The drivers and challenges altering the face of commissioning

Commissioning, Commissioning Specialists' Association, CSA
Commissioning as part of ongoing fine tuning — Matt Ward.

Matt Ward of the Commissioning Specialists’ Association believes that attitudes towards commissioning have not kept up with advances in other areas of the construction process.

With the major increase in construction of many new build, ‘green’ and intelligent high-performance buildings comes a greater expectation upon the delivery of the commissioning process. But is this being truly matched by the approach and recognition of the supply chain?

Commissioning already faces considerable challenges with the traditional building-delivery paradigm whereby performance and, sometimes, quality come second to short-term savings of cost and time. There has, therefore, never been a greater need for adaptation in order to deliver on these enhanced expectations.

Sustainability is arguably the greatest factor driving the current change, as we now have a consciousness of the impact that buildings and their services have on our environment. It is now recognised that performance outcomes, particularly with respect to energy and water consumption have a huge impact over the lifecycle costs of a building and that these are effectively set by commissioning. An outcome of this heightened awareness is the development of building rating systems such as BREAM and approaches such as BSRIA’s soft landings.

In addition to sustainability, there is also a greater appreciation of life-cycle costs and the correlation between building services and tenant satisfaction/retention by building owners with a vested interest in the long term performance of their asset. This, in turn, is driving the desire of the end user for greater quality and performance which, as previously mentioned, is generally at odds with the traditional short-term delivery priorities of cost and time.

Couple sustainability and the greater desire for better quality with advances in building-services technology and you have the three drivers for improving on our approach to the commissioning process.

Improving technologies pose the greatest challenges for the commissioning practitioner as they are the tools for which quality and sustainability are achieved, so as systems become more sophisticated with greater integration and interdependency to achieve these aims, the complexity of the challenge to deliver the performance promised by the design is significantly increased.

The desire to improve is, however, antagonised by the current building-services design and delivery process, which appears to be less integrated than in previous decades. There is a range of factors that have led to this current predicament — none more prevalent than the reduction of design input which is a direct response to shrinking fees and developments in the methodology in project delivery.

Designers have distanced themselves from issuing detailed specifications for the commissioning of their designs, whilst the days of the resident engineer are long gone. The results are ambiguous commissioning objectives, poor acceptance criteria and, in some instances, the delivery of functional testing data only with generic O&Ms.

The good news, however, is that the role of commissioning management has taken up a majority of the slack, but there is still a void between the designer and those delivering their design.

In addition to the gap between designers’ responsibilities and performance outcomes, there is the issue of adequate time allowance for commissioning. Whilst at the front end of a project adequate provision is made, it is so often eaten into during construction, which sometimes leads to a hastily completed project under considerable commercial pressures to meet deadlines by those with little understanding of the issues, subsequently leading to delivery of poorly performing yet functional services.

Commissioning is incorrectly, yet all too often, seen as the last stage of a project, a ‘set up’ process rather than part of an ongoing fine-tuning process. It is traditionally ‘completed’ during the final phase prior to handover at the prevailing external conditions during a period of non-occupancy.

To properly commission building-services systems to deliver the performance objectives specified, the commissioning period must overlap with both the final construction phase and the defects-and-liability period that follows. This thinking largely follows the BSRIA soft-landings approach, incorporating both seasonal and continuous commissioning.

Equally, the gap between performance objectives and actual performance needs to be reduced, requiring an earlier involvement of the commissioning-management team at design stage to assist in identifying commissionability issues that will impact on their performance objectives. BREEAM offers credits for this aspect, but all too often this is misinterpreted, and commissioning managers become engaged with a project far too late to really have the fully intended impact.

Another fundamental aspect to reducing this gap and achieving these performance targets is the need for the designers to specify the competencies and qualifications required of those carrying out the commissioning, such as the Commissioning Specialists’ Association’s Engineer Accreditation System (go to for more information).

For commissioning practitioners the future poses both significant challenges and opportunities as environmental and energy-rating systems such as BREEAM continue to drive the changes which require ever increasing commissioning skills and experience throughout the whole lifecycle of a building to truly realise the designer’s objectives and deliver high-performance intelligent buildings.

One final note, with all this talk of change and the increasing awareness of lifecycle costs, environmental and energy impacts, should we asking the question, ‘How much will it cost to commission correctly?’ Surely the question should now be, ‘How much will it cost if it is not commissioned correctly?’

Answer: significantly more.

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