Commissioning is a process of verifying building performance that can improve new building energy efficiency by 8% to 30%.
Photo credit: Katie Brady

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) describes the commissioning process in the ASHRAE Guideline 0-2005 as “…a quality-oriented process for achieving, verifying, and documenting that the performance of facilities, systems, and assemblies meets defined objectives and criteria”. Commissioning is not a one-time event after a building is initially constructed however. It is an on-going process that begins in the initial planning and design phases of a building and follows through construction and then through the operational lifespan of the building.

The goal of commissioning according to ASHRAE Guideline 0 is “to provide a uniform, integrated, and consistent approach for delivering and operating facilities that meet an owner’s ongoing requirements” and “to reduce the cost of delivering construction projects and increase value to owners, occupants, and users.” In basic terms, commissioning is sort of a quality assurance process that will not only ensure the building is designed and constructed according to the owner’s wishes, but will also keep initial costs as well as operations and maintenance costs down over the life of the building.

There are several types of commissioning for buildings. The plain term “commissioning” typically refers to the initial commissioning of a new building. Retrocommissioning refers to the commissioning of an existing building that never had an initial commissioning when it was constructed, while Recommissioning refers to the commissioning of an existing building that did have an initial commissioning.

Commissioning is typically accomplished by an independent third party called a Commissioning Agent, or CxA. It is important to involve the CxA early in the planning and design process (ASHRAE refers to this as the “project inception” stage) and not wait until after construction, so that the CxA can ensure that the owner’s requirements are implemented in the building design as well as be involved in the development of the building system’s operation and maintenance (O&M) manuals.

The basic objectives of commissioning noted in ASHRAE Guideline 0 include:

  • Clearly documenting the Owner’s Project Requirements
  • Provide documentation and tools to improve the quality of deliverables
  • Verify and document that systems and assemblies perform according to the Owner’s Project Requirements
  • Verify that adequate and accurate system and assembly documentation is provided to the owner
  • Verify that operation and maintenance personnel and occupants are properly trained
  • Provide a uniform and effective process for delivery of construction projects
  • Deliver buildings and construction projects that meet the owner’s needs, at the time of completion
  • Utilize quality-based sampling techniques to detect systemic problems, as such sampling provides high value, efficient verification, accurate results, and reduced project costs; and
  • Verify proper coordination among systems and assemblies, and among all contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and manufacturers of furnished equipment and assemblies

Unfortunately, no current building codes or regulations require building commissioning even though its benefits are numerous. According to the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG), “commissioning can improve new building energy performance by 8% to 30%.” In addition to the energy savings, commissioning also ensures a facility is built safely to code and operates the way it was intended to, which will save the owner and/or occupants money in O&M costs. WBDG also states that “owners can achieve savings in operations of $4 over the first five years of occupancy as a direct result of every $1 invested in commissioning,” which is obviously a very high return on investment. Other indirect cost savings from commissioning include potential improved worker productivity due to a safer and healthier facility. Estimated costs for commissioning are $0.30/SF for existing buildings and $1.16/SF for new construction on average according to a February 2011 article in the ASHRAE Journal by Dr. Evan Mills.

For these reasons, many governmental organizations adopt the commissioning process into its construction requirements, including the General Services Administration (GSA), US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC).

LEED & Commissioning

Commissioning requirements are also included in numerous green building rating systems, including the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Green Globes, and ASHRAE Standard 189.1. In most LEED rating systems there is a prerequisite for basic commissioning (EA Prerequisite 1: Fundamental Commissioning of the Building Energy Systems) as well as a credit for Enhanced Commissioning, Energy and Atmosphere (EA) Credit 3.

The basic difference between the LEED prerequisite and credit is that the prerequisite is required for LEED certification, while the credit is optional. The prerequisite’s intent is to “Verify that the building’s energy related systems are installed, calibrated and perform according to the owner’s project requirements, basis of design, and construction documents.” The basic requirements for the prerequisite include designating a CxA who is independent of the design and construction management teams, but may be an employee of the same firm. The CxA may also be an employee of the building owner. The CxA is to required to review the OPRs as well as the Basis of Design (BOD), to develop and incorporate commissioning requirements into the construction documents, develop and implement a commissioning plan, verify the installation and performance of the systems to be commissioned, and complete a summary commissioning report.

EA Credit 3’s intent is to “Begin the commissioning process early during the design process and execute additional activities after systems performance verification is completed.” The additional requirements above and beyond the prerequisite include the following:

  • Designating an independent CxA to lead, review, and oversee the completion of all commissioning process activities prior to the start of the construction documents phase.
  • Conduct, at a minimum, one commissioning design review of the OPR, BOD, and design documents prior to mid-construction documents phase and back-check the review comments in the subsequent design submission
  • Review contractor submittals applicable to systems being commissioned for compliance with the OPR and BOD concurrent with A/E reviews and submitted to the design team and the Owner
  • Develop a systems manual that provides future operating staff the information needed to understand and optimally operate the commissioned systems
  • Verify that the requirements for training operating personnel and building occupants are completed; and
  • Assure the involvement by the CxA in reviewing building operation within 10 months after substantial completion with O&M staff and occupants

In order to ensure that buildings operate not only as they were intended by the design, but also that all of the owner’s requirements were included the design to begin with, it is imperative that the commissioning process is started at the beginning of the design inception stage. Recommissioning is important to make sure that buildings continue to operate at their highest efficiency throughout their life span, and retrocommissioning can make an existing building that had never been commissioned before operate much more efficiently and save money. When considering an energy conservation measure (ECM) for a building, commissioning is often considered the “low-hanging fruit.”


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