Commissioning Authority

Matthew J. Nelson, PE, CPMP, ECO Commissions

Last updated: 10-10-2012

Introduction

Commissioning is a standardized process executed by a professional, commonly referred to as a Commissioning Authority (CxA), who is knowledgeable in the design, construction, and operation of systems. The outcome of the process verifies proper operation of commissioned systems and that the requirements set forth by the owner are achieved. By definition, to put something "into commission" means that it is ready for regular use. Historically, commissioning has been used by the Navy to ensure that ships were seaworthy prior to leaving port. At sea, a breakdown would not only be costly to correct, it could potentially be life-threatening. For manufacturers the benefits are also well understood for using commissioning on expensive and sensitive process systems as it ensures safety, reduces waste, and maximizes up-time.

In the construction industry, commissioning or building commissioning was first used on building projects by the Public Works Canada¹. The process of building commissioning was further refined when, several years later, ASHRAE formed the HVAC Commissioning Guideline Committee who then published the HVAC Commissioning Guideline in 1988¹. But it wasn't until 1998, with the incorporation of the Building Commissioning Association, that Commissioning Authorities had their own society. That same year the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) added commissioning to its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria. A move that, in light of the popularity of this rating system, made great strides in promoting the use and acceptance of building commissioning.

Today the role of the building commissioning authority has become a central component to the whole building design process as the built environment continues to include more complicated and interdependent systems and owners focus on energy efficiency to keep operational costs down.

¹History of Commissioning, PECI

Description

Definition of a Commissioning Authority

A commissioning authority (CxA) is a person or firm responsible for the delivery of the commissioning process. Depending on the size and complexity of the project the process may be executed by one person or an entire team. For a team approach there would typically be a person dedicated to managing the process, while others are involved with the more technical aspects of the process.

The knowledge base that a CxA needs to draw from includes information about design, construction, and maintenance. While knowing something about all these elements is critical to being a successful CxA, most professionals will be stronger in one of the three areas. Furthermore, a CxA need not be a design professional or an engineer, with a number of Commissioning Authorities having a background as a test and balance contractor, controls technician, or even facility maintenance. Traditionally the professionals who become Commissioning Authorities do so as a second or third career.

Currently one cannot even obtain a degree in Building Commissioning, so learning about the process typically involves courses or self-study that leads to obtaining one of the industry's certifications. Unlike Architects or Professional Engineers, Commissioning Authorities are not required to be certified to practice building commissioning but most are because it is so often part of any evaluation and selection process for projects. While most certifications focus on the individual there are some that cover the entire firm. For a complete list of certifications refer to the certifications section (below). When looking at the certifications it is important to point out that few of them focus on the technical nature of commissioning systems and instead test applicants on the process. ASHRAE's CPMP certification was the first created specifically to focus on the management of the commissioning process as an entirely new job function, leaving the certification of commissioning authorities to other organizations.

Most Commissioning Authorities often have knowledge and experience related to HVAC and controls. However there are others in the field with different discipline specialties or have experience with specialized building types.

Examples of discipline specialties include:

  • Emergency Power Systems
  • Building Enclosure (Envelope) Systems
  • Communications Systems
  • Fire Protection Systems

Examples of specialized building types include:

Commissioning Authority's Role in Whole Building Design

The Commissioning Authority can and should play a key role in the whole building design process. The CxA should become involved during the pre-design phase or be the first person by the side of the owner. Involvement continues through design and construction, providing continuity as the owner's expert, making sure that their requirements are being met. The primary role throughout the project is to understand the owner's requirements, making sure that these are incorporated into the design, installed during construction, and tested with a completely functional building being returned to the owner. During this whole process the CxA works with the rest of the design team to accomplish this.

Designing, constructing, and operating a building is a complex feat that involves input from many different team members. While many of these professionals have high levels of competence they are still prone to the issue of coordination and integration due to schedule and budget constraints. This is where the CxA can assist the project team, not only by leveraging their experience and knowledge, but also through project iteration. Commissioning Authorities experience project iteration because of the fact that they do not work on a single project full-time. Instead they have a number of projects in various stages of design, construction, and operation. So problems encountered on one project can be avoided on another, passing it along as a lesson learned.

As a CxA there are four stages of involvement on new construction projects:

Pre-Design—The rationale behind bringing the CxA on before the design team is to provide owners with unbiased opinions of the design teams during evaluation. Once the design team is selected, the CxA assists in the development of the Owner's Project Requirements or OPR. This "living" document is the guideline for the project and holds all the information and requirements that the owner wants to include and/or achieve. It is referred to as a "living" document because it is kept up to date by the CxA throughout the project incorporating any changes that arise. For whole building design this is a critical document that gets everyone on team on the same page and gives the designers specific instructions to follow during their design process.

Design—During the design phase the commissioning authority will perform design reviews of the design documents checking to make sure that the project team is following the OPR, that interdisciplinary coordination is occurring, and that maintainability is being designed into the project. Additionally, the CxA will develop commissioning specifications that will inform contractors what their responsibilities will be during construction. This all leads to a design that is clear to the contractor and easy to take care of.

Construction—The CxA contributes to the whole design process during construction as they are present on-site for observing equipment installation, ensuring that the design documents are being followed, and communicating information back to the design team regarding issues. In addition to assisting the design team, the CxA can advocate for the contractors by pushing for resolution of field issues that could potentially lead to construction delays. The key result of site inspections is early detection and resolution. Not only is this appreciated by the team, but it saves money for the project overall. Once all the systems have been installed the CxA will proceed to test the equipment and systems, so when the building is finally turned over to the owner it is running smoothly.

Operations—In this phase the CxA works with the maintenance staff to understand the installed systems through training and documentation. This is a crucial step, because even the most advanced design in the world will be reduced to its simplest form to match the level of understanding of the building operators. This is why it is so important to include maintenance staff in the whole building design process. Keep them in mind when selecting equipment and creating sequences of operation for equipment. For the conclusion of the project, during the 10-month post-construction walk-through, the CxA will be involved with the team to make sure that any issues are resolved prior to the end of the warranty period.

Commissioning Authority Strategies for Achieving Whole Building Design Objectives

While not involved with all of the whole building design objectives there are a few where the CxA plays an important role.

Functional/Operational—At the core of the Commissioning Authority's project role is verifying that the building and the systems it contains are functional, and that they can be maintained for the life of the equipment. Verification is done through the use of an operational script specifically written for the project that follows the engineer's sequence of operation. This script is known as the Functional Performance Test (or FPT), and contains scenarios like equipment start-up, changes in operating conditions, failure modes, safeties, and alarms. Once written, this same form is able to be used by the facility's staff in the future to ensure that the equipment is still operating according to the original design parameters.

Productive—Commissioning impacts productivity by verifying that the equipment is operating properly and that the sensors in the inhabited spaces are reading accurately by checking calibration. A second way that productivity is affected by the CxA is by establishing a functional building; this allows the maintenance staff time to perform their regular duties instead of handling complaints and other issues brought to them by the occupants. When staff gets into a "fire-fighting" mode they often delay regular equipment maintenance and apply temporary changes to the building system that are often left in place and masking larger underlying issues.

Secure/Safe—When the commissioning process includes security or other access systems, verification of these will provide the building owner with piece of mind knowing that they are operating properly and that their staff has received adequate training to use them.

Sustainable—Without proper commissioning, sustainable and energy efficient operation of a building would unlikely. From the drawing and installation review, to the equipment testing, and through the maintenance staff training, the CxA establishes an important operational baseline that the owner and their staff can reference while maintaining a sustainable and energy efficient facility.

Interaction with Others

It is important that the owner hire the commissioning authority directly. This not only allows the commissioning authority access to the owner and their requirements for the project, but also puts them on a peer level with design and construction teams. Being an equal in these teams is critical because it means that any issues will be given the attention they need without being subjugated. The CxA also needs to take care not to overstep their bounds, understanding and following the proper lines of communication for the project, making suggestions and raising questions, rather than being critical of the engineering and directing construction changes.

A typical project organizational chart

A typical project organizational chart

Communication is the top skill for a CxA and should be able to do so on three distinct levels. The first is at an executive level, where the CxA will be communicating with the owner, becoming empathetic to their requirements and their staffs' ability to operate the building. Next is developing a rapport with the design team by effectively communicating that the CxA is their ally not an adversary. It helps to have an attitude of "win-win", leading designers to discover the CxA's intent, and ultimately making them look good to the owner for being able to put together a quality set. Lastly are the contractors, the people that bring life to the drafting and create the physical reality of the building. Communicating with these craftsmen requires an understanding of budgets, schedules, and construction methodologies. Issues in this phase are often best communicated face-to-face and as early in the construction process as possible. Also take time to listen to them as they often have great suggestions and insight regarding the design or layout that the design team might have missed. Communications throughout the commissioning process, whether a formal report or a casual conversation over a cup of coffee, cannot be stressed enough as a skill.

Emerging Issues

Some of the emerging issues in the discipline of Commissioning Authorities include:

No Unified Governance for Providers

Commissioning has always been about verifying that owners receive a quality project that meets their needs, but even when commissioning is implemented there is no guarantee that this will produce results. As with any provider, quality of service can vary significantly even when the same process is followed. Commissioning Authorities do generally recognize ASHRAE Guideline 0 as the principal reference for the commissioning process; however it delegates the exact means and methods of execution back to the Commission Authority. Unfortunately certifications offer little clarity about which best protect the owners and guide their decisions due to the quantity that exist. Currently there are seven organizations certifying Commissioning Authorities, with only one dedicated solely to this discipline. With such diversity in practice and certification, there are some concerns among providers that this lack of a standard performance metric will result in government intervention mandating a "one-size fits all" compliance standard or some equally unsavory solution.

Slow Market Acceptance Outside of LEED

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has had both positive and negative effects on the commissioning industry. Positive from the recognition and business development stand point, but negative because it has caused commissioning to be viewed as a commodity rather than a custom solution to fit an owner's needs. Additionally, it has trained design and construction teams to think of commissioning as two separate services (fundamental and enhanced) rather than a unified process which then requires reeducation, especially when discussing non-LEED projects. Owners not striving for LEED and unfamiliar with commissioning also need to be educated as to its benefits instead of dismissing it when faced with a tight budget. In the end, owners will realize that they can pay for commissioning now, or they can pay for energy and other inefficiencies later.

Lack of Training Beyond the Commissioning Process

Upon entering this discipline one discovers that there are a number of resources to learn about the process of commissioning. Beyond this basic knowledge lies a gap in practical training. Experience and in-house expertise become the standard teachers at this stage which then begs the question, "Can you teach experience?" Commissioning Authorities that fail to gain this practical experience are in danger of becoming paper pushers and will bring little value to a project. A large opportunity exists for the organization that can bring this type of hands-on knowledge to this discipline.

Litigation

When first learning about the commissioning process it is made clear that it is focused on helping owners inherit buildings that meet their requirements and function properly. Concurrently, the use of words like ensure and guarantee when referring to building operation and one's work are discouraged. As a discipline, CxAs are not responsible for the design or installation, and because of this their liability is limited. However, anyone who has been involved with construction knows responsibility can be hard to assign when something is not right. Everyone connected to the project becomes involved when litigation occurs and the commissioning authority is no different. Their involvement commonly takes the form of providing expert testimony and producing documents that will be used in the case. Even when not affiliated with the project some commissioning firms become involved by providing expert witness services. As a commonly touted benefit of litigation avoidance, commissioning may also be beneficial to the project should litigation occur.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Major Resources

WBDG

Project Managment

Project Planning, Delivery, and Controls, Project Delivery Teams, Select Appropriate Design Professionals, Risk Management, Building Commissioning, Determine Project Performance Requirements, Document Compliance and Acceptance, Plan the Commissioning Process

Government Agencies

Organizations

Certifications

ACG (AABC)
AABC is a test and balance organization that has created a separate subgroup that specifically deals with building commissioning, the ACG. They have two certifications available. The CxA is focused on the experienced professional, while the CxT has been recently added for the applicants who require more training.

AEE
AEE has four certifications available. The CBCP was the original certification, followed next by the EBCP for those professionals focused more on existing buildings rather than new construction. Recently they have added the CBCF and the CBCPM for firm or professionals that wanted to further distinguish themselves.

ASHRAE
ASHRAE developed their certification in close collaboration with APPA, BCA, IES, NEBB, SMACNA, TABB, and the University of Wisconsin - Madison and closely followed the rigors of the ANSI criteria. ASHRAE's intent was to establish a certification specifically focused on the individuals who would manage the process of commissioning for a project, rather than the technical aspects of commissioning.

BCA
The only organization solely dedicated to the field of building commissioning, they developed the CCP certification as a high benchmark for professionals. Later, to meet the need for a more entry-level certification they developed the ACP.

NEBB
The NEBB commissioning certification process follows closely their process for becoming certified in testing and balancing. Anyone can take their certification courses, which cover a number of different building systems but they will only certify firms. To accomplish this firms must first meet specific qualifications and be approved by the organization. Additionally, a certified firm must have at least one qualified supervisor who has also met the individual requirements of the supervisor position as described by NEBB.

TABB
The TABB Commissioning Supervisor is certification that is not commonly seen in the industry.

University of Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a unique certification process. Applicants who do not yet have sufficient professional experience in the commissioning process to qualify for one of the more advanced certifications will receive accreditation as a QCxP. This certification is then valid for five years to allow the applicant time to acquire the necessary experience for one of the other certifications.

Publications

Training and Other Resources