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Top 5 Tips: What building owners should look for in a commissioning authority

Many building owners come to commissioning somewhat begrudgingly. Whether the requirement is local code or a decision by upper management to pursue the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, we are all less likely to see requirements imposed upon us as opportunities. Putting that resentment aside for a moment, let’s explore how to turn this requirement into a rousing success by selecting the best provider for the job.

First of all, consider some of the potential commissioning benefits:

• Realize better coordination and execution through intentional documentation
• Avoid change orders
• Simplify building turnover
• Improve maintainability
• Track status and resolution of identified issues
• Boost operational performance

What makes commissioning unique is the emphasis on operational performance. The process ensures that building systems are installed as specified and as desired, in addition to optimization of interrelated systems and controls. This has been shown by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory , among others to save energy over the life of the building –this is key. Commissioning impacts how much energy is used, not just how much will theoretically be consumed.

However, beware that not all commissioning providers are created equal. The commissioning industry, propelled in part by the LEED rating system, has grown in size and influence along with the market adoption of LEED and other green building practices over the last ten years. Naturally, along with increased demand many firms have branched out to fill the need for more commissioning providers. With so many service providers, there is some variability in approach and, subsequently, results. What differentiates the best qualified individuals from the masses? Not surprisingly, the answer boils down to experience. However, the type of experience recommended here might not be expected.

Here are some experiential qualities to look for to get the most out or your selection process:

1. Integrated Design Experience. Knowledge that focuses on a single discipline is fundamental for designing a single system, but the ability to integrate that design with all the related building systems—especially the interaction between systems such as mechanical systems and lighting controls or hot water systems with fixture flow rates—is also essential as design complexities increase. Understanding not only how a piece of equipment will function, but how it will be maintained is also highly desirable.
2. Theoretical and Practical Experience. The ability to be just as familiar conducting field testing as reviewing the design — from conceptual drawings to permit set– is critical for getting the most out of the pre- and post-construction commissioning scope.
3. Team Experience. As with any consultant, but especially a technical one, communication skills are crucial to performance satisfaction. A successful commissioning provider will demonstrate the ability to communicate with design, construction, and facility management personnel as a part of a team.
4. Whole Building Perspective. Despite the prevalence of green building practices in many geographic locations, and on specific building types, there are still many commissioning providers who have not yet worked under a third party rating system or local building code under which building commissioning is required and will need to be verified. Understanding the baseline requirements of the rating system and/or building code, what additional options may be available, and how to document compliance with those requirements can help alleviate any compliance concerns early in a project. A design peer review is always recommended to identify efficiency opportunities before it is no longer as cost effective to build those elements into the project.
5. Education Experience. Naturally, an established commissioning authority has developed forms and templates to help streamline the commissioning process, but the willingness to educate design and construction teams about that process will help the team to not only understand the importance of commissioning, but voluntarily participate in the process for the purposes of individual personal and professional improvement. Experience on construction jobs tell us that making the engineers and subcontractors part of the team will reduce the impact to the construction schedule, as well as foster a better performing building.

The lesson here: know the project goal. If you merely want to meet a requirement, hire a commissioning provider that has plenty of experience with the specific building type. However, if you want to optimize your return on that investment, look for a commissioning provider that adds value to your team, the design and construction process, and ultimately to the building’s operational savings over time.

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