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Plan the Commissioning Process

by the WBDG Project Management Committee

Last updated: 06-11-2012


Should an independent Commissioning Authority be retained, and if so, when? How will the commissioned systems be tested, inspected, and documented? How much should be budgeted for commissioning and special testing services? Once a project delivery team has determined critical project goals and requirements, these questions are answered by planning the commissioning process. This page is about incorporating a project's performance requirements into a plan that defines the commissioning scope, process, responsibilities, budget, and documentation requirements.

This WBDG page provides information on common commissioning planning practices and related resources.


Establish Goals for Quality, Efficiency, and Functionality

The commissioning planning process should be accomplished at the same time that a project team Determines Project Performance Requirements. The level and focus of commissioning efforts should be appropriate to a project's size, complexity, its housed mission, and an owner's risk management strategy. After the project delivery team has determined the essential project performance requirements, goals for project quality, efficiency, and functionality can then be established, and a commissioning approach and scope can be developed.

Establish a Commissioning Approach and Scope

There are numerous ways to assemble and structure a commissioning team. A different team member, including owner representatives, contracted program managers, or design professionals may lead the commissioning effort at each stage of project delivery, but the overall process, principles, and objectives are constant.

The question of who should be responsible for planning and overseeing the Building Commissioning Process and specific commissioning activities will depend on the needs of each project and is somewhat driven by budget and expertise available within the project delivery team. Regardless of where the responsibility for building commissioning lies, it is important that the commissioning authority maintain a position of impartiality to assure there is no conflict of interest. Common approaches to structuring commissioning roles and responsibilities include:

  • A/E as Commissioning Authority (CA)—while not typical, many architectural and engineering firms now offer building commissioning as Additional Services to the basic design contract. The USGBC LEED program, ASHRAE guidelines, and other references allow the CA to be part of the design team, proper, for small projects (less than 10,000 to 20,000 SF). For larger projects the CA may be part of the design firm, however he/she must not be a part of the actual design team for the project at hand. For larger projects (over 50,000 SF) it is recommended that the CA be an independent firm, although they may be contracted through the architect or engineer.
  • Construction Manager (CM) as Commissioning Authority—This commissioning approach can be cost-effective and work well when the CM is independent of the contractor's team and has the needed technical experience on board. Many owner groups use "Not-at-Risk" CMs who act as an owner's agent to manage schedule, cost, and quality. In some cases, the CM may hire the Commissioning Authority as a subcontractor, resulting in no additional contract management responsibility by the Owner.
  • Independent Agent as Commissioning Authority—to date, this is the most common approach to implementing the Building Commissioning Process. Many professional services engineering firms are beginning to specialize in providing building commissioning. The criteria for a good CA is a balance of lead engineering design experience with extensive field experience in installing and testing mechanical and electrical equipment and systems. The CA will typically stress flexibility in design so that performance can be verified.

Since many owners' groups typically utilize A-E's and "not-at-risk" CMs for quality assurance, commissioning responsibilities and benefits of third-party commissioning services must be determined for each project. NIBS Guideline 3-2012 Building Enclosure Commissioning Process BECx provides, "The Commissioning Process does not impinge upon the competency, authority, or responsibility of licensed professionals nor upon the obligations between Owners, Design Professionals or Contractors contained in standardized contract forms or project-specific contracts. The Commissioning Process structures the design and construction process to increase quality. It does not require the Owner to employ a specific outside expert as the Commissioning Authority and nothing would prevent the Owner from selecting the project design or construction firm to do commissioning, if the CA is properly qualified and positioned outside the specific project team within the firm. The level of effort of the Commissioning Process and size of the Commissioning Team for a given building can be strongly influenced by such factors as the owner's preferred level of building quality, the level of risk the owner will accept, as well as building size, type, and complexity".

Commissioning requires the active participation of the A/E, the Building Contractor, a Commissioning Agent, and the Owner. The construction contractor is typically tasked with executing commissioning tests and inspections, with planning, defining commissioning procedures, coordination, witnessing, verification tasked to the Commissioning Agent.

On larger projects, it may be appropriate to employ a Commissioning Authority under two separate contracts, one for commissioning the Planning (Pre-Design) and Design stages and another for planning and executing Construction stage commissioning—after the full extent of systems commissioning and on-site technical services is determined. The GSA Building Commissioning Guide includes a sample Scope of Commissioning Services suitable for use on public agency projects.

Establish Commissioning Budgets

Commissioning costs can range widely and are dependent upon many factors including a building's size, complexity, and whether the project consists of building renovation, modernization, or new construction and the scope of commissioning services provided. In general, the cost of commissioning new buildings range from 0.5 percent of the total construction cost for relatively simple projects such as office buildings to 1.5 for complex laboratories and medical facilities1. Additional information on Building Commissioning can be found in PECI, New Construction Commissioning Costs, 2/14/2002 (PDF 144 KB). For an existing building, the cost of commissioning can range from 3.0 to 5.0 percent of the total operating cost. A good rule of thumb for systems-based commissioning budgeting is between 2 and 4% of the construction cost of each system being commissioned.

Key factors that can have a direct impact in developing a commissioning budget include:

  • When the commissioning process starts (during design, construction, or post-construction)
  • The number and complexity of systems to be commissioned
  • Complexity of the systems
  • The level of detail required during the commissioning process (Does it include documenting and witnessing all equipment start-up, verification tests, spot checking the balancing report, etc.?)
  • Deliverables (design intent document, number of design reviews, commissioning plan, O&M manual review, final report, etc.)
  • Allocation of costs (Will the budget allow for increased design fee, increased contractor bids, training time for O&M personnel, the commissioning consultant's fee, etc.?)
  • Type of project (design-build, plan and spec, retrofit, etc.)

Note: Some utilities now have programs offering incentives/rebates for owners that may offset costs for commission or re-commission of facilities.

Establish Commissioning Plans

A written Commissioning Plan is essential to all commissioned projects and allows all project participants to anticipate and plan for commissioning requirements and milestones. The plan is first developed in the Pre-design phase as a Design Phase Commissioning Plan and is updated at or near design completion and released as a Construction Phase Commissioning Plan. During the Pre-Design phase, the commissioning plan focuses on assuring the owner's performance requirements are incorporated and properly integrated in the prepared and accepted construction documents. Details of systems tests and procedures, assembly specific checklists, and testing and documentation responsibilities are incorporated in Construction Phase Commissioning Plans. Commissioning Plans typically include the following sections or contents:

  • General Project Information
  • Overview and Scope of the Project Commissioning
  • Commissioning Protocols and Communications
  • Commissioning Process, including Team Responsibilities
  • Commissioning Schedule
  • Commissioning Documentation
  • Appendices
    • Testing and Inspection Plans
    • Pre-Functional and Functional Test Procedures
    • Construction Checklists
    • Issues Logs

Establish Commissioning Schedules

The team works closely with contractors to integrate commissioning activities into the overall construction schedule, to keep commissioning activities off the critical path, and to carry out site inspections with a focus on systems operations and maintenance. A commissioning schedule is developed as a section of (or appendix to) a commissioning plan and is updated throughout the project. The objective of scheduling commissioning activities is to integrate and coordinate them with other construction phase activities. Detailed integration of commissioning activities and tasks with the construction schedule is critical to maintaining project milestones. The following chart illustrates how commissioning activities and tasks relate to typically occurring project activities.

Commissioning Process Flowchart

ASHRAE GL-0-2005 Figure B.1—Commissioning Process Flowchart View enlarged

Please see NIBS Guideline 3, which shows how the commissioning process relates to typical planning, design, and construction activities.

Establish Testing and Inspection Plans

A building cannot be expected to operate optimally if the personnel in charge of operating and maintaining the building systems are unfamiliar with how to service the equipment and do not fully understand how and why the systems operate the way they do. This is especially true with highly complex systems and automated controls. The commissioning planning process includes definition of the O&M training requirements, responsibilities, and documentation. Testing appropriate to a facility should be designed along four hierarchal levels: 1) Factory device testing; 2) Field component start-up; 3) System interface testing; and 4) Integrated system testing, which tests the overall facility resilience, under all probable risk scenarios, including failure mode.

Develop Commissioning Specifications

The Construction Specification Institute (CSI) has assigned commissioning to section number 01 91 00. The commissioning specification details the roles and responsibilities of the contractors in the commissioning process throughout the project. A draft set of system readiness checklists (SRCs) and verification test procedures (VTPs) is included in the commissioning specification to communicate to the bidding contractor the level of rigor that can be expected during the testing phase of the commissioning process. Construction contractor responsibilities for commissioning are defined in the commissioning specifications which must be coordinated with other commissioning team members when planning the commissioning process.

Determine Special Testing Needs

As previously noted, the costs of commissioning can be approximately projected based on a percent range of construction costs. Commissioning services normally include elements of program review, planning and managing the commissioning process, and witnessing and documenting commissioning of specified systems and assemblies. When developing commissioning testing and inspection plans, the commissioning team should carefully review means and methods for testing and verification to determine special testing needs that outside of normally provided commissioning services. Examples of such special testing include thermo graphic (Infrared) scans of existing or new construction to identify envelope integrity, destructive testing of proposed assemblies to be commissioned (blast, wind, seismic), water penetration tests, Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) modeling of airflows, building pressurization tests, and the like.

Establish Re-Commissioning Plans

In re-commissioning, the initially commissioned systems are retested on a regular basis, whether needed or not. Retro-commissioning is the commissioning of facilities that have never been commissioned. Re-commissioning can only be applied to buildings that have been commissioned (or retro-commissioned) and requires a "baseline" performance measurement following the initial commissioning process (i.e., when the systems are fine tuned and operating as efficiently as possible). Re-commissioning is an essential element in operating buildings optimally and must be incorporated in initial planning and budgeting of the commissioning program.

Emerging Issues

Whole Building Commissioning (WBC) is becoming an important aspect of building commissioning. It entails not just commissioning typical systems like HVAC, but also includes, lighting systems and controls and building envelope and fenestration to ensure total building performance. WBC is gaining recognition due to the importance of the building envelope and its interaction with the HVAC system. This is especially true in high-performance buildings where passive ventilation with operable windows is critical to the success of the project. It is also especially true of schools and other buildings housing children, as moisture intrusion into walls, ductwork, and HVAC equipment can lead to mold growth and dangerous allergic and asthmatic reactions.

Ongoing / continuous recommissioning is gradually being required by law across the country. The State of California requires re-commissioning of its public buildings and the city of New York recently passed laws requiring recommissioning of all buildings over 50,000 SF, public and private, every ten years. Texas A&M pioneered this program and owners who demand persistence in high-performing strategies are following their example.

Commissioning Authority Certification

The Building Commissioning Association (BCxA) has created the Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP) program to raise professional standards and provide a vehicle for certification in the building commissioning industry. To earn CCP certification, participants must complete an application process that is reviewed by the Building Commissioning Certification Board and pass a two-hour written examination. The CCP Program is underwritten in part by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Other organizations, including The American Institute of Architects, are creating programs, training and contract documents to assist their members in providing commissioning as additional client services.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources


1. U.S. Department of Energy. Building Commissioning.