Planning ahead — the choice between an A and a G

At the huge Spinningfields development in Manchester, Commtech was responsible for mechanical and electrical commissioning for three of the main buildings, including commissioning management for two of them.
Commissioning is a neglected art, but the growing legislative responsibilities on building owners means it is about to come into its own, says MIKE MALINA.The industry is entering a period of unprecedented legislation designed to focus minds on sustainability and energy conservation following the enactment of the Kyoto Protocol in February. As well as the new Parts L, P and F of the Building Regulations, the Government’s Sustainable & Secure Buildings Act sneaked into effect almost unnoticed last year. Legislation Next January sees the appearance of energy labelling of buildings under the provision of the EU Energy Performance Directive and Building Regulations Part L2, along with the delayed Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE). At the same time, publicly displayed energy certificates will become mandatory. If all that was not enough, the Government’s Code of Sustainable Buildings comes into action next year, aimed at increasing recycling, reducing waste and improving the environmental footprint of our work. Clients are now looking to us — the professionals — to help them comply with this mountain of regulations and meet their own corporate responsibilities. If we cannot come up with the answers, who will? Commissioning has a critical role to play in all of this. If it was not done properly in the first place, then it will have to be done now to get building-services systems back on the right track in terms of energy performance and meeting the needs of occupants. Ideally, commissioning should take place at all stages of the design process from concept, through installation and pre-commissioning on to balancing, performance testing and final handover. Ideally, the systems should also be subject to ongoing independent validation after the occupier takes possession to ensure that buildings continue to perform to their design targets throughout their life. New Building Regulations The advent of the new Building Regulations, which are the main tools deployed by our Government to comply with the EU directive, will inevitably lead to the effective re-commissioning of building services in a very large number of poorly performing buildings. What alternative is there if end users are going to get their buildings up to scratch? Ripping out and starting again is rarely the answer. Planning ahead is where the biggest improvements are to be made, of course. This is particularly important in buildings that are in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week — such as hospitals, hotels and prisons. We have to ensure they are set up properly from the outset; you only have one chance with 24/7 buildings as you cannot shut them down and start again once they are occupied. That means commissioning managers should be involved at every stage from concept design onwards. Clarity of purpose makes the commissioning engineer’s job much simpler and helps remove areas of potential conflict with other members of the design team. By ensuring as much testing and commissioning as possible takes place off site, for example, the services designer gives himself much more room to manoeuvre. Rules of thumb Some key rules of thumb include the following. • Minimise on-site commissioning by using things like factory calibrated VAV boxes. Have as much testing done in the factory as possible. • Be clear about the designer’s objectives for the building. • Review the design information to ensure it is reliable, accurate and complete. • Make sure detailed schedules exist for plant and equipment. • Review the controls strategy. • Consider operational efficiency. Is there a better way? • Develop a strategy and programme for on-going validation of the services and introduce innovative checks and technologies, for example the use of thermal imaging to look beyond conventional methods. The long view Our industry is very good at developing new ideas and coming up with clever technical solutions to problems, but we are not so good at taking the long view and designing for maintenance, validation and replacement of plant at the end of its life. Issues like plant room access and providing lifting beams can avoid serious problems in the future, but are often overlooked at design stage. Architects love to streamline their service cores, but they can make service and maintenance difficult as a result. We must be firm; the chances are that our first thoughts were right, and if we compromise it will be to the detriment of the building occupants. However, persuading the architect to change course depends on us being very clear about our strategy and having a detailed programme to support our arguments. Designing spare capacity into the system to allow for changes in the use of a building and to give occupants the flexibility to move wards, offices, classrooms and people around and to accommodate new tenants is another vital area often overlooked. Such planning does not have to be expensive if you do it at day one. Some developers are looking to lower end-user expectations to keep commercial rental costs down, which means they will go for cheaper alternatives. As members of the design team, we should be able to pose the questions: ‘Is that the best way? Can the building operate more effectively if we do things differently?’ Better performance The mass of new legislation piles on even more pressure to squeeze better energy performance out of existing buildings too — particularly highly glazed ones. The thermal performance of glazed facades is coming under close scrutiny, and better control strategies and improved insulation levels will be required to get buildings through the inspection process. Buildings have an asset value for their owners and the Energy Labels will have an impact on the marketing of those buildings. Would you want to rent a building that rates ‘G’ for energy performance? Annual ‘building MOTs’ could check the safety and business critical processes of a building — like fire alarms and power back-up systems — are in full working order and monitor energy performance. As an industry, we do design wonderful systems, but if they are not tested properly and commissioned, they will not work as intended, and the design will be a failure. Sometimes it takes years to fathom why systems are not working properly. Because of the time pressures to finish buildings, it is often difficult to complete testing, but a proper commissioning strategy means testing can go on at all stages of the project and does not need to be left to the end. Up to date We need to think about design for commissioning and testing, to record the process and then ensure the documents are kept safely somewhere on site so that the occupants can continue to run the building as intended. By keeping this documentation up-to-date, building users have a full record of the current status of the building, rather than an historic record of how it was meant to be. People do not like being told what to do, but sometimes there is no alternative. There was precious little progress on improving the energy performance of buildings before legislation was threatened; now it is upon us, we have to act. It is time for the professionals to stand up and show leadership. Mike Malina is energy manager of The Commtech Group, Breakfield, The Ullswater Business Park, Coulsdon, Surrey CR5 2HS.
Related links:

modbs tv logo

WIN a Bang & Olufsen speaker system – in the MBS subscriber prize draw 2024

Subscribe, or renew your free subscription, to MBS between 1st June and September 30 2024 and you could win a great prize.

Going Underground

ABM has announced a significant contract win with Transport for London (TfL) to provide mechanical and electrical (M&E) services across the London Underground network.