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
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, www.projectplanningtools.org, allows the development of project-specific commissioning plans based on GSA's project delivery approach.
The commissioning process focuses on
three primary areas that are reviewed in all phases of the construction
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Inspect restraint.
- Complete contractor material and test certificate.
Automatic Sprinkler Systems:10
- 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:
- The owner's project requirements.
- The scope and budget for the commissioning process.
- 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
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
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
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:
- Verifying that basis of design reports are consistent with owner requirements.
- Updating the commissioning plan to include construction and post-construction issues.
- Developing construction checklists.
- 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
Key elements during this phase include:
- Review of shop drawings for fire protection systems for conformance with owner requirements.
- Review of ongoing construction for conformance with owner project requirements.
- Regular meetings with all parties associated with the commissioning of fire protection systems.
- Revision of construction checklists to include detailed projectspecific information.
- Verification testing of performance.
- 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
A thorough understanding of the systems at a shop-drawing level
is needed to generate the detailed performance checklists for the
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:
- Status of the work.
- Pending issues required for clarification to contractors.
- 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
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
OCCUPANCY AND OPERATIONS PHASE
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
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.
The Building Commissioning Guide U.S.
General Service Administration, Public Buildings Service Office of the
Chief Architect, April 2005.
- Guideline 1, The HVAC Commissioning Process, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 1996.
- Guideline 5 (RA-2001), Commissioning Smoke Management Systems, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 1994.
- ASHRAE Guideline 0, The Commissioning Process, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Atlanta, GA, 2005.
- International Building Code, International Code Council, Falls Church, VA, 2006.
- NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2006.
- NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2006.
- NFPA 24, Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.
- NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2002.