Commissioning Management – Where is it now and where is it going?

Keith Barker, Director of CSA Member Tectonic Techniques and Chair of the CSA Marketing Committee, offers his considered appraisal.

Commissioning Management appeared about forty years ago and pretty much paralleled the significant increase in specialist mechanical, electrical, and public health sub-contractors. Main contractors realised that, with separate companies providing the electrical installation, the drainage and domestic water, the heating and cooling pipework systems and the ventilation installation, their staff were becoming more and more focussed on a particular package and there was nobody charged with co-ordinating the testing and commissioning of all these elements to ensure that the services in a completed building worked as a comprehensive system.

As with the development of air and water system commissioning companies, the main contractors soon found that they could not afford to carry the staff through the peaks and troughs of workload and so came the growth of commissioning management sub-contractors, coming on board part way through a job to plan, co-ordinate and manage the commissioning activities across the project.

Initially the service was often provided by new divisions within established commissioning companies. These drew on their more experienced commissioning engineers to fulfil the role. Soon, however, newer companies appeared that provided the commissioning management services exclusively. The role encompassed more systems as time went on:

•             My first experience of working with commissioning management was on the Lloyds Building project around 1984

•             Still very much mechanical system / BMS based until early 90's, albeit with ‘bolt-ons’ like fire alarm cause & effect tests. Black-building tests were also introduced, especially where standby generators were involved

•             I seem to recall starting to use PCs (anyone remember Amstrad 1640s) around 1990

•             Beginning to involve UPS systems and the CCTV / intruder detection / access control elements from late 90s / early 2000s

•             Further developments of these systems and interactions between them so that opening a restricted door resulted in the nearest CCTV camera view coming to the fore on monitors

•             Remote SCADA reporting and control of electrical switchgear around the same time

•             Digitisation of everything from around 2005 onwards, but pace of change picking up 2010 onwards

•             The major effect of this was the reduction in size of things like variable speed drives (VSDs), shrinking from wardrobe size to briefcase size

•             BREEAM / energy conservation to the fore from say 2008

•             Mechanical plant VSDs everywhere from 2010 on - the death of the belt & pulley change!

•             The growth in further software driven systems such as lighting control

•             Full integration of all building services and use of PLCs to run everything more common from 2015 on

•             Control systems run across a common fibre network with each system having its own Virtual Private Network (VPN) from 2015

The adoption of these technologies has recently been driven by the ever-increasing importance of energy efficiency and conservation.

So where is commissioning management now?

Pretty much every major project (and quite a few smaller ones) now has a commissioning management function involved, usually bolted on to the main contractor’s organisation. OK, so sometimes this is only because it gets the developer another BREEAM point, but it is more often because the project team recognise that the wide range of systems in a building needs a particular skill set to pull them all together to provide the client with a properly co-ordinated building. The fact that the function does have a particular skill set not found across the building industry in general is underlined by the popularity of the Commissioning Specialists Association’s (CSA) “Introduction to Commissioning Management” training course that has been running for the last few years. This draws interest from many facets of the construction industry, not just the commissioning industry.

Today’s commissioning manager needs an appreciation of many different types of equipment and systems – remember, the basic building environment is still provided by fans and pumps pushing air, chilled water and heating water around the building which is all operated by electricity running along cables to feed control panels and lighting. It is the way those basic systems are interfaced and controlled in an ever more sophisticated manner that is changed and the commissioning management role is perfectly placed to identify and deal with any gaps in the way those systems interact.

Accepting all of that, where is commissioning management heading?

The contention is that the following influences will affect the role over the next few years:

1)            Breadth of Focus – more and more people in the building services industry are in roles where they have a very narrow view of the world. They have a specific work package to look after, and they must devote all their energy to getting those works completed on time and on budget – or as near as they can get!

2)            Commercial Emphasis – it does not matter what form of contract is in place, be it JCT, NEC, etc., the importance of getting the money right will not diminish – see 1) above.

3)            Bureaucracy – everyone hates paperwork, right? Correct. The drawback is that it is not going to go away. And it is not just that, it is the complexity of it. Plonking a stack of test sheets on the desk will not cut it anymore.

4)            Building sustainability and energy efficiency will be ever more important, especially as governments introduce more stringent targets – are carbon neutral commercial buildings a realistic target?

So, tomorrow’s commissioning manager must:

a)            Have a holistic view of the different systems and be fully aware of the ways in which they interface. Yes, it does mean taking time to identify those interfaces, being aware of their importance in proving systems and acting as a co-ordinator between the narrowly focussed package managers so that the right bits of the systems come together at the right time to meet the project requirements, but no one else is going to do it.

b)            Have an appreciation of the commercial aspects of the work packages, but not necessarily to be concerned with the last couple of pounds. It is more to do with convincing people that spending a few extra pounds now to get the systems dovetailing correct saves money in the long term.

c)            Be on top of the paperwork! The adage that ‘if it isn’t written down it never happened’ is truer than ever before. The basic commissioning of a system generates a test sheet pack. But it needs to be presented as a proper report to identify the scope, summarise the results and provide conclusions about the success (or otherwise) of the exercise. The next step is dealing with interfaces between systems. These often do not generate off the shelf test sheets so require the production of bespoke check sheets that again need to be compiled into a proper report. Perhaps the real skill at this point is making sure the report audit trails pass muster. An interface between systems has two ends. Make sure the reports cover both ends!

Of course, none of the above mentions the programme aspect; and that is deliberate. It has always been an issue and will continue to be so, but that is another story.

Are there distinct project management aspects to where the commissioning manager role might be going? Is that a natural progression resulting from the developments in the construction industry? The CSA feels that it is a distinct possibility. That is why they are looking at extending and developing their training efforts into the project management sphere.

Keith Barker is Director of CSA Member Tectonic Techniques and Chair of the CSA Marketing Committee

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