While you could wait until construction starts before bringing a Commissioning Agent (CxA) onboard, you’d be missing out on significant benefits by waiting until that point, and could even be doing your project a disservice. Involving a CxA early in the process will help you make sure your goals and needs for the project are recorded and taken into consideration by the design and construction team, help catch potential issues and opportunities for improvement before the ceremonial shovel even hits the ground, and help ensure proper integration of your building’s systems.

One of the benefits of hiring the CxA in the pre-design phase is to assist the owner in creating the OPR (Owner’s Project Requirements). This document serves as a guide for all team members throughout the project. The CxA starts by interviewing the owner’s team to understand their overarching goals and needs for the project. That information is then pulled together into one comprehensive document. Examples of the information that would be included in an OPR are specific types of systems or equipment that must be included or avoided based on past experience, serviceability requirements, unique training requirements for the operating staff, and minimum warranty durations.  Ideally, it is from the OPR that the design team should develop the Basis of Design (BOD) to make sure the design is meeting the goals of the owner.  However, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes the design team is actively developing the design concepts based on multiple meetings and information gathering sessions, but that information is not formally documented. In this case, the CxA should work with the design team to discover, extract and document that information for clarity and future reference. Clearly defining the owner’s key project needs and goals will benefit both the owner and design team, and the chance of something being missed in the design is significantly reduced.  This means less headaches (sometimes referred to as change orders) later during construction.

A key benefit of having a CxA onboard during design is to perform design reviews. The CxA can perform commissioning-focused design reviews at various stages: Schematic Design (SD), Design Development (DD), and Construction Documents (CD). Their main focus is ensuring the design is compliant with the OPR and BOD. In addition, they can review the design for improved energy efficiency opportunities and make recommendations. After each review, the CxA’s comments are provided back to the design team for incorporation into the next set of drawings.

Let’s go through a few worst-to-best-case-scenarios to see how the OPR and design reviews, or lack thereof, could impact your project. Let’s say you’re building a school. Per the design, the facility is intended to be used as an emergency shelter and is equipped with an emergency generator to provide power for lighting and to heat and cool the facility when outages occur.

  • Scenario 1: You don’t hire a CxA. There is a power outage following a storm. The building is on emergency power and at full capacity. During the outage, occupants begin to feel tired and the building feels “stuffy.”  You realize the air handling equipment is not reacting as intended or is not operating at all. You discover that the computer controls for the HVAC system are not operating because an uninterruptable power source was never provided, and the computer isn’t powered from an emergency power outlet.  The resulting problem is that the air handling systems are not providing ventilation air to the facility.  None of the systems have been tested for proper functionality and interoperability because a CxA was never hired to identify this.  As a result, there could be other problems that further jeopardize the facility functioning as an emergency shelter – but they haven’t been discovered yet.
  • Scenario 2: You hire a CxA during the construction phase. They test the systems under an actual full power loss condition.  As a result, the problem described in Scenario 1 above is discovered prior to an actual power outage, with the root cause issues identified.  The issues and corrective action options are discussed with the project team including the design engineer and construction team, to develop a plan to correct the issue.  This situation likely results in a costly change order and potential schedule delays, but at least the discrepancies are discovered prior to a real emergency outage event.
  • Scenario 3: You hire a CxA during the predesign phase of your project. They have you complete an OPR questionnaire that specifically asks about the detail of facility operations associated with the building being used as an emergency shelter, along with follow up questions.  That information is captured in the OPR. The design team uses that to guide the development of the construction documents, to coordinate the systems and their proper interoperability. The CxA performs a design review prior to bidding to ensure that necessary details of the emergency power system and the interoperability with other systems is properly captured.  At the bid stage, everything is captured in the construction documents, and is verified and tested by the CxA during construction. When a real-world power outage occurs, the emergency power and HVAC systems work flawlessly, and the emergency shelter functions are not jeopardized.

With the increasing complexity of building systems in recent years, it has become even more important to focus on integration of systems from the earliest design concepts to post-occupancy. A key element of the predesign phase is being able to coach the owner, providing guidance on the best options for integration based on their facility’s needs. Most owners are not typically involved in dozens of construction projects every year, so they may not be as knowledgeable about current construction industry practices and new advancements in systems technology. A well-versed CxA can provide guidance on what options are available and make recommendations that will help the owner achieve their overarching goal.

In addition, the CxA can work with the other project team members to ensure everyone is on the same page. One way the CxA can do this is by coordinating a controls integration meeting during the design phase with the engineering team (and controls contractor if selected at this stage.) The CxA is in an excellent position to facilitate this meeting. They have extensive knowledge of different types of controls systems and routines that can be applied in various situations. Additionally, the CxA can ensure that the construction documents clearly and precisely describe the controls contractor’s scope of work so there is no ambiguity. The CxA would review the sequence of operations line by line to make sure that the equipment referenced matches what was specified.  Flushing out any questions or confusion at this stage will save all parties time and effort, which avoids potential delays and saves the project owner money in the long run. During this meeting, the CxA is also an advocate for the owner and can question the constructability and operability of the proposed design. Do the proposed systems and sequences of operations make sense as a whole? Can they be tested properly?

So, let’s revisit our title question: when is the best time to hire a Commissioning Agent? While the needs for each project may vary, the best answer is to hire a CxA as early as possible for several reasons:

  • Involving a CxA during the Predesign phase of a project will allow for the owner’s needs and goals to be not only heard, but documented, emphasized, and revisited throughout the entire project. This leads to a more successful outcome for the end users of the facility.
  • Early stage commissioning design reviews offer an opportunity to discover potential issues and energy efficiency improvements, as well as ensuring compliance with the owner’s requirements. Discovering possible issues and opportunities early in the process will reduce the risk of gross errors or excessive change orders down the road.
  • Hashing out the systems integration requirements before construction is yet another way to avoid errors later on in the project. Ensuring the project team is on the same page will limit confusion, which will save everyone time, effort, and money.

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Ernest Lawas

About the Author:

Ernest Lawas is the co-founder and a Managing Principal at Sustainable Engineering Solutions. He has over 25 years of experience providing Commissioning services nationwide. Ernie is a registered Professional Engineer (P.E.) in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. He is also a Certified Commissioning Professional through the Building Commissioning Association, a Certified Energy Manager and Certified Energy Auditor through AEE, and a LEED Accredited Professional.