The Value of Building Commissioning

Is Your Building Working at Peak Efficiency?

Seven short years ago, the first Greenbuild conference drew over 4,000 attendees to Austin, Texas, and was considered a smashing success in the green building world.

Now that Greenbuild 2009 has ended, and its more than 24,000 attendees have gone home, I think it's fair to ponder the explosive growth of green building and sustainability since that first conference.

Everywhere I look these days, a new trend supporting the growth of green building is reported. The latest: A recent AIA study shows a 50 percent increase in the number of municipalities with green building programs since 2007, even though these cities are suffering through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Yes, green building is here to stay.

And while much of the attention in the green building world has been and remains focused on the most flashy techniques or the latest technology -- think ecoroofs, rooftop renewables, net-zero buildings, rainwater harvesting -- there's an old-fashioned yet very green building technique that's starting to recapture interest. That technique? Building commissioning.

So what, exactly, is commissioning? This can be a hard question to answer, there are several sets of standards currently making the rounds. In the broadest sense of the word, it means a thorough testing of a building's systems (including HVAC, lighting, electricity) and making sure they work and interact as designed, as a way to promote a building's optimal performance.

This kind of comprehensive testing, where a building's systems are run through their paces, can yield energy savings, fewer system and equipment malfunctions and increased occupant satisfaction.

I'm still amazed at the numbers of high-performance buildings that are never commissioned, despite its proven benefits. Unfortunately, many of these buildings end up performing much more poorly over their lifespan than they were designed to, simply because commissioning was ignored. 

When properly designed and executed, commissioning's major benefit is energy savings. In fact, a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study of 643 buildings found that commissioning provided mean whole-building energy savings of between 13 and 16 percent. The same study also found that if every non-residential building in the U.S. were properly commissioned, the nation would $30 billion in energy savings by 2030.

Years ago, a rudimentary form of commissioning was performed on nearly every building before the keys were handed over to the owner. In those days, this meant examining every feature of the building to make sure it worked: for example, checking the doors and windows to make sure they opened and closed, testing the boiler, making sure that handrails were installed in stairs. 

In more recent years, commissioning has come to mean the testing of a building's heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems as a way to promote optimal efficiency and save energy. A more recent trend of "whole-building" commissioning combines these two processes: The old-fashioned checking of doors and windows with the high-tech monitoring of building systems, which provides a building owner with a fully-functioning building performing at the peak of efficiency.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification system has recognized the importance of commissioning to a building's performance, requiring a point for "fundamental commissioning" and offering an additional point for "enhanced commissioning." 

Our firm has had the opportunity to work on both fundamental and enhanced commissioning through the Los Angeles Community College (LACCD) green building program, the largest of its kind in the country. When finished, the LACCD initiative will encompass 85 LEED buildings, the single largest LEED building project of its kind.

As commissioning agents for one of the LACCD campuses, we've learned a lot about what it takes to make sure that buildings -- even an entire campus -- run as efficiently and effectively as possible:

Get your commissioning agent involved early

Whether you are working on a new construction project or a major renovation, it's a big advantage to get your commissioning agents involved during the design process. That way, your commissioning agent can represent the building's future operators during design and construction, making sure that design intent, maintainability and future performance are linked. In addition, pieces of equipment can be tested, individually, as they are delivered to your job site, to make sure they are functioning. Then, as the components of electrical and mechanical systems are tied together, your commissioning agent can help develop operational scripts for functional testing, saving time and money.

Consider the possibility of failure

If any of your building's electrical equipment is going to fail, it will most likely fail within the first 80 hours of operation. Our commissioning process focuses both on efficiency as well as testing the peak demand for equipment, to see if anything at all will go wrong, and early. It's much easier to fix something during the commissioning process, than to try and fix it when your facility is up and running.

Don't skip the training 

There is a direct relationship between the efficiency of a building and the training of facility managers and operators. Your commissioning agent can provide you with some guidelines on training programs, syllabi, videos and other information about exactly what your operators will need to know. Remember to ask for hard or digital copies of training and information for future building operators, so that your building can be kept running efficiently throughout its 50- or 100-year lifespan.

Don't assume someone else is worrying about performance

Even if you have the best design and construction team and are getting the most energy efficient, sustainable building possible, don't assume that the building will run efficiently from day one. Someone needs to represent an operator's point of view throughout the design process, as a link between the design team and owner. The person or firm tasked with commissioning is the only person or firm who will make sure that the design intentions carry through to performance.

Once may not be enough

Many buildings benefit from a re-examination of their performance after several years. Re-commissioning-also called retro-commissioning-is performance testing for an existing building, and can yield the same benefits for owners and tenants as commissioning a new building. Monitoring-based commissioning provides continual analysis of a building's performance over time (days, weeks, or months) and often provides building owners and facility managers with valuable data about performance during different seasons, times of day and uses.

Everyone knows that an automobile without regular oil changes and tune-ups becomes less efficient and over time, more prone to equipment failure, than an automobile that receives regular tune-ups. Buildings may be larger than cars, but they benefit from the same kind of regular attention we give our cars, and will perform better -- and more cheaply -- when given some commissioning every now and then.

Ronald J. Wilson is Principal Electrical/Global Mission Critical Practice Lead for Mazzetti Nash Lispsey Burch (M+NLB), a full-service mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and technology engineering consulting and design firm. 

Images courtesy of the Los Angeles Community College District.