success. All in all, commissioning provides great benefit to the owner and operations staff. Whether the project is pursuing IECC, LEED, or a specialized commissioning track, involving a CxA as part of the project team is highly recommended from the design phases into occupancy.
In addition to her responsibilities on commissioning and retro-commissioning projects, Samantha Davidson contributes to ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment with her extensive background in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

To learn more about commissioning and how ESD can help, contact Samantha.

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