Originally posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Written by John McFarland

Perhaps because the original definition of the word “commissioning” was “to make a ship ready for service,” many in the building industry falsely equate building commissioning to simply testing the building systems at the end of construction. While such testing played an important role in the evolution of effective building commissioning, this misconception unfortunately reduces the actual value of commissioning as a quality control process, which overlays the entire timeframe of a building, from the initial concept all the way through operations.

Here we’ll cover the following topics as they relate to commissioning and quality control:

  • Understanding Owner needs and how to ensure that the commissioning process leads to quality construction
  • Understanding the different levels of commissioning scopes and the different types of projects that can benefit from each level

Project Goals

No matter the size or scope, every project basically has the same four general goals. A project should be:

  1. On Time
  2. On or Under Budget
  3. Safely Done
  4. Top Quality

But what gets talked about the most? Every Owner-Architect-Contractor meeting typically has three of the four goals on the agenda: Have there been any lost-time accidents? Is the project on schedule? Who’s late on getting something finished, whether that has to do with fieldwork, submittal reviews, or responses to RFIs? How much is it costing? What’s the status on the monthly payment request or the latest change order? Has it been approved?

But where is quality in the conversation? There may be some discussions in the latest architect’s or engineer’s field report, but there is no discussion of the concerns of the field personnel. Where is the positive motivation to empower the frontline tradespeople to bring up the installation conditions that may make equipment hard to access and maintain in the future? More often than not, they typically get told to be quiet and get their work done because they are behind schedule.

The typical project organizational structure is top down. Field personnel report to a foreman who reports to superintendents who report to a project manager. Subcontractors report to the general contractor who reports to the Architect and Owner. This top-down management structure makes real, honest communication challenging at best and sometimes even impossible. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news to his or her boss, so people keep quiet and wait until they are told what to do. After all, that’s what this chain-of-command structure is designed to do. Salute and do as you’re told, and don’t question the order.

What’s The Solution?

This is where commissioning comes in. It certainly sounds like a good idea to test all of the systems at the end of construction to make sure they all work according to the design. But isn’t that what the contractors and the design engineers are supposed to be doing anyway? Maybe… however, it doesn’t seem to be working. So the Owner brings in a third-party to be the “commissioning authority” (CxA) to do this. But guess what? They won’t be much more successful at this late stage of the project.

When the CxA is brought in late and is expected to test all the systems and find all the problems, they are set up for failure. Testing will find a lot and is certainly better than not testing, but it won’t find everything. Even if it does, what can be done about it at this late stage?

As an example, let’s take a look at thermal imaging, which is often used in building envelope commissioning. Thermal images are a great way to find gaps in insulation. However, you typically cannot use this technique until the building is basically done, as you need to create a temperature difference from the inside to the outside. So at this point, the Owner is about to move into the building. If you find gaps in the insulation, you have little choice but to tear down the walls and rebuild them. That’s not a likely solution, so the Owner usually ends up living with a poor quality building envelope, along with the resulting higher energy bills and uncomfortable occupants. That doesn’t sound like “top quality,” does it?

In cases where the CxA is brought in late, they are really only in a position to point out problems. Everyone’s defensive walls go up, and communication shuts down, as people fear being blamed and potentially sued. Issue resolution becomes even more challenging. To solve this, the CxA needs to be in a position to foster teamwork and not just point out issues. It is in this capacity that they can have a positive impact on the project.

So what is commissioning if it’s not just testing?

More Than Testing

Commissioning is a process of ensuring that the systems are designed, installed, tested, and capable of being operated and maintained according to the Owner’s operational requirements. It is a continuous process that identifies, prevents, and resolves problems as early as possible, since problems that are addressed early nearly always cost less to fix than those addressed late.

If we cannot move past thinking of commissioning as simply about testing, then we have to change the mindset. Change the structure. Call the role what you will, but what we really need is a Quality Assurance Champion. For the sake of argument, we’ll give the Quality Assurance Champion the title of “commissioning authority” (CxA). So what we are really saying is that the role of the CxA is to keep everyone’s focus on quality—the one thing in the conversation that is often never discussed. The CxA should empower people to speak up regarding issues or concerns that could impact the building’s ability to meet the Owner’s objectives. The CxA should facilitate the resolution of the issues.

In other words, the CxA should work with the project team to solve the problems, not simply point them out. The CxA should also work to minimize conflicts between parties because ultimately, we all have the same goal: to safely build a high-quality building on time and in budget. To do this, the CxA should set up a process for issue identification and resolution that is not intended to embarrass anyone, but is instead designed to help everyone be more successful.

In essence, the CxA bounces around and talks with everyone on the project and works with team members to help solve the identified problems as quickly as possible. The CxA is a communicator, facilitator, and a trusted source for impartial guidance on a project.

Commissioning = Quality Assurance

So if we accept that commissioning is quality assurance, what level of commissioning is appropriate? It largely depends on the extent of the documentation required and the quality assurance leadership structure. Let’s look at some of the quality assurance documentation factors.

There are regulatory requirements from agencies such as the FDA, NIH, CDC, and the USDA. Depending on the type of project, these agencies have documentation requirements for reporting on the quality control and quality assurance process of the project.

There are also industry standards, such as ASHRAE Guideline O, “The Commissioning Process,” and the “Health Facility Commissioning Guidelines,” published by ASHE. These create levels of expectation for the commissioning quality assurance process. Additionally, there are voluntary programs, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED™ rating systems that create another level of documentation that might be required from the commissioning and quality assurance process.

Finally, there are ownership objectives, such as the General Service Administration’s “Building Commissioning Guide.” These could also include requirements for long-term maintainability, energy efficiency, and occupant satisfaction.

The quality assurance champion, or CxA, could either be an Owner team member with one or more roles, or a third-party focused solely on quality assurance. To determine the appropriate level of quality assurance and commissioning, as well as the appropriate person(s) to place in the quality assurance champion role, one should consider the following factors:

  1. Extent of Documentation Required
  2. Qualifications of Team Members
  3. Size and Scope of Project

The more extensive the documentation required, the more likely you should have your CxA focused on just that aspect of the project and not be distracted with other duties. This could involve having to create ongoing reports throughout the project or monitoring the quality-control checklists and other documentation. Other documentation requirements could entail final reports and providing certifications. All of these should factor into the selection of your CxA.

When selecting a CxA, it is necessary to check the qualifications of the team members. Do they have the appropriate communication skills to effectively communicate with the field tradespeople, engineers, building occupants, and the Owner? Many team members don’t have the technical knowledge and look to the CxA to ensure quality assurance. The CxA needs to have the communication skills to share technical insights about how to solve problems in a manner that can be understood by all parties. The commissioning authority must also have the ability to create the documentation and manage all of the issues and documents that are created as part of the quality control and quality assurance process.

Quality assurance and commissioning documentation consists of items, such as pre-functional checklists and functional test procedures. These checklists are designed to communicate the vital installation and pre-test requirements with the contractor in straightforward and concise language that’s organized in a format that is easy to use in the field. This helps to convey the quality expectations and helps the Owner track the construction process.

Functional test procedures are another part of the documentation process. Your commissioning authority should develop customized, project-specific tests for each piece of equipment and system. The future facility operators should be included in the testing, as this will help them learn the systems more thoroughly. The test procedures should not just test normal conditions; failure scenarios need to be tested as well, along with verification of alarms, front-end graphics, and sensor calibrations.

The third component in selecting your commissioning authority is the size and scope of the project. This refers to the scale of the facility, the complexity of the systems installed, the overall project team size, and the duration of the project. The larger the project, the greater the likelihood that you may have the means and need to hire a third-party commissioning authority. Smaller projects often need to look in-house or within the project team, because to bring in a whole additional team may simply not be affordable. Not every project NEEDS third-party quality assurance, but certainly every project can benefit from having someone focused on the quality assurance of the overall project.

Let’s look at an example of the value of having this dedicated quality assurance or commissioning role on your project. One component is to have this person break down all of the responsibilities from a quality control perspective in a simple, easy-to-understand responsibility matrix. The above image provides an example of what such a matrix might look like.

This example shows how every single test on a project has been listed with the primary responsible party. This helps to verify that the test was completed and done correctly with the appropriate documentation provided.


Everyone Benefits

When viewed as a quality assurance process, commissioning provides extensive value to any construction project, no matter the size. The success hinges on designating someone as the quality assurance champion. This champion works with all parties in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration to identify and resolve issues as early as possible to everyone’s greater benefit.

John McFarland is the Principal and Director of Operations of The WorkingBuildings Companies, an Owner-representative firm providing comprehensive solutions for facilities, from planning to operation.

This article is based on McFarland’s 2012 Fall Owners Leadership Conference session on commissioning, which attendees voted as one of the event’s most popular presentations.


  1. Commissioning is a process of ensuring that a building’s systems are designed, installed, tested, and capable of being operated and maintained according to the Owner’s operational requirements.
  2. Commissioning is a systematic process of verification by testing and documenting that the building systems perform according to design intent.
  3. Commissioning prevents and resolves problems during the early stages of a project when costs are lower.
  4. Determining the appropriate level of commissioning for a project largely depends on the extent of documentation required and the quality assurance leadership structure.