Commissioning has been around for a long time, but it has been traditionally considered the testing and startup of a system or component. Most project managers in the construction trade would consider commissioning to occur at the end of a project when the system(s) have been installed and are ready for testing and turnover to the building owner. That is the way things have been done for many years. Commissioning in other trades has basically meant the same thing. Ships are commissioned when completely built and ready for launch. The space station was commissioned when its main core was assembled and ready for occupancy. An HVAC system is commissioned after final testing and balancing are performed.
So how has commissioning changed? Well, that can be answered by the philosophy of commissioning as a womb-to-tomb process where commissioning begins in the planning phase of a project and continues during construction (including acceptance testing) and throughout the service life of a building or system. That's not to say that FPEs continually test and inspect an existing system or building as vigorously as during construction. But part of the philosophy of commissioning is to prepare the maintenance staff for the inspection, testing and ongoing maintenance needs of the system so the system will function as intended, with as few issues as possible, throughout its entire service life. This is a process that Liberty Mutual refers to as human element-keeping systems functioning at all times.
Every construction project can be divided into four basic components: pre-design (or planning), design, construction and occupancy. Commissioning must play a part in all of these phases. In the pre-design phase, the owner (who pays for all of this work) establishes the project requirements and determines whether commissioning is needed at all. During the design phase, commissioning may take the form of oversight of the design to provide a system of checks and balances to verify that the installation complies with the project specifications. During construction, commissioning may require periodic inspections of the installation, pre-functional testing and acceptance testing activities. And, during the occupancy phase, commissioning involves development and submission of turnover documentation (operation and maintenance manuals and as-built drawings and calculations), training of personnel and the establishment of an ongoing inspection, testing and maintenance program.
The pre-design or planning phase should include a discussion with the owner's planning team to determine the complexity of the project, which will in turn drive the need for a formal commissioning program. The owner's planning team usually consists of the owner or owner's representative; the design team, consisting of the architect and other design professionals; the insurance representative; installing contractor; manufacturer's representatives; the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and, if needed, the commissioning team.
The planning team may also include a facility manager and third party testing representative. Together, in addition to the usual project planning tasks, this group should develop the owner's project requirements (OPR) for commissioning. The OPR will establish the requirements for all of the commissioning activities and should include the following items at a minimum:
- Infrastructure requirements (roads, site access, utilities)
- Facility type, size and height
- Intended use
- Occupancy classification, number of occupants, and hours of operation
- Future expansion requirements
- Applicable codes and standards
- Specific user requirements
- Training requirements
- Warrantee and operation and maintenance requirements
- Integrated system requirements
- Specific performance criteria
- Third party requirements
Producing this information in the initial stages of a project can help prevent any misunderstanding of the project requirements and can help avoid the possibility of costly re-work or change orders. For example, Liberty Mutual has "Interpretive Guides" to several NFPA standards and the firm's loss prevention engineers ensure that the design team is fully aware of these requirements when specifying a fire protection system for a policyholder's property. It is important to note that each project will have its own unique characteristics.
While the project team should be aware of the roles played by each entity on the team, for the commissioning agent the main focus will be project oversight, which generally includes:
- Establishment and execution of a commissioning plan
- Review of installation and record documents
- Documentation of any deviation from the OPR and recording of any issues in an issues log
- Witness of pre-functional and acceptance testing
- Recommend acceptance of the system to the owner
- Submission of the final commissioning report to the owner
The commissioning plan, which should contain all elements of the activities of the commissioning team, normally includes the following information:
- Commissioning scope and overview specific to the project
- General project information as outlined in the OPR
- Fire protection and life safety commissioning team members, roles and responsibilities
- General communication plan and protocol
- Commissioning process tasks and activities through all phases
- Commissioning schedule
- Required commissioning process documentation and deliverables
- Required testing procedures
- Recommended training
- Establishment of a comprehensive operations and maintenance procedure
Because a commissioning agent will most likely oversee testing of interconnected systems, it is imperative that the commissioning team fully understands all aspects of the project in order to develop and execute the commissioning plan.
Much of the design phase of a project involving commissioning includes the development of a basis of design (BOD) document or narrative report in addition to the design. The BOD document is intended to provide project design details that may not be readily apparent in the design documents. The BOD should include the thought process used in the design as well as a thorough description of the proposed systems and how the systems are expected to work together. This description should also include an analysis of system interactions and how these interactions will impact the independent operation of the individual systems.
As the industry moves forward with more performance-based design versus prescriptive design, a detailed description of systems and their interaction will become even more necessary. Because this is performance-based design, without this detailed information, it will be impossible to determine what the design intent was initially. This would not necessarily be an issue with prescriptive design. The BOD should contain the following elements:
- A description of the building or structure
- A description of the proposed systems and components
- Performance objectives and criteria
- Codes and standards used
- Acceptance testing and other startup requirements
- Inspection, testing and maintenance requirements
The BOD should be prepared and submitted for review concurrently or prior to any design drawings or calculations. The information contained in the BOD is essential for a complete understanding of the function and design intent of the proposed systems. While this information is not necessarily required by any of the applicable installation codes or standards, it will be very useful during review of the design drawings and calculations.
For example, performance objectives and criteria may include a matrix of the system interactions intended by the design team. This is helpful because it is not always readily apparent what interactions are necessary when a sprinkler waterflow switch or a fire alarm smoke detector activates. While acceptance testing requirements are well established in each individual installation standard, the requirements for interconnected systems testing are not as widely known. The BOD can help explain the requirements for interconnected systems as well as many other design questions.
Integrated systems. The design methodology for integrated systems should take into account a number of factors including what type of material and equipment are interconnected. The testing requirements for individual systems are very well established in each respective installation standard but testing of the entire integrated system of sprinkler, smoke control and fire alarm is not addressed in any current code or standard. The testing of the final interconnection of all of these systems must be addressed and included in the BOD and should be managed by a formal commissioning program.
Additionally, the BOD should document how the interconnected systems operate and communicate to achieve the intended outcome and should clearly demonstrate that operation of interconnected systems does not impair the functionality of other systems or components unless intended to do so.
The sequence of operation of interconnected systems and location of interconnections should be delineated in the BOD including a procedure and frequency for testing because no code or standard currently requires such information.
Most of the commissioning activity takes place during the construction phase. The most important activities in this process are 1) witnessing and verifying compliance with the approved shop drawings and product data submittals by performing inspections of the installed systems and equipment and 2) witnessing and verifying pre-functional testing and acceptance testing of systems and components. Each of these activities must be documented with any identified problems or issues noted and the appropriate corrective action taken before occupancy.
The construction phase will require many coordination meetings in the field to schedule and complete verification of the installation and testing. The construction phase also includes compilation of the turn-over documentation or "as-builts" and initiation of the training program established in the commissioning plan.
An important part of commissioning is the development and submittal of project closeout documentation. Not only must a complete and accurate set of as-built drawings and calculations be included in this submittal, but a copy of all test reports and a comprehensive list of materials, equipment and contact information for equipment suppliers must be compiled. As a minimum, project closeout documents should include:
- Compiled list of all deficiencies and resolutions including verification of corrective action
- Operations and maintenance manuals
- Documentation of test results and certificates
- As-built drawings and calculations
- Recommended spare parts lists and supplier listings
- Re-commissioning plan (periodic integrated testing)
- Sequences of operation
- Basis of design
The occupancy phase occurs when construction is complete, acceptance testing is verified and documented and the final submittals, such as operation and maintenance manuals, are delivered. It is at this time that formal training of operating personnel is conducted.
This is a critical aspect of commissioning since it is the operating personnel who care for the ongoing operation of the building and systems. Because many operating personnel may not be very well versed in the operation and maintenance or even the intended function of fire protection systems, training related specifically to these systems is especially important. Under the commissioning process, design documentation will also occur during the occupancy phase, hopefully eliminating the scenario where fire protection professionals need good documentation to redesign or update an existing system only to find that none exists.
If commissioning is simply an additional quality assurance checkpoint, why further add to the cost of the construction process with additional paperwork and another inspection? Formal commissioning addresses the scenarios where an installing contractor may not be prepared to test a system when the fire marshal arrives on site or individual contractors are either not prepared to, or do not understand the need to, test interconnected systems. Further, once construction is completed and the building is occupied, building owners often do not have the appropriate turnover documentation for the newly installed systems.
Commissioning is not intended for every project. A small project or one that is relatively straightforward only requires the submittal and acceptance testing requirements of the appropriate installation standard. Commissioning is designed for larger, more complex projects.
There are two main reasons why a building owner - who is funding the project - might consider commissioning:
- The project is large and very complex and commissioning could provide a cost reduction by identifying inefficiencies through a best practices approach to construction.
- The project is undergoing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or Green Globes certification, in which case commissioning is mandatory.
With the U.S. Green Building Council forecasting growth in LEED and Green Globes construction to double between now and 2013, more buildings will be required to complete a formal commissioning process in order to meet these certification standards. Perhaps this increase in commissioned projects will make the industry more comfortable with the commissioning process as well as streamline the process to make it less onerous.
Until then, building owners with projects that will not be certified to LEED or Green Globes will need to determine whether or not their project is "complex" enough to justify the time and expense associated with a formal commissioning process. A properly commissioned system can pay dividends over its service life by not needing as much maintenance and ser vice as a system that was not the subject of a formal commissioning program.
As the industry moves forward towards commissioning, there are several organizations that are involved with and are proactive in the commissioning process.
The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) is currently developing a set of 11 guidelines covering total building commissioning. These guidelines will include all aspects of a building and its systems.
ASTM International has assembled a working group (Task Group E06.55.09) to develop a New Practice for Exterior Enclosure Commissioning. This project is an expansion of part of the forthcoming NIBS guideline and translates that information into an enforceable standard.
The Portland Energy Council has developed a guideline1 on commissioning. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has published The Building Commissioning Guide2 designed for project managers, commissioning agents and other stakeholders in the commissioning process. The guide provides an overview of the commissioning process including planning, design, construction and post-construction phases of a project.
The Building Commissioning Association's (BCA) mission is to guide the building commissioning industry through advancing best practices and education and promoting the benefits of building commissioning. The BCA has many publications related to the commissioning of buildings and systems including the Building Commissioning Handbook.3
The National Fire Protection Association has published a book titled Commissioning Fire Protection Systems4 and is presently developing a document on the subject. The draft document, although not complete as of this writing, should be available in 2011. The recommended practice, which has been under development since December 2007, presently includes recommendations for testing of interconnected systems with a sample testing matrix illustrating potential interactions of various fire and life safety systems in addition to all of the necessary elements for a comprehensive commissioning program.
So is commissioning a new buzzword? No, commissioning is nothing more than a best practices or project management effort that FPEs have been engaged in for a long time. Commissioning is a quality assurance or quality control process that verifies completion of work as specified in either the project specifications or codes and standards (or both). A formal commissioning program may require documentation in excess of the norm or pre-functional testing in excess of the minimum code requirement but commissioning is nothing new.
The basic objectives of commissioning are to clearly document the needs of the building owner, provide an organized, documented approach to verification of deliverables, better documented and more detailed verification of system performance, improved training of personnel and vastly improved turn-over documentation. This best practices approach, complete with better documentation, is the very foundation of commissioning.
David Hague is with Liberty Mutual Property Risk Engineering.
- Building Commissioning Guidelines, Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., Portland, OR, 2001.
- The Building Commissioning Guide, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, DC, 2005.
- Heinz, J. & Casault, R. Building Commissioning Handbook, Building Commissioning Association, Portland, OR, 2004.
- Hague, D. Commissioning Fire Protection Systems, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA.