Commissioning New Buildings

How do you make sure you get what you pay for in new buildings?

Kent School District, Wash., has been growing rapidly for more than a decade. Currently, it is the fourth largest district in Washington state, with a 1998-99 full-time-equivalent enrollment of more than 26,000 students. A byproduct of this ever-increasing growth has been the need for construction of more buildings to accommodate expanded student enrollment.

Since 1991, the district has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars on renovation and new construction to meet these needs, including:

-10 new elementary schools.

-Two new junior-high schools.

-One new senior-high school.

-Additions equivalent to two elementary schools.

-Two elementary schools currently under construction.

-One elementary school about to break ground.

-Major projects at 15 schools during the summer of 1998.

We have found that certain questions always come up during the planning of construction projects. "How do you get all of the different parties and interests involved in the construction to work as a team to get the best results possible?" And just as important, "How do you make sure the building you get is the one you designed, and all systems are working as they are supposed to before you accept it?" In other words, how do you ensure that you get what you pay for?

Based on our experience in Kent, commissioning seems to fill the bill. Basically, commissioning is a physical demonstration that "critical systems" work 100 percent as designed and specified. The purpose of the commissioning process is to hold everyone, including the design team, contractor, subcontractor, owner, and district's maintenance and operations staff, accountable for their respective responsibilities for all critical systems associated with the building.

Critical systems can be defined as the equipment, special systems, and mechanical, electrical, signal (phone, intercom, alarms) and civil (topographical verification/irrigation, etc.) systems that are included in the project.

Understanding the process Right from the beginning of the project, all of the requirements and timelines of the commissioning process must be defined in the various construction documents:

-Instructions to bidders.

-Revised general-conditions document, which binds the contractors to performance.

-Special-conditions document, which defines requirements in general terms.

-Critical systems divisions of the specifications, which define requirements in specific terms.

The following requirements are key to the success of building commissioning and should be included in the construction documents referred to above:

-Start-up manuals will be submitted for all critical systems.

-Critical systems will be installed, and any water/air/electronic balancing will be completed.

-A minimum of 40 days prior to substantial completion of the project, notice must be given that the critical systems are complete and ready for commissioning.

-A commissioning punch list will be completed by the project engineer.

-The commissioning punch list will be completed by the contractor.

-The commissioning punch list will be rechecked by the project engineer.

-There must be 100 percent system demonstration, certified by the project engineer, and witnessed by the school district's maintenance and operations personnel.

-Once the system has been demonstrated, a period of off gassing/ventilation/burn-in will begin, depending upon which system is being tested and implemented.

-All commissioning must be completed prior to the district's accepting substantial completion of the new building. - An independent building environmental study will be conducted at the time of final completion.

In the original construction documents, the contractor is held accountable for the successful completion of the commissioning process in a timely manner.

If the contractor is not successful, he or she is subject to liquidated damages. In addition, the contractor must provide indemnification to the school district for any environmentally based lawsuits that are brought after the district takes occupancy of the building.

Benefits of commissioning There are several reasons why commissioning is a critical process in any major construction project. It results in:

-Creation of an environmentally desirable building for occupancy by students, staff, parents and the public.

-Accountability to taxpayers that the quality of the building has been verified.

-Certification and documentation that all systems were completed and perform as designed. This also creates a performance baseline for future decisions.

-Proof of performance for all parties to the construction process.

The cost factor The question of cost is difficult to answer directly, because costs are included in the basic services contracts as design-performance accountability and are not broken out separately. If there are costs over and above the contract costs, they arise through inefficiencies on the contractor's part, and should become that person's responsibility, not additional costs to the school district.

The process does take time-60 days for the commissioning process itself plus another 30 for the off-gassing/ventilation/burn-in periods. The time spent by maintenance and operations personnel directly involved in the process also is a factor. However, the time involved upfront in commissioning is more than offset by the time that does not have to be spent later dealing with systems that do not work. Also, a small district may have to add the cost of hiring outside personnel to do the performance verification if the school district cannot free up maintenance and operations people. A good estimate of that cost is from 16 to 50 cents per square foot.

Commissioning is an invaluable process for ensuring that you are getting the building you are paying for. It also is an important tool for heading off trouble down the road after you have accepted a building and suddenly find out that critical systems are not functioning the way you expected them to. If all critical systems of the new building are tested and proven during the construction phase, the odds are greatly increased that the people who have to operate it on a day-to-day basis will experience a high degree of satisfaction.

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