Commissioning: So You Want to Be a CxA

By Tom Owens

The following material is provided for informational purposes only. Before taking any action that could have legal or other important consequences, speak with a qualified professional who can provide guidance that considers your unique circumstances.

Commissioning gained a strong presence in the design and construction world in the early 21st century, thanks largely to the advancements in “smart buildings.” But commissioning was not universally welcomed by architects, engineers and other design professionals as an effective method to improve building performance and gain owner satisfaction. Indeed, many design professionals viewed it as a disruptive and unwanted intrusion into their profession that led to a lot of second-guessing regarding a project’s design.

Much has changed, however. Today, many A&E firms not only recognize commissioning as a valuable tool to improve project performance and owner satisfaction, but they are also now offering commissioning as part of their arsenal of design services. For some, commissioning has become a valuable income generator, particularly on government and institutional projects. It is also a requirement for obtaining LEED green design certification and for any jurisdiction that has adopted the International Energy Conservation Code 2015 or later.

As buildings continue to get smarter and more complex, the need to ensure that mechanical and other systems work to the necessary levels to meet client objectives and industry standards only increases.

What It Is

Commissioning is a process used to test and document the design, installation and performance of critical operational systems of a new or existing facility. These systems can include:

  • Mechanical, electrical and control systems
  • Life-safety systems
  • Building envelopes
  • Low-voltage systems
  • Plumbing
  • HVAC
  • Security
  • Heating and cooling water systems
  • Humidifiers
  • Solar and wind power systems
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Fire alarms
  • Generators and other emergency power systems
  • Exhaust systems
  • Filtration systems.

Certain types of high-function buildings, such as hospitals, labs, clean rooms, and prisons, will have an extensive list of critical operational systems that will need to be commissioned. General office and light industrial buildings may only require abbreviated testing of basic control systems, although even these types of buildings are incorporating more and more high-tech operations.

Typically, the project owner hires a third-party commissioning agent (commonly referred to as a Commissioning Authority or (CxA)) to develop a commissioning proposal and oversee or carry out those activities. The CxA’s sole responsibility is to ensure the project meets the quality levels of design, installation and operation demanded by the owner.

Because commissioning involves the final testing of all crucial building systems at substantial completion of the project, some believe that commissioning doesn’t begin until the finishing stages of construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. A well-executed commissioning program begins in the pre-design stage and continues well after project completion and occupancy. Here are the five general stages of commissioning:

Pre-Design Stage

Preferably, the CxA begins its duties in the pre-design stage by establishing and documenting in quantifiable terms the building performance goals of the owner. These goals are typically compiled in a document called the Owner’s Program Requirements, or OPR. The OPR includes measurable factors such as energy efficiency, water consumption, indoor temperature, humidity and ventilation levels, maximum occupancy, sustainability standards, and indoor air quality. OPRs can also include goals such as achieving LEED certification. The more specific the goals are to the project owner, and the more quantifiable, the better.

Pre-design is also the stage in which the owner and CxA establish the scope and budget for the commissioning activities.

Design Stage

The CxA’s next step is to use the OPR and other documents to help the design team develop design submittals and system specifications that best achieve the owner’s goals. This is often accomplished by having the design team develop a Basis of Design, or BOD.

The BOD describes in detail the design and system approaches that are most likely to achieve the owner’s goals as identified in the OPR. The CxA then applies procedures for measuring and confirming those standards, reviewing systems designs, and offering opinions as to whether the design documents are 1) complete from a systems-level perspective and 2) support the owner’s program requirements.

Construction Stage

In the construction stage, the CxA confirms that the systems designed are properly selected, located and installed. It is crucial that the contractor be involved in the commissioning plan from the very beginning. He or she should be very familiar with the OPR and BOD documents. Indeed, contractors who have expertise in a particular type of project can offer advice and feedback during the pre-design and design stages of commissioning.

It is also important that the contractor work closely with the CxA to schedule and coordinate the commissioning activities that take place during construction. That includes submittal reviews, site visits, and prefunctional checklist development.

Substantial Completion Stage

At substantial project completion, the CxA executes functional performance tests to determine whether the owner’s goals are indeed being met by all building systems before they are brought online. If goals are not being met, the CxA facilitates the resolution of the system’s deficiencies. Note: It is valuable to have owner staff who will operate and maintain equipment and systems participate in the substantial completion testing process.

Typically, commissioning agents report project deficiencies to the owner. The CxA may make general observations and suggestions for meeting owner goals. It is the owner and lead designer, however, who are responsible for ordering and making any changes to design or equipment specifications.

Post Occupancy Stage

Even if a project passes all of its commissioning tests at the substantial completion stage, that doesn’t mean commissioning is over. Equipment and systems can degrade. Advancements in technology may make a project obsolete. Or, an owner’s goals may change.

An ongoing post-occupancy commissioning process may be needed to ensure a project remains up-to-date and continues to meet the owner’s requirements. The CxA may set up a schedule with the owner for continued testing and routine maintenance of targeted equipment and systems.

CxAs may recommend to owners that they conduct commissioning tests just before the end of warranties for essential systems and equipment. This can result in substantial savings should equipment fail to adequately perform before the warranty expires.

Becoming a Commissioning Agent (CxA)

Commissioning can be a substantial service A/E firms can offer to current and potential clients. However no firm or individual should attempt to take on commissioning responsibilities without proper education and training. Fortunately, there are a variety of certification programs available that provide the necessary tools for becoming commissioning agents. Here are three of the best:

ASHRAE’s (the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) Standard 202-2013 — Commissioning Process for Buildings and Systems is an excellent starting point on the road to becoming a CxA. Standard 202-2013 describes how to plan, conduct, and document commissioning and includes samples of documents, checklists, systems manuals, reports, training plans, and more. ASHRAE has also developed recommended scopes of services, from comprehensive total building commissioning to scopes for specific systems such as HVAC, building envelopes or electrical systems.

The Building Commissioning Association, through its BCxA University, offers a full commissioning curriculum, including a comprehensive certification program. Courses are available through recorded on-demand webinars, interactive “live” webinars, and in-person classroom training. The Building Commissioning Association has also published “Essential Attributes of Building Commissioning,” fundamentals of effective commissioning that all association members agree to abide by.

ACG’s CxA Certification Program, provided by the AABC Commissioning Group, is geared toward certifying independent building commissioning professionals. The program is aligned with the certification curricula developed by the U.S, Department of Energy’s Better Buildings program.

Prospective CxA’s are encouraged to investigate these and other certification programs to determine which ones best fit their plans to deliver commissioning services.

Contract Language for CxA’s

When offering services as a commissioning agent, you and your attorney should make sure your client contract stipulates:

  • As a CxA, you have the right to rely upon the completeness and accuracy of all project-related information provided by your client.
  • Your role as CxA is to conduct functional tests and document results for the client. In addition, you may agree to make suggestions or recommendations to help achieve owner objectives; but you shall not order nor execute design changes or equipment specifications. Nor should you certify or warrant your recommendations.
  • Include a detailed scope of services for all project phases specifying which equipment and systems will be tested and which will not. Lines of communication and authorities should also be specified.
  • The lead designer shall have the right to review and respond to any of your recommendations. As a CxA, you shall be neither responsible nor liable for any final design decisions made or approved by the client or lead designer.
  • All claims against you arising out of services performed by other parties to the project shall be waived by the client. Likewise, the client shall waive all claims against you for the services you perform as a CxA except for those where you are negligent in your actions or those that are the result of willful misconduct.
  • You shall not be responsible for nor liable for construction means, methods, techniques and sequences. A waiver for such liability should be included in your client contract, stating that the contractor remains fully and solely responsible for construction activities.
  • You shall not be liable for any errors or omissions contained in any design drawings or specifications prepared by the lead designer or others on the design team. Nor shall you be liable for any errors or omissions in any design changes that are the result of your findings or recommendations to the project owner and carried out by the lead designer or others.
  • You shall not be liable for any damages to the project’s facilities, systems or equipment that are the result of functional testing conducted by you, the client’s contractor, lead designer or others. (It is best to stipulate that the contractor is responsible for carrying out all functional testing.)

Is Commissioning for You?

Commissioning offers many benefits as an effective and objective quality-control process. It increases the chances that a project operates as intended, helps provide a safe and healthy facility, improves energy efficiency, reduces ongoing operating costs, improves the capabilities of the operations and maintenance staff, and establishes documentation for future reference.

Complex projects with several subconsultants and subcontractors, in particular, can benefit from commissioning. The CxA can test the complete operational system (whereas subs tend to focus only on their individual responsibilities) to make sure the project achieves the owner’s desired results.

When applied from the very beginning of a project, commissioning provides for the early detection of design, specification and construction problems that otherwise may worsen. Retro-commissioning of existing, renovated buildings while typically not as efficient as commissioning on new construction, still provides value to owners. It can extend the useful life of the project and helps ensure renovated or replaced building systems will operate to the owner’s specifications.

Finally, you may find instances where the lead designer serves as the owner’s CxA on its own project designs. It is debatable as to whether this type of commissioning presents a conflict of interest. Some may feel that no one knows the owner’s goals better than the lead A/E on its project. Others may opine that a third-party CxA would be more objective and more likely to point out design deficiencies. The AIA has published a commissioning scope of services document for lead designers who perform commissioning services on projects they have designed.

Can We Be of Assistance?

We may be able to help you by providing referrals to consultants, and by providing guidance relative to insurance issues, and even to certain preventives, from construction observation through the development and application of sound human resources management policies and procedures. Please call on us for assistance. We’re a member of the Professional Liability Agents Network (PLAN). We’re here to help.

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