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Sunday, 19 January 2014 20:33

Developers turn to commissioning to root out mistakes, cost

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Frank Stanek Frank Stanek

Building owners and developers want to know that all the systems they’re paying for work as designed.

That’s led to a rise in the commissioning of buildings, a process that helps owners and developers proactively find problems before they arise and do less backtracking if issues do come up.

“The way buildings’ mechanical and electrical systems have evolved, they’ve become less isolated,” said Frank Stanek, president of Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. “When you have a commissioning team set up from the pre-design phases through to occupancy, it reduces a lot of time spent chasing down and working the bugs out of these complex systems.”

One main driver for building commissioning has been its inclusion as a prerequisite in the the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification standard.

When LEED started gaining traction in the design and build community, it helped clients better understand they weren’t wasting money on commissioning, Stanek said.

It’s also more commonplace for owners and developers to insist on commissioning in the project planning process because it can lead to long-term energy savings and reduced costs of ownership over the life of the building, sources said.

Commissioning is essentially verifying that all building systems — ranging from HVAC and the building envelope to the electricals — meet the design intent.

Early on, when O-A-K started including commissioning for projects, owners and developers were often a little skeptical about the service because they expected the construction manager to have all the knowledge about the systems, Stanek said.

“It was always sort of a catch-22 with clients who would say, ‘Well, we hired you to make sure everything is installed easily and properly,’” Stanek said. “You don’t want to say that you don’t know how to do something, but it kind of equates to the idea of an orchestra. You don’t necessarily need to know how to play all the instruments to lead the band.”

The increased awareness of commissioning also gains momentum as major companies start to adopt the practice and it becomes ingrained as an industry-wide standard, said Mike Belke, an estimator at Grand Rapids-based CD Barnes Construction.

“When LEED became more and more popular in the early-2000s, … it proved to be such a benefit that now commissioning, based on the LEED requirements, is becoming somewhat of a standard,” Belke said.

This has led to an increase in independent third-party commissioning firms and even spurred many general contractors to hire the engineering talent to bring the services in-house, he said.

Started in 2005, Belmont-based Synergy Consulting Engineers Inc. is a building systems consulting firm that specializes in all types of building commissioning. The 12-person firm had commissioning contracts in excess of $1 million in 2013 and expects to increase that business by 20 percent this year in part because of an industry emphasis on sustainable building design, according to executives.

“(Building commissioning) has really morphed from just functions testing at the end of a project and nothing else, to having LEED push the process all the way into the pre-design phase,” said Kyle Boston, a commissioning agent with Synergy. “Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s really what commissioning is all about — flushing problems out you normally wouldn’t find without it.”

Commissioning has long been a practice for institutional building owners, but convincing commercial building owners on the value of the process is still an uphill battle, said John Jeffries, head of development and communications for Synergy.

“About 30 percent of the value of commissioning is in the design review realm,” Jefferies said. “That’s where we find a lot of issues, errors and omissions. That’s where we can have a significant impact, but sometimes (commissioning in that phase) is removed from the scope of work for budget purposes.”

Still, commercial building owners are coming around to the practice due to its strong return on investment, he said.

Research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, suggests buildings that go through the full commissioning process typically reduce project change orders by 30 percent. Contractor callbacks are also reduced 60 percent. Additionally, the lab reports that energy savings for commissioned buildings is around 19 cents per square foot, which roughly equates to a total energy savings for the entire building of 17 percent.

Most of Synergy’s commissioning projects have a three-year return on investment, Jeffries said.

Prior to recent industry attention to the practice, companies such as CD Barnes included basic commissioning practices — testing the HVAC and water systems, for example — as part of their building close-out process. But because building operating systems and controls are getting more complex, firms need greater expertise to keep pace with the technology, Belke said.

“As general contractors, we like to think we know everything,” Belke said. “But the systems we’re installing now — especially the controls and building management systems — are so technologically advanced that it takes a special expertise to make sure they work right … and they have to integrate together. All it takes is one bad component or sensor, and it throws the whole system out of whack.”

When that happens, it’s not unusual for the different trades on the job to start pointing fingers, which is why third-party verification is so critical now, he said, adding that defective factory components can also cause problems down the line.

Generally speaking, sources say the procedure can add about 1 percent to 2.5 percent to the total construction cost of a building. Owners and developers can expect to pay $1 to $2 per square foot for commissioning depending on the complexity, size and location of the building.

“Right now, I’d say that most new buildings aren’t being commissioned entirely,” developer Rick DeKam, principal at Portage-based Midwest Realty Group, told MiBiz. “It’s still relatively new and still an added cost. When you do it, you have to do it wisely. You don’t want to break the bank — and (commissioning) can be extremely expensive.”

As a general rule, DeKam said he doesn’t like to hire firms just to provide commissioning services, although he acknowledges there are good local companies to hire for the practice. Instead, his firm often hires a competing subcontractor to do a final inspection on the various components he wants commissioned.

Another consideration: Be wary of general contractors who bring their own experts to a project, DeKam said.

“That’s kind of like having the fox watch the hen house,” he said.

Oftentimes, Midwest Realty starts by bringing the construction manager, architect and subcontractors together, showing them the scope of the work and making sure everyone knows there will be component testing throughout the building process, DeKam said. The process is about defining your own standards, he said.

“We’re all waking up and realizing if you don’t create standards for yourself, you’re going to get what you get,” DeKam said. “So we’re all trying to get a little smarter.”

For developers, budgeting the extra cost to commission buildings comes down to individual preferences and their own philosophy on building ownership, DeKam said. But despite expected cost constraints, some developers and owners are paying to put engineers on staff or hiring a firm to “ride shotgun” with them on projects, he said.

“People haven’t done things like this in the past,” DeKam said. “Before, it was, ‘How cheap can you build it and how fast can you get it up?’ People are expecting more today.”

Read 1936 times Last modified on Thursday, 16 January 2014 14:26

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