Facilities Management (Managing Assets)

What Value Commissioning?

These days, there is an abundance of interest in commissioning. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) places a high emphasis on it through LEED. It is common practice for building owners (especially those in the public sector) to require that specifications pertaining to buildings about to be constructed include the benefits of a commissioning procedure. This is all done with the anticipation that the building’s complex systems will function as designed, with all the inherent benefits of energy conservation and other operational efficiencies.

Furthermore, truly conscientious building owners/managers will insist on subsequent recommissioning exercises. This is done in the hope that the building will continue to operate close to its design parameters during its projected life, thereby positively affecting total cost of ownership as well as occupants’ comfort and productivity. For those buildings that never enjoyed the perceived benefits of initial commissioning (regardless of the reason), there is the option of retrocommissioning, where existing buildings are examined to specified levels of operational requirements.

Theory Versus Reality

Is it time for a reality check? My experiences as a facility manager as well as a hostage-held building occupant cause me to give birth to an unfortunate level of skepticism regarding the success of commissioning in general, as performed. New buildings with which I have been associated in recent years have operated at levels and ways that should be unacceptable to building owners. Temperatures in offices, classrooms and laboratories may vary by as much as 15 degrees from one day to the next, regardless of external conditions. Relative humidity levels may be inconsistent, or not remain steady at the specified, required level. Lighting systems appear to be operated by malevolent poltergeists, switching off and on at inopportune times and ignorant of occupancies or ambient lighting. And this is all happening in buildings that were theoretically commissioned prior to occupancy and final acceptance.

How can this be? One of the most obvious reasons is that buildings are smarter than we are, in many ways. Thus, we and some of our consultants are using analytical techniques that are outdated and no longer effectively evaluate today’s systems. I learned of one commissioning agent (a fancy title which at the time carried no formal credentials) who was watching a centrifugal fan to make sure it was working. It turned out that it was turning, but was not doing its job. Why? Because it was determined shortly afterward that it was rotating backwards — it had been wired wrong. This was only discovered when a building occupant complained of a lack of airflow (heat) in an office. I have heard of commissioning agents only looking at BAS displays to validate operation of certain components.

Dealing With Disappointing Results

There are several extremely frustrating byproducts of commissioning performed at this inadequate level of proficiency. First, it is an unfortunate waste of limited funding. Second, it often means that maintenance budgets must belly up to the bar to resolve, correct and fund the correction of issues resulting from inadequate commissioning. Third, it means that building occupants are frustrated with conditions in their work spaces, that instructors can’t function as they should and that stakeholders are unimpressed with how institutions waste their tuition payments.

We may need to insist on tighter specifications reflecting the objectives of commissioning. A primary goal of the commissioning process is to take a microscopic look at all relevant building systems to make sure that they satisfy the intent of the owner’s (read: occupants’) programmatic needs and that our people will be able maintain and operate these systems at that same level. This means that planning, design, construction and operation must be in harmony.

I don’t understand what makes it so difficult to insist on this through the instructions transmitted to the A/E/C community, including commissioning agents, holding them responsible for correcting shortcomings found afterward. What I do understand is that, unfortunately, value-engineering sessions tend to seek out ways to reduce project estimates by implementing cost-saving measures, the impacts of which are not fully understood by those who must live with them for the next umpteen years — even if they are made aware of them and offered a choice.

Our “agents,” those who represent us during construction and remodeling projects, must understand and represent our best interests. They cannot assume that any commissioning agent, no matter how independent from the designers or builders, will have our expectations at heart. Without that, I am afraid that commissioning is a process the expense for which can frequently not be justified by the results.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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