Commissioning agents offer a valuable perspective.
Take Andrew Heitman’s tale of a four-story office building. A client hired Heitman, a commissioning agent and the owner of Pensacola, FL-based Building Energy Sciences LLC, to figure out why the new building used energy at a rate of $32,000 per month when similar buildings in the client’s portfolio cost just $12,000 per month to operate.
What was wrong?
Heitman quickly found the problem. The new structure’s HVAC system had been designed and built to handle a population of 1,000—four times the 250 employees who actually worked there.
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The error originated from an early planning meeting. The HVAC designer jotted a note that the building would hold 250 employees per floor. That errant assumption carried all the way through the construction process. The HVAC designer sized the building’s equipment. Contractors then ordered, installed, and tested it. The building owner, unaware of what he was looking at, signed off on it…several times.
When Heitman pointed out the mistake, “the owner’s mouth dropped to the floor,” he says.
No other detail in the project suggested a building for 1,000 employees. The parking lot couldn’t handle that quantity of cars, and cramming 250 workers on each floor would give each of them less than five square feet. But the HVAC designer wasn’t looking at any of those details. He was looking at his notes and following directions. And no other contractor on the project was looking at the HVAC designer’s math.
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Heitman states that a building commissioning agent would have spotted the error before it ever impacted a purchase order. Commissioning agents act as the client’s eyes. They take a building-wide view of all systems and make sure that they work together for maximum efficiency.
“It’s the responsibility of the commissioning authority to ensure that no one is operating out there as a free agent,” says Ed Armstrong, executive director of Energy Management Association. “It’s a holistic process.”
The practice of building commissioning was first documented by Public Works Canada in 1977. It then lingered, poorly defined and under-used, until 1984 when the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) began to formalize the field. The group formed a committee to develop the HVAC Commissioning Guideline, which it published in 1988. Even as the field consolidated around a core set of ideas, it remained a specialty service used only on the most challenging projects.
That changed when the US Green Building Council published its guidelines for LEED certification in 1998. The council saw the potential for professionals with systems-spanning perspectives to improve building efficiency and required any building owner seeking a LEED certification to hire a commissioning agent.
Amid the rapidly growing popularity of LEED buildings, regard for commissioning agents spiked. But the LEED guidelines gave building commissioning agents more than a temporary boost—it also set a precedent.
Federal, state, and local governments later implemented their own guidelines to encourage energy savings through more efficient building operation. Many followed LEED by requiring building commissioning agents to oversee projects benefitting from public funds.
As the value of commissioning became clear, building owners increasingly hired agents to captain projects that fell outside regulatory frameworks—particularly complex projects where disparate systems could conflict with each other.
Joe Helm, president of Oregon-based NorthWest Engineering Service Inc. (NWESI), offers the example of a hospital. His company recently worked on one that included a system to prevent infant abductions. The system required certain doors to lock during security events. In a fire event, though, those security doors must unlock.
Safety considerations are tricky, Helm says. They require situational protocols and bulletproof verification that the sequences operate as intended. Testing, documenting, and reproducing results could be the hard work that saves lives.
In the fire event noted above, the security doors must unlock. The hospital’s fire-control system must sound an alarm and suppress the fire. The HVAC system must control airflow to manage smoke and prevent damage to dampers and ductwork. Nearby elevators would also react for maximum safety, easy escape, and control of building pressures.
“These systems all have to be able to communicate and talk seamlessly,” says Helm. “To do an effective job, you have to have an understanding of how all these systems interact.”
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As building commissioning has gained prominence, building owners have increasingly hired commissioning agents to tune up buildings already in operation.
In recommissioning, the agent returns at regular intervals to ensure that the building continues to perform at maximum efficiency. According to Heitman, this is more important than it sounds.
“Everyone who does commissioning knows, the building works the best it’s ever going to work the day you finish it,” he says.
As soon as the building begins operations, a parade of changes erode the original efficiency. Workers or facilities managers change settings to accommodate tenant complaints. Equipment breaks down. Occupants change how they use the space. Commissioning professionals call this “drift.”
“Drift is the enemy,” says Armstrong. “It is the rodent to an exterminator.”
But some drift is unavoidable. Steve Dodd, a commissioning agent who works for Siemens, has never seen a building used exactly the way it was intended. Offices become classrooms. A room designed for 25 workers now accommodates 35. Dodd says he once worked on a private grade school in a building designed as a data center.
Each drift in use changes a building’s optimal settings.
On a recommissioning job, Dodd and other agents aim to find the new, best way to configure dampers, intakes, set points, and other factors for maximum efficiency.
This represents a new view on the industry’s definition of recommissioning, Dodd says. Agents performing a recommissioning used to look at the building’s historical documentation and aim to return all settings and equipment to their original state. This approach missed the point. Returning a building’s systems setting to their original state is of little value when occupants have changed how they use the building.
Retrocommissioning bears a superficial resemblance to recommissioning because it focuses on buildings already in operation. However, retrocommissioned buildings have never been commissioned previously.
“We have some buildings that are 170 years old,” says Robert Tandy, Commissioning Program Manager at the University of Iowa. Other American higher education institutions, he notes, still operate buildings that date back to the 17th century. But the challenge of old buildings exists well beyond academia. In 2010, a report found that the average building in Midtown Manhattan had passed its 92nd birthday.
Considering that the field of building commissioning came into existence fewer than 40 years ago, few aging structures have benefited from commissioning agents’ unified approach to building infrastructure. Decades or centuries of uncoordinated spot repairs, haphazard decisions, or just plain oversights may hamstring their efficiency.
Higher education facilities managers, Tandy says, have occasionally found fans that were installed, but never wired up. “Those legacy conditions affect your building for its entire life.”
A high-quality commissioning agent, he adds, can scour a structure, spot past failures, and wrestle a building toward its optimal running state.
These achievements can transcend meaningful increases in energy efficiency. In 2015, with the aid of a commissioning agent from Siemens, Carnegie Hall achieved LEED silver status after more than a century of hosting performances by the world’s most respected artists.
Experts and Diplomats
When Robert Tandy took over the University of Iowa’s commissioning program in 2013, he changed how it operated. Previously, he says, the university handled commissioning internally. But that approach missed something.
The university benefits from a staff full of long-term professionals who have run the campus’ 19 million square feet of buildings for years or decades—sometimes, their entire careers. This gives workers at the University of Iowa intimate knowledge of how and why the campus’ buildings run the way they do. But it also narrows their perspective.
“We want a commissioning agent to help us identify opportunities that we would not have identified internally,” says Tandy. “We rely on them to bring in outside expertise to help us see beyond what we operationally see.”
That independence can also make commissioning agents more effective diplomats. Beyond technical knowledge and expertise, commissioning agents often need to smooth communications between employees, occupants, contractors, and building operators. Helm with NorthWest Engineering Service says building owners may not think of it, but they should involve facilities managers in the commissioning process from the beginning of a project.
“Oftentimes, the people who run the facility are left out of the dialogue early in the process in the interest of time and cost,” he explains.
That can be a problem. Facilities managers need to understand why the commissioning agent makes specific operational changes. And introducing a new plan without warning or explanation can also stir dissent, impact costs, and create delays. In addition, the changes to the building’s program must take the facilities department’s needs and resources into account.
As illustrated by the anecdote that opened this article, commissioning agents also make sure that building owners know what decisions they’re making. This goes beyond ensuring that all equipment specifications make sense. Clients’ eyes can “glaze over” when contractors get into important technical details, says Heitman. Even when they’re paying attention, they can miss important context.
He recalls one building owner who asked a contractor if electric heat was more efficient than gas. It was, the contractor correctly answered. But the contractor didn’t add that despite being technically less efficient natural gas costs roughly a third as much per BTU.
Commissioning agents also help building owners define what to expect out of their contractors and how to hold them accountable.
“It’s important to identify acceptance criteria before contract documents have been prepared,” says Helm. “The owner can’t decide at building turnover that more is required than what was originally agreed upon.”
This includes ensuring that the contractors know at the outset what testing to expect at the end of the project. Dragging them back repeatedly for unexpected testing can be infuriating—especially when the contractor feels that the work is complete and wants to move on to the next job.
Beyond managing the expectations of the building owner, the commissioning agent also spots issues with design documents and finished construction. Repairs or modifications at turnover become more costly when team members fail to coordinate or discrepancies are “baked in” early. Even in a well-run project, though, the commissioning agent must decide when and how to enforce necessary repairs or changes on subcontractors.
When Helm commissioned upgrades for the Portland Airport, three different contractors worked on the central plant’s cooling tower and condensing water control system. Each contractor installed and tested his or her individual component, but verifying that all the components worked together required integrated testing of the entire system.
Testing an entire system can present a snarl of complications, which Helm says building commissioning agents must approach carefully. Effective test protocols must consider unintended complications, coordination of team members, and the project’s schedule.
“If we find some modifications that need to be made,” says Helm, “it goes on a list.”
But putting an issue on the list doesn’t mean that his team will address it immediately…or at all. An incorrect installation clearly qualifies as the contractor’s immediate responsibility. System tweaks, however, may be staggered to ensure that new changes don’t cause problems elsewhere. Additional items may be nice to have or may reside outside of contract scope.
Sometimes, the commissioning agent will suggest leaving an unexpected inefficiency alone. Helm aims to leave his clients with optimized performance and reduced operating costs over the facility’s lifespan. That means that fixing some problems may cost more than operating them as-is. He calls this “value engineering.”
As the industry has expanded, it has suffered its share of growing pains. While Dodd with Siemens says that the process at the core of commissioning is “pretty well defined,” the industry still struggles with its own identity.
“There are a lot of different parties trying to be that entity that’s trying to nail it down,” says Heitman. “It’s a very split asunder industry.”
ASHRAE, AABC Commissioning Group, Association of Energy Engineers (AEE), Building Commissioning Association, and the Federal Energy Management Program all promote slightly different visions on building commissioning. In addition, industry professionals disagree on the correct terminology. Some of those interviewed for this article preferred the term “Building Commissioning Agent.” Others preferred “Building Commissioning Authority.”
That split has resulted in mixed messages for building owners. A 2002 report from National Grid noted that hiring a commissioning agent should cost between 5 and 40 cents per square foot. Some contractors will perform commissioning tasks for that price, Heitman says, but the work performed will be little more than a cursory audit. The agent will likely use the same standard checklists used on all of their previous jobs. This audit may satisfy LEED or regulatory requirements, but won’t yield the long-term energy savings possible through a thorough commissioning.
Tandy at the University of Iowa says he understands why building owners might opt for a bargain commissioning agent. If the owner plans to sell the structure shortly after construction, the market incentivizes them to do the minimum to qualify for LEED certification. When building owners opt for a higher-end commissioning agent,
Heitman says the agent’s fee could cost more than a dollar per square foot. But that higher price buys a guiding hand through construction and often deep into the building’s operational life.
“We’re involved before the designer’s involved and until after the contractors are gone,” he says.
For building owners with a longer ownership timeline, Tandy has two words: “forget LEED.”
LEED certification, he says, has been a double-edged sword. While it has helped many building owners make choices that are smarter for their energy bills and the environment, it has commodified the idea of energy efficiency. As a result, LEED guidelines include requirements that sometimes don’t make sense for a given structure. This can leave building owners spending time and money on choices that scarcely help their bottom line, unless they plan to unload the building on someone else.
“Just doing the LEED minimum,” says Tandy, “is leaving a ton of money and opportunities on the table if you’re planning to own a building for more than five to 10 years.”
This is where a high-quality building commissioning agent can really help. “Engineering is 25% art, 75% math,” says Tandy. And choosing a commissioning agent who really knows the art of the trade can help building owners make wise decisions that will pay for themselves many times over during the life of the building.
To the Future
For a building construction profession that scarcely existed a generation ago, building commissioning agents are quickly coming into their own. Conservation-focused regulations and proven results have made their work appealing, if not indispensable. And they’re not going away any time soon.
According to Navigant Research, global revenue for building commissioning services is expected to more than double from $2.7 billion to $6.6 billion in the next 10 years.
As the industry gains more clout, its practitioners are finding new ways to shrink energy bills for building owners.
Recommissioning, for example, has spawned a sub-field called “ongoing commissioning” or “continuous commissioning.” Agents install sensors that constantly monitor building conditions and allow operators to make data-driven decisions on settings and maintenance.
Pushing the boundaries of this technology, Tandy says his Facilities Management group continually monitors and trends more than 100,000 unique data points campus-wide.
“Our buildings are capable of returning terabytes of data every 15 minutes,” says Tandy. “It’s mind boggling the amount of data we’re capable of harvesting from our buildings.”
All of that data lands in the facilities department’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software—similar to that used by municipal water departments and factories. Pre-programmed continuously running fault detection algorithms help identify when conditions within a building drift out of their optimal range.
As this project matures, it will only be a matter of time before the same approach becomes financially feasible for non-institutional building owners.
Commissioning agents also advocate other new procedures to spot more efficiency opportunities. Dodd’s company increasingly advocates that clients participate in seasonal performance testing. Many HVAC problems, he says, only manifest at the change of seasons when a building switches from cooling to heating, or vice-versa. Higher-end commissioning firms have always done seasonal performance testing to some degree, Dodd says, but the approach and emphasis has changed.
Under the old process, he explains, the commissioning agent would set a fake external temperature to see how the building reacted. This would assure the agent that the outside damper moved into the appropriate position but it gave no visibility into deeper building systems.
Now, he says, his firm and others return to buildings at the change of seasons to watch HVAC systems under a real change in conditions. This assures that everything in the building is still running correctly and can also find missed opportunities.
The actual financial savings from this kind of testing are often small, according to Dodd, but can often lead to better building operation and happier tenants.
“Better than 40% of our jobs were driven by people having problems with the building,” says Dodd.
As building commissioning agents better develop their craft—and their art—they further prove their value. Smart building owners see past sticker-shock and watch the bottom line. Smart, small changes in equipment selection and settings can save thousands of dollars over the life of a structure, but only someone with the right knowledge can build such a plan. And that someone is called a commissioning agent.