“The basic purpose of building commissioning is to provide documented confirmation that building systems function in compliance with criteria set forth in the Project Documents to satisfy the owner's operational needs. Commissioning of existing systems may require the development of new functional criteria in order to address the owner's current systems performance requirements.”

-The Building Commissioning Association (BCA)

The premise behind commissioning is to ensure system functionality, leading to optimum system performance. Once associated primarily with HVAC systems, commissioning proved to be effective, therefore other systems-such as electrical, lighting, communications and security systems-began to be included in the commissioning process.

ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, initially implemented the commissioning movement in 1996 when it issued guidelines detailing what commissioning should entail. Even though the association is heavily rooted in HVAC, it realizes that all systems are instrumental to facility operations.

ASHRAE defines commissioning as: “The process of ensuring that systems are designed, installed, functionally tested and capable of being operated and maintained to perform in conformity with the design intent.”

Similar to the BCA definition, ASHRAE also notes the importance of continuing functionality, which is heavily tied to operations and maintenance.

A building commissioning plan generally involves four stages:

°Documentation of system design and operating intent

°System performance verification, which is supported by testing and measurement

°The preparation and submittal of operations and maintenance (O&M) manuals to the building owner/operator; this stage also may involve the training of employees on-site in regard to system operation and maintenance procedures.

°Continuous monitoring of system performance

To achieve the best results, commissioning needs to occur as early as possible in a building's life cycle, especially for new construction projects. Commissioning costs fluctuate based on building size, complexity and the number of proposed/installed systems. Estimated costs of new building commissioning range between 50 cents and $1.50 per square foot, but in some cases, costs are well above and below such figures.

Four types of commissioning

Commissioning on new construction projects is known as risk reduction within the industry and is intended to thoroughly check systems to ensure operational efficiency. Contractors routinely check systems as a final step during installation, but commissioning goes a bit further. The systems checked generally include security, fire, life safety, HVAC, lighting and electrical, though it sometimes encompasses other, more specific systems.

For pre-existing buildings and systems, the term is known as “retrocommissioning,” which is similar to new construction commissioning, though it generally focuses more on energy efficiency and is designed to obtain energy savings through recommendations found during the process.

Continuous commissioning is like an enhanced O&M program, where data is continually gathered to determine whether systems are operating properly within the facility.

The fourth type is recommissioning, a check-and-balance system on previous commissioning reports, ensuring that initial commissioning steps were taken and are still accurate.

Third-party commissioning

It is generally not the contractor who performs the commissioning process, though it is feasible and not unheard of. During some new system installations, the service provider can be used simultaneously as the commissioning agent for that particular system, though it is more common for an independent third party to do so. A third party provides unbiased insight in evaluating that all things were considered and done properly during both the design and installation phases.

A commissioning agent, or commissioning authority, is the person, firm or agency that performs commissioning and coordinates the process from start to finish. These professionals may come from companies that specialize in commissioning and also from consulting, engineering, construction management, facility maintenance and contracting firms.

The third-party solution is better suited for larger projects. For a smaller-scale project, a member of the project team-which could be the contractor-may assume the role of commissioning agent. Though contractors may not be experienced commissioning agents, the additional revenue potential to be made by performing commissioning functions may be worth considering.

One option available is a multiparty approach to commissioning. This is when the architect/engineer, contractor(s), commissioning agent and building owner all actively participate in the commissioning process, which allows the contractor to be kept abreast, instead of to having to wait for final results.


Operations and maintenance is essential to the integrity of any building, but commissioning plays a part. An O&M program assesses ongoing systems' needs and helps maintain system integrity throughout the life cycle.

The O&M facility staff is a regular and routine participant in the commissioning process, as staff members test, document and maintain the systems in question. It is imperative that commissioning is performed as early as possible to achieve design intent. By performing commissioning procedures early on, all involved can address problems in advance of final installation.

The other key reason for early intervention is that commissioning depends on proper operations and maintenance of buildings and systems. This means that facility staff needs to be thoroughly trained, which takes time. Waiting until the building is turned over to begin the process could lead to some system failure, because the system maintenance could be neglected while training is underway. Early training helps alleviate part of the problem.

A growing field

“Systems are becoming more and more complicated. Schedules are compressed and budgets are tight. Owners are finding that commissioning is helping alleviate the problems that come with the fast-paced project delivery process to ensure complete installation and the documented functionality of their building,” said Shannon Steward, account executive for Testmarc Commissioning Solutions.

The growing trend of green buildings and LEED Certification are boosting growth in the commissioning field. LEED requirements mandate that commissioning be performed, moving the process into the forefront of many construction and retrofit projects.

The public sector has made commissioning a fairly routine process in government construction and renovation projects. Due to increased interest in indoor air quality and increased cost savings due to energy efficiency, commissioning will keep growing in both scope and popularity.

Some contractors view commissioning negatively, as it could uncover problems in their work. However, it should be viewed as a collaborative effort between the building owner, the contractor and the commissioning firm.

“Although some contractors are initially reluctant to add more paperwork to their task list, we have found that they see the value after participating in the commissioning process,” said Steward. “Many realize that this is a system of documenting their success, not failure. Any deficiencies are dealt with by the project team as a whole to find a solution in an attempt to maintain the schedule.”

Published case studies have found that building commissioning can increase the performance of a building by 8 percent to 30 percent. This translates into a more optimal facility that can realize greater energy efficiency and lower operational costs.

This leaves the market for commissioning wide-open as all types of buildings and facilities can benefit. Contractors need to realize that commissioning, though seemingly nothing more than an extra step in the construction/renovation process, is beneficial to their customers and that could also pad their revenue.

One caution-there should be clear, written documentation within the commissioning contract that outlines who is responsible for correcting issues outlined within the results. The cost associated with getting the building and the systems to be compliant could add to the price tag of construction or renovation, and contractors need to be aware of who will shoulder those costs. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.