Why architects should lead the commissioning process

When architects lead the commissioning process, there is a higher chance of it being more successful and improving the design process to produce a better crafted building.

It is the architect’s responsibility to observe, listen and research the owner’s needs; to understand the physical characteristics of the site and the code requirements, and then develop design solutions that go far beyond solving a set of problems. Coordinating and leading the commissioning process is a logical role for the person who is the design lead. That person is in the best position to help “right-size” the commissioning process for the job, define the scope among the different parties, and integrate the commissioning agent’s contribution into the design of the building.

Commissioning is an opportunity to ensure that the project is designed, executed and operated to efficiently achieve the targets set out in the owner’s program requirements (OPR). A well-written OPR will identify the owner’s goals in quantifiable terms when possible. This means the document will point out objectives that may include directives to reduce the use of water and energy from a baseline model, minimize the impact on the local environment, and provide a healthy indoor environment, which includes broad access to daylight and controllability of temperature, ventilation and glare, just to list a few examples.

Without a robust commissioning process in place, architects and the design team are often only reacting to situations that arise during construction.

OPRs may also include engagement with the community and achievement of sustainable targets like LEED or the Living Building Challenge. The content of the OPR varies from project to project and is most effective when written with consideration to the specific project, while leveraging the expertise of the design team. The design team will then develop the basis of design (BOD), describing in detail the particular technical design approaches to achieve all the goals included in the OPR.

The architect is in the best position to educate the client on the benefits of commissioning and, with the commissioning team’s participation, help the owner decide which systems to commission and what to include in the commissioning plan. The purpose of the commissioning plan is to map out clearly the commissioning process for the project. It will identify the systems to be commissioned, the methods of verifying and testing the systems during construction, and the training of the maintenance staff before handing over the project.

It is a fundamental component of the architect’s role to contemplate the goals specific to a design and facilitate conversations with the entire design team, including the owner, to discover effective approaches that work across different disciplines to reach the identified targets documented in the OPR.

The commissioning team should be selected based on their past experience and performance. Like the design team, the members of the commissioning team should be chosen with the view that they will be an additional resource for the project.

Ideally, the CxAs will be qualified engineers or architects with experience in commissioning buildings of a similar type and size. A CxA often has more onsite experience than the design team since their responsibilities require onsite observation, testing and tracking of the construction processes. The Cx team is a valuable resource for the project; they make comments and suggestions regarding design approaches and help find viable solutions to unforeseen problems that arise during construction.

The current accepted design delivery process does not ensure delivery of buildings that perform as per the design. Including a well-coordinated commissioning process will mean that in design, the vulnerabilities of systems and details can be addressed during construction.

When architects lead the commissioning process, there is a higher chance of it being more successful and improving the design process to produce a better crafted building.

Commissioning is a proactive process that is safeguarding the design approach and by extension the objectives set out in the OPR. Without a robust commissioning process in place, architects and the design team are often only reacting to situations that arise during construction. The last-minute nature of this kind of situation often does not allow for many choices, and the design and construction team has to develop a solution that may erode the original design approach.

The landscape of our profession has changed. Performance-based designs are becoming the norm, and this is a positive development. The commissioning industry is growing rapidly and award-winning designs are no longer confined to innovative forms; the industry is shifting toward buildings that perform beautifully. The design profession as a whole will benefit from integrating commissioning into the design and construction process because it will push the industry to adopt a whole building approach and move the profession toward carefully crafted buildings. If the commissioning process is tacked on or poorly coordinated, the value of commissioning is watered down and it becomes an administrative exercise that does not deliver on its potential to aid in delivering a facility that is performing as designed.

Commissioning strengthens design; Cx is a way of ensuring that we deliver improved products that are better maintained and used in a manner consistent with the owner’s goals.

About the Author

Pamela Sams, AIA, is a technical director at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler.

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