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Building Commissioning Expert Q & A

February 11, 2019

Meet the Expert

Ian Steenhagen, P.E.

Mr. Steenhagen has 21 years of experience regarding the restoration, rehabilitation, and new construction of building envelopes and structures. Mr. Steenhagen has managed all project phases for clients in healthcare, municipalities, industrial, k-12, higher education, and corporate sectors.  Mr. Steenhagen is an active member of ASCE, CSI, MIM, and ASTM.

Frequently asked questions about building commissioning answered by our industry expert.

Why should you commission a new building?

To ensure that you get what you paid for. Similar to having a diamond ring verified by a jeweler to make sure you’re not paying the price of a diamond, but actually getting a cubic zirconium. If you don’t do this ahead of time, you won’t find out until it’s too late. What is the cost of the insurance by having the building commissioned in comparison to the various risks of not? After developing a relationship with your CM, architect, or contractor, it’s easy to assume quality. These professionals want the best for you and your business, but the coordination between the teams is difficult, especially when each team just doesn’t know what they don’t know. This is why it is important to have an expert, neutral third party watching over the project.

 

What do you look for when commissioning a new building?

Overall it’s about ensuring there is adequate dialogue around the intended use and what level you’re designing to with the budget and desired life cycle in mind. Interfaces between each system (roof, wall, window, foundation, etc.) should be focused on heavily. Many times there are different contractors responsible for each individual piece. Ensuring these components are compatible and interface with each other properly, has to be a verified effort. Commissioning is so valuable during the design period to minimize field decisions by the contractors, which often leads to issues.

 

What are the most common defects that you find?

Ancillary components or transition points where no one seems to know who’s responsible for it such as flashings above windows, air and vapor barriers, etc. Often times we see great details for the “main” component yet all of the sub components are very vague or nonexistent. A common example we see is a window system with flashings specified yet no detailing for how to terminate the flashing properly with end dams. If no end dam is in place a brand new window system is susceptible to leakage.

 

Who should hire the commissioning agent?

That’s a loaded question! Do you want the Jeweler hiring their friend to verify your diamonds quality? I feel that the commissioning agent should be hired by and be responsible to the owner. The agent should be the owner's representative and should be a collaborative member of the project team. At the end of the day, who really lives with the results of this project? The building owner. So, they should have control of the commissioning agent.

 

What qualifications should I look for when hiring a commissioning agent?

Forensic experience is huge. You want someone who understands how and why building components fail prematurely, and what could have prevented it. If you have someone who only does new construction commissioning, they may not have the experience required to spot potential issues.  Look for a firm and team with the technical skill set, process, and a strong enough personality to affect change when required.

 

What types of field testing do you recommend?

It really depends on the building and material types. Pressure chambers, bulk water testing on roofs and curtain walls, and StructrueScan IR surveys can all be effective. Some tests are strictly focused on meeting the specified requirements, which can be good, however, we would want to also look at the results from a practical performance standpoint.

 

Is commissioning worth the cost?

Yes, without question, commissioning is worth the cost! We have seen endless examples of buildings that weren’t commissioned and the repair ends up costing one hundred times what the price to commission the building would have been in the first place. I’m not saying that every building constructed without commissioning will fail, however, as the famous quote says -“You don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect”.  A common scenario we see is that a client has a highly respected architect, a well-known contractor and  feels like there are no worries. When you start to ask questions and dig little bit deeper, you find  the potential risk. Who is the project manager? Who is the foreman? How many years of experience do they have managing projects? It might be their very first project in this role, or they may not even have specific experience in the systems involved in your project. Even though all parties usually have the owners best interest in mind, architects and contractors may not have the expertise required to accomplish the critical details of a project. The small cost of commissioning and having an unbiased expert on your side is an investment well worth the cost.

 

What benchmarks should I use to measure the effectiveness and results of my commissioning agent?

Focus on the data and quality, not the “who” or the “what”. Set standards for the timeliness of their reporting, and number of conflicts; conflict isn’t always bad, you want this person challenging the project team to do better. I'd advise owners to discuss an expected frequency of communication and make sure they adhere to that. Every project is different so, a "one size fits all" set of benchmarks aren't going to be applicable to every project. Also, If  your commissioning agent tries to sell you on some aspects being able to be completed at the conclusion of the job, it's time to start asking some questions. As construction progresses, flaws in design get concealed as you go. You're not going to catch these things if you're commissioning agent's plan is to wait until the end.

 

At what point in the planning should I involve a commissioning agent?

The earlier the better! Ideally the commissioning agent would be on board to review and support with the 75% specifications to ensure the detailing is proper before the specifications and drawings are complete.

 

What level of authority should the commissioning agent have?

This will have to be determined by the owner. At the very least, the commissioning agent should have the authority to pause the project and confirm that the owner understands the issues, the options, and all implications of making a certain decision prior to resuming the project. The commissioning agent is the expert in their arena and should have adequate authority from the owner to ensure the owner’s expectations are met.

 

Aside from design and construction, where else is the commissioning agent utilized?

The bidding phase is a big one. Like I said earlier, since the commissioning agent is an expert in their field, they'll have a pool of specialty contractors that are properly qualified to complete the work. I would also recommend involving the commissioning agent in the post bid vetting process, as they can ask the right questions to ensure all parties are qualified and no critical bid elements were missed.

 

What deliverables should the commissioning agent provide?

At a minimum, “red ink” of the specifications, drawing mark ups and a summary letter noting any recommendations or changes. In the construction phase, daily field reports need to be issued, noting any variations from specifications, issues, or risk areas. There should also be follow-up documentation, verifying issues are remedied. Upon completion, a final report should be issued, documenting the project from start to finish.

 

If you have questions or are looking for additional information regarding building commissioning, please contact us!

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