We're a Long Way from Whole-Building Commissioning

In our pursuit of high performance, a reader notes, don’t lose sight of the true goal: serving occupants.

The EBN article “Verifying Performance with Building Enclosure Commissioning” (Dec. 2012) is an excellent start in proclaiming the virtues of building enclosure commissioning (BECx) and its contribution to total-building commissioning (TBCx).

I do feel, however, that the EBN article does not do justice to the deeper lessons inherent in the comprehensive totality of ship commissioning. In actuality, it was never just a matter of “Does it Float?”—to reference one quote in the article. Also, while stating that commissioning is not just testing but entails “…involvement way before that,” alluding to the “upstream” quality concepts first introduced by W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s, the article only goes so far in this instance and several others in elucidating and capitalizing on those powerful ideas, emphasizing them as a “must” only for the building envelope.

It also quotes one engineer who seems rather dismissive of upstream quality in the building’s systems, claiming that it is easy to correct mistakes made earlier in systems design and installation, while also claiming that not to be true, in contrast, with the envelope. Whatever degree of truth may exist in those two claims, it undermines the fundamental purpose of embodying upstream quality in all building components and features, and not relying on downstream inspection as the quality filter. To the point, there currently tends to be too much reliance on functional testing of building systems and not enough emphasis placed on upstream quality steps prior to statistically based testing. Deming is turning over in his grave.

Ship commissioning can be traced back to the U.S Navy in 1798 and is the original impetus for the introduction of building commissioning. Coupled with Deming’s concepts, the steps in ship commissioning can be borrowed, with modification, to guide and inform the design, construction and operation of structurally resilient buildings that enhance the health and performance of those who dwell in them over the building life cycle.

Following is an outline of some ideas and elements, based on a study I did for the California Energy Commission, that complement the EBN article, perhaps assisting in paving a solid future for total building commissioning.

• As with ship commissioning, there is much more to building commissioning than just the building’s physical structure, its systems, and its resource consumption, although these issues are essential. It is also about the people who work in it and operate it over its life cycle. The salaries of the people over time far exceed the materials and energy consumed in the construction and operation of the building, so attendance to the people and their comfort, health, safety, and efficiency is what serves the building’s true raison d'etre. All else is a support function, however essential to the building’s integrity and performance. Thus, attendance to indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in all its dimensions, for example, is paramount.

• Ship commissioning pays vital attention to the training of the personnel who operate and maintain the vessel and enlists their engagement early in the design and construction phases, ensuring invaluable feedback for ultimate quality and cost-effectiveness. The same should apply to buildings, and those operating them need to be heard as stakeholders in the early design phases. They often have knowledge and databases that can guide overall functional design features and systems choices.

• Upstream quality and proper attendance to the owner’s project requirements (OPR) are achieved through better orchestration of all professionals engaged in the conception, design, construction, and operation of a building. Most projects do miserably on this front. Important team members and other stakeholders are frequently not engaged soon enough, or at all, in the building phases to make a crucial difference in ultimate project quality. A well-organized and -operated commissioning process integrates and “glues” together all stakeholder perspectives better than current project management schemes. Because the project management role is essentially completed by initial occupancy, vital stakeholder perspectives at points downstream from there are lost or marginalized.

While beyond the scope of the EBN article, there are many more professionals and other stakeholders essential to total building commissioning for project success. To name a few, these include the wind engineers who attend to structural loads, wind-driven rain intrusion, pedestrian comfort, ventilation, and pollutant dispersion; the interior designers and engineers who attend to IEQ, cognitive ergonomics, and epigenetic design; acoustic engineers; and operations and maintenance staff. Their roles and perspectives need to be incorporated and coordinated by an effective TBCx process, starting with the earliest phases. It must be remembered that, while the upfront costs may be increased through TBCx, a total cost accounting would show great economic benefit.

Editors’ Response

We admire the author’s deep knowledge of whole-building commissioning and appreciate the lessons the building industry can learn from naval ship commissioning. Occupant comfort and productivity, and the ability of facility managers to operate building systems effectively, should indeed be emphasized during design and construction but are routinely forgotten. What a great reminder for all of us.

We realize that certain passages in the article, taken out of context, might give a wrong impression about building enclosure commissioning. We did attempt to highlight the unique complexity and high-risk nature of the building enclosure—which, after all, is nothing less than the building itself—but we hope the article was clear that whole-building commissioning, working in parallel with a holistic integrative design process, is the ultimate goal.

For more information:

Integrating Building Commissioning into State Building Construction: Communication of Results to State Agencies and to the General Public of an Integrated Commissioning Framework for Capital Outlay Projects(PDF)


Published January 18, 2013

Melton, P. (2013, January 18). We're a Long Way from Whole-Building Commissioning. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/were-long-way-whole-building-commissioning

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.