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Commissioning Buildings for Fire and Life Safety
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Commissioning Buildings for Fire and Life Safety

By Thomas C. Brown, P. E. | Fire Protection Engineering


Total building commissioning is becoming a more common process in all types of commercial construction. This article provides a history of the process, identification of available resources and some general guidelines targeted to fire protection engineers.


The U.S. General Services Administration defines commissioning as:


"A systematic process of assuring by verification and documentation from the design phase to a minimum of one year after construction, that all facility systems perform interactively in accordance with the design documentation and intent, and in accordance with the owner's operational needs, including preparation of operation personnel."1

The Building Commissioning Association (BCA) provides a rationale for commissioning in their definition:


"The basic purpose of building commissioning is to provide a quality-based process with documented confirmation that building systems are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained in compliance with the owner's project requirements. Commissioning of existing systems may require the development of new functional criteria in order to address the owner's current systems performance requirements."2



The first attempts at developing industry guidelines for building commissioning started in 1982 when the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) formed a committee to compile best practices used to ensure that building systems met owner's requirements. This initial work focused on the commissioning of HVAC systems to address issues of indoor air quality and unnecessary energy usage.


The work resulted in the publication of ASHRAE Guideline 1, The HVAC Commissioning Process,3 in 1989. ASHRAE Guideline 5,4 Commissioning Smoke Management Systems was first published in 1994.


The Building Commissioning Association (BCA) was incorporated in 1998 as a professional association focused on building commissioning. The association publishes guide specifications and construction checklists for the commissioning process. They also administer an industry certification program.


Ongoing Process Development

The process of building commissioning continues to evolve. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) is leading a program to develop an industry-wide comprehensive set of commissioning guidelines.


The first completed step in this process was the adoption by NIBS and ASHRAE of Guideline 0, The Commissioning Process. 5 The intent of Guideline 0 is to provide a uniform framework for the commissioning process regardless of the specific technical components being commissioned. This process is intended to be related to all of the ASHRAE and NIBS technical documents which will ultimately constitute the comprehensive set of guidelines envisioned by the total building commissioning program. A flow chart depicting the process as reflected in Guideline 0 is shown in Figure 1. 5


The U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) recently published The Building Commissioning Guide for use on federal government buildings. The GSA project planning tool Web site,, allows the development of project-specific commissioning plans based on GSA's project delivery approach.


Key Elements

The commissioning process focuses on three primary areas that are reviewed in all phases of the construction process.

  1. Owner requirements: The purpose of the commissioning process is to deliver a building which meets the owner's requirements. Therefore, it is imperative that these requirements be clearly defined and monitored for necessary adjustment throughout the process.
  2. Commissioning plan: ASHRAE defines this as "the overall document that outlines the organization, scheduling, allocation of resources, documentation, etc., pertaining to the overall commissioning process." 4

    The level of detail in the commissioning plan changes over the course of the project. The initial predesign phase plan may only define players from a functional perspective with little or no detail on the process.

    At the end of the construction process, detailed plans that include specific system and subsystem tests and inspections with associated pass/fail criteria are necessary.

    One early decision that is a key component of the plan is determining who will be responsible for the overall commissioning process. The design professional, contractor, independent commissioning agency or owner may fulfill this role. 5

    It is noteworthy that the BCA suggests that the commissioning authority must be independent of the design and construction team, while ASHRAE does not make this distinction.

    Many times during the commissioning process, it is discovered that systems do not meet performance requirements because of errors in the design. If a member of the design team is the "commissioning authority," there is an obvious conflict of interest. Someone representing the design team may compromise the commissioning process to justify the design.

    Conversely, no one is more familiar-with the design intent and project requirements than the designer. Using someone else for that function could compromise the original intent and ultimately could result in additional expenses for the owner for a perceived duplication of effort.

    The possible conflict of interest may be clearer in the case where the contractor is the commissioning authority. It is possible that system performance is impacted by improper installation. Corrections could lead to additional costs to the contractor, construction delays or other impacts.

    It is an easy position to advocate that the authority should be independent, answering only to the owner. However, this arrangement does lead to some duplicity of effort for the "authority" with both the design team and construction team. It also results in additional owner costs.

    Ultimately, the owner must weigh the pros and cons, and make the best decision for the project.

    What is clear is that, regardless of who leads the team, representatives from design, construction and ownership must be integral parts of the process. The process is not a post-construction review of installed systems. It is an integral part of the design and construction process. If fully implemented, it also extends into the ongoing building operations. Accordingly, it must be accounted for in project schedules, project resource allocation and budgets.
  3. Documentation: The third key element is documentation, because "if it wasn't documented, it didn't happen."

    Testing and inspection in accordance with the commissioning plan must be documented in detail. Any noted deficiencies must be tracked through resolution.

    Documentation is also used to communicate the status of the process to the project team.

Codes and Standards

Many owners mandate the building commissioning process through their contract documents. However, no current U.S. model building codes require total building commissioning, though some elements of the process are mandated by codes.


For years, the U.S. model building codes have contained some form of a "Critical Structure Program" for elements of the construction process that deal with the structural integrity. Under these programs, specific elements of the construction, as defined by the design team (owner requirements), are inspected to code-mandated criteria (commissioning plan). Test results and inspection observations are recorded and filed with the building official (documentation).


More recently, the smoke control special inspector process has been added to the model building codes to assure proper commissioning of smoke control systems. 6,7, 8


These requirements-were originally added to the Uniform Building Code in the mid-1990s.


System installation criteria for fire and life safety systems are not detailed in model building codes. The model building codes typically adopt, by reference, installation standards. Most of these installation standards contain acceptance testing criteria for systems or portions of systems. Examples include:


Underground Fire Mains:9

  • Flush before backfilling.
  • Hydrotest.
  • Inspect restraint.
  • Complete contractor material and test certificate.

Automatic Sprinkler Systems:10

  • Hydrotest.
  • Complete contractor material and test certificate.

These processes and others like them are an attempt to assure quality. However, the standard forms are not detailed enough for complex buildings. Additionally, the processes allow for self-certification by the installing contractor, which is not acceptable under a formal commissioning process.


Modern buildings, systems and their components have become much more complicated. These systems are more interconnected to achieve fire and life safety goals than in the past. The technology and flexibility of modern systems have inserted more opportunities for undetected human error.


The shift to performance-based designs brings with it a responsibility to confirm and maintain building performance. This responsibility falls to engineers, who have a public duty to design and build safe structures.


The Process and the Fire Protection Engineer's Role

Guideline 0, The Commissioning Process,5 divides the process into phases which include predesign, design, construction, occupancy and operation.



The primary objectives during the predesign phase are to develop:

  1. The owner's project requirements.
  2. The scope and budget for the commissioning process.
  3. An initial commissioning plan.

Fire protection and life safety requirements are rarely the driving force in the owner's project requirements. As the project requirements dealing with items such as schedule and budget, user requirements, security requirements, etc. are refined, the fire protection engineer must then determine appropriate fire protection requirements.


During the definition of scope and budget for the commissioning process, potential areas of overlap between team members need to be identified and clarified.


It seems obvious that sprinklers, standpipes, fire pumps and fire alarms fall under the scope of the fire protection engineer. Other systems and features are not as clear. For example, should the mechanical engineer or the fire protection engineer be responsible for the smoke management systems? The mechanical engineer will likely have a better understanding of the operation of the air handling equipment, especially if it is also used for environmental air. However, the fire protection engineer will have a better understanding of how that mechanical equipment fits into the overall fire and life safety plan for the building. The fire protection engineer will know which architectural boundaries must be in place for proper system operations; which doors and/or dampers must be simultaneously controlled to create appropriate boundary conditions; the impact of system operation on egress door opening force requirements; and whether this impact is acceptable.


An appropriate division of responsibility in this case may be that the mechanical engineer is responsible for proper air handling unit operation, and the fire protection engineer is responsible for system control and overall system performance.


Another typical area of overlap is building emergency power. Power distribution issues normally are the responsibility of the electrical engineer. However, emergency power is critical to many areas of fire and life safety such as appropriate emergency lighting levels and proper operation of equipment, like fire pumps, in an emergency.


It may be appropriate for the fire protection engineer to be responsible for correct emergency lighting levels and the proper operation of the transfer switch that is integral to the fire pump controller. The electrical engineer would be responsible for commissioning all other portions of emergency power generation and distribution.


Scope overlap can occur as it relates to passive fire protection features. Who should be responsible for the commissioning process on structural steel fireproofing the architect, the structural engineer or the fire protection engineer? How about proper construction of fire-rated separations or proper hardware on rated doors and/or egress doors?


The overlap areas cited are common; however, it is not intended to be a comprehensive list. Each project will be different. The correct solution will also vary on a project basis based on factors that could include complexity, schedule, money, staff resources, commissioning team members' competencies, etc.


The process directs that the scope and fee for the commissioning process be determined in the predesign phase. That cannot be correctly done without clearly defining who will be responsible for what portions of building commissioning.


There is one more critical scope clarification item that should be done in this phase. The fire protection and life safety features of the building are the most highly regulated pieces of the construction process. The Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), usually either the fire marshal or the building official, will require documentation of completion of the fire and life safety features. The AHJ may also witness the tests. The fire protection engineer should be designated as the liaison with the AHJ as it relates to commissioning issues. The AHJ is not concerned if the building meets the owner's criteria only that it meets a minimum standard of safety for use by the public.


If the AHJ wishes to witness system tests, it is usually prudent to have scope and fee documents reflect the costs associated with a complete successful pretest prior to testing with the AHJ. Complex integrated fire and life safety systems often do not function correctly the first time due to equipment failure, programming errors or misunderstanding of the project design documents. Bringing the AHJ out to witness a failing test diminishes confidence in the project team.


At the conclusion of the predesign phase, the fire protection requirements for the project should be identified and documented. The scope of work and budget for fire protection commissioning should be defined and integrated into an initial commissioning plan.



Key objectives during the design process include:

  1. Verifying that basis of design reports are consistent with owner requirements.
  2. Updating the commissioning plan to include construction and post-construction issues.
  3. Developing construction checklists.
  4. Defining training requirements.

The fire protection engineer should be involved in either the preparation or review of the basis of design report for all active fire protection systems, including smoke management systems. In addition, the FPE should design or review passive construction, such as height and area compliance, construction type, approach to mixed uses, fire resistance assembly ratings and egress.


Issues that impact fire department operations also require design or review, such as vehicle access, hydrant locations, fire department connection locations, fire control room location and ladder truck reach.


During the design phase, the fire protection engineer should pay special attention to integrated operation of multiple systems. Common pitfalls include lack of coordination of sprinkler, fire alarm and HVAC zones with each other and with appropriate architectural boundaries. Some common errors include; specification of duct smoke detectors by the mechanical designer which are incompatible with the fire alarm specified; conflicting number and location of sprinkler flow and tamper switches; and duplications and/or gaps in control and monitoring points between the fire alarm and building automation systems. Although these are normal design document coordination items, if they are not reviewed from a commissioning perspective, they may lead to later problems.


The fire protection engineer should be involved in the development of construction checklists for fire protection systems in accordance with the scope agreed upon in the predesign phase. Several layers of checklists may be necessary for a system. As an example, to properly commission a stair pressurization system, the mechanical equipment (fans and dampers), the integrity of the shaft enclosure and door hardware must all be verified. All of those steps must occur before the system can be fully commissioned.


Checklists developed at this stage of the project may require further refinement during the construction phase with information from the shop drawings. These checklists will be used to define the contractor's responsibility under the contract documents and to continue the development of the commissioning plan.


The fire protection engineer should confirm the owner training requirements for the fire protection features. The amount of training necessary will vary based upon the complexity of the systems, qualifications of operating staff and management approach to maintenance and repair. Some owners may require detailed manufacturer technician level training for multiple staff. As a minimum, all owners will require operator-level training on the systems. Most will want something between the two extremes. These training requirements must be documented in the contract documents so they can be included in the contractor bid.



The construction phase is the most labor-intensive phase for the fire protection engineer involved in the commissioning process.

Key elements during this phase include:

  1. Review of shop drawings for fire protection systems for conformance with owner requirements.
  2. Review of ongoing construction for conformance with owner project requirements.
  3. Regular meetings with all parties associated with the commissioning of fire protection systems.
  4. Revision of construction checklists to include detailed projectspecific information.
  5. Verification testing of performance.
  6. Coordination with the AHJ.

The contractor shop drawings should be thoroughly reviewed for conformance with the project requirements and coordination between trades. For example, in a fully sprinklered building with a smoke control system, the sprinkler, fire alarm, mechanical and building automation system shops must all be reviewed and compared to confirm a common understanding of system performance and points of interface.


The shop drawing review process for fire protection systems occurs in all projects, whether or not they go through the full building commissioning process. It is especially important that the fire protection engineer on the commissioning team review these documents. The FPE will have the best understanding of the integrated operation of the systems.


A thorough understanding of the systems at a shop-drawing level is needed to generate the detailed performance checklists for the commissioning process.


Regular reviews of ongoing construction will help to prevent the need to correct improper construction. Establishing a good working relationship with appropriate trade contractors will make this process easier and mutually beneficial. While trade contractors may not appreciate someone looking over their shoulders, they do not want to redo substandard work.


All parties involved in the commissioning of the fire protection systems should meet regularly. The frequency of these meetings may vary based upon the complexity of the construction, the project schedule and other factors. The first meeting should be scheduled early in the construction process.


At these meetings, all of the following should be discussed as they relate to each trade and each system:

  1. Status of the work.
  2. Pending issues required for clarification to contractors.
  3. Schedule.
  4. Review the status of previously identified deficiencies.

Checklists should be revised by either the trade contractors or the fire protection engineer as necessary to incorporate specific shop drawing details.


Components, subsystems and systems should be tested for conformance with the project requirements. The verification test procedures should be fully documented before the tests. They should include test scenarios, required test and measurement equipment, contractors required to participate, and any other pertinent information.


During the construction process, the fire protection engineer must manage the interface with the AHJ. The AHJ should be kept up-to-date on the status of the work. There should be a clear mutual understanding of the AHJ's expectations. The AHJ should not be scheduled to witness verification testing until a successful pretest has been completed.



Depending on the scope of the project and the status of completion of owner requirements at occupancy, the fire protection engineer may or may not be involved in this phase. However, several activities must be completed.


Proper levels of training to building staff must be confirmed. For example, damage could occur due to sprinkler activation if no one knows how to shut down the system. This is one example of the potential negative results from lack of proper training.


Complete as-built documentation and operations and maintenance manuals should be turned over to the building operations staff.


If initial operations problems develop, they need to be investigated and resolved. Examples include nuisance alarms, pump cycling and equipment adjustment issues.


Thomas Brown is with Rolf Jensen & Associates.



  1. The Building Commissioning Guide U.S. General Service Administration, Public Buildings Service Office of the Chief Architect, April 2005.
  3. Guideline 1, The HVAC Commissioning Process, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 1996.
  4. Guideline 5 (RA-2001), Commissioning Smoke Management Systems, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 1994.
  5. ASHRAE Guideline 0, The Commissioning Process, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 2005.
  6. International Building Code, International Code Council, Falls Church, VA, 2006.
  7. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2006.
  8. NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2006.
  9. NFPA 24, Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.
  10. NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.

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