Facilities Management (Managing Assets)

Another Look at Commissioning

I struck a nerve with my recent article dedicated to commissioning of buildings. Having achieved my goal with that piece, I am going to a 180° turn-around. This column will examine the obligation that building owners have to claim if they want/need effective commissioning done to their new or existing facilities.

Where It All Began

The history of commissioning goes back to the needs of the U.S. Navy. Before anyone thought of commissioning buildings, our Navy insisted that its ships be commissioned. This makes sense… they would want their ships to float and do what they are supposed to do. It would be unfortunate if a new ship’s captain found himself in a sea battle and the ship’s electronics didn’t perform as required, or the radar only worked when the relative humidity was below 25 percent. Needless to say, today’s ships are commissioned based on precisely defined expectations.

Therein lies the problem with us as building owners. With increasing frequency, we tell ourselves that we want our buildings to benefit from commissioning. We turn the process over to the programming teams, telling them only that of course we want that new research building to be commissioned. We may not know exactly what performance results we expect from the process, and therefore inadvertently or intentionally allow the designers and builders to make those decisions for us. We expect them to read our minds, which may be relatively empty on the subject. It is not unlike “commissioning” a piece of art, and only telling the artist to “make it pretty.” We may not get what we think we want.

Help is Available

The good news is that we don’t need to enter into commissioning like it is a stealthy, mysterious adventure. There is an abundance of material available to help us prepare for a project. For instance, ASHRAE provides guidance that we can use to identify the systems and components that should receive attention during the entire journey — from programming through occupancy. Particularly of interest to me is the process ASHRAE recommends to guide a building owner into the articulation of performance expectations:

Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR): A written document that details the functional requirements of a project and the expectations of how it will be used and operated. These include project goals, measurable performance criteria, cost considerations, benchmarks, success criteria and supporting information.

Note that the intent of the development of this part of the planning process is that it be accomplished prior to the commencement of the design phase. Note also that this OPR should specify measurable performance and success criteria.

One of my associates told me about a recent discovery in an existing building’s air handling system. Having undergone commissioning, commissioning agents verified that the supply fan was working. Unfortunately, specifications did not insist that the commissioning agent measure air flow at the other end — of which there was none. Investigating the issue (funded by their operations budget), maintenance personnel discovered that some of the plastic wrap used in shipping had never been removed. If the owner had defined performance criteria to be measured, and if the commissioning agent had been held to the terms of the contract, the problem might have been discovered at a time when the subcontractor would have been required to address the issue.

Outlining Expectations

There is a lengthy list of commissioning “opportunities” suggested by ASHRAE. Some of these items might be surprising, such as “aesthetic requirements.” Others are more obvious, but frequently forgotten or ignored. For instance, “operations and maintenance criteria,” or “limitations of operating and maintenance personnel.” Developing this list of owner’s expectations will be an activity requiring much collaboration, investigation and decision-making. The light at the end of the tunnel offers the hope that, done once, it may only need to be tweaked next time. Another benefit is that by doing it right the first time, FM will be less likely to need to pay for corrections out of already tight O&M budgets — the project budget will bear the expense.

There are numerous benefits to be had in the long run from a successfully commissioned project. It requires homework on the part of the owner, involvement of a qualified and accredited commissioning team from the very beginning, and total commitment by all project participants. That’s all.

If any of those commitments are missing, your ship may not float.

This article originally appeared in the June 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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