Ensuring Quality

March 1, 2009
Building commissioning for education institutions: Why is it needed?

School facilities owners and operators should confirm whether their building systems are performing as expected. The more comprehensive the confirmation process, the greater opportunity there is for reducing operations and maintenance costs, and improving facility performance. A high-performing facility can boost student achievement and occupant comfort.

Sophisticated buildings

Education facilities are incorporating building systems with sophisticated technology, computer controls and circuitry for operation. These systems — heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC); lighting-control; fire-alarm; energy-management; elevators; security; communications; and life-safety — need to be evaluated to determine whether they are operating properly.

Building commissioning in the education industry began with indoor-air-quality concerns related to HVAC systems and fresh-air mandates for building occupants. Issues with mechanical controls, calibration, programming and energy management moved the commissioning process into full development.

Why commission?

The quality-assurance process of commissioning confirms, through testing, that building materials, equipment and systems are designed and installed properly, and capable of operating as efficiently as intended.

Commissioning improves systems reliability, energy performance, indoor environmental quality, and facility operations and maintenance. Additional benefits:

  • More healthful and comfortable learning environments.

  • Trained building operators.

  • Establishing priorities

    Lower energy costs.

  • Maximized equipment life expectancy.

  • Early detection of potential problems.

  • Compliance with existing regulatory mandates.

The ASHRAE Standards Committee and Board of Directors have adopted Guideline 1.1-2007, which provides details for HVAC&R commissioning. ASHRAE defines commissioning as “a quality-oriented process for verifying and documenting that the performance of facilities, systems, and assemblies meet defined objectives and criteria.”

Government and state education agencies regularly update commissioning standards for education construction projects. The emphasis that the LEED process places on building commissioning has heightened awareness of its importance. Professional services have expanded with more comprehensive procedures.

It is most cost-effective to design a commissioning plan with mechanical systems as a priority. At the project outset, criteria and expectations should be established for systems function, performance and operations. Schools should confirm criteria compliance during the design phase and construction process and during systems startup through the project warranty period.

Because facilities are more complex, and maintenance staff have less time to carry out more responsibilities, it is essential that a building's systems and controls are tested properly to determine if they are working as designed.

During the design phase, education institutions designate in-house personnel to work with the architect/engineer to define project expectations and specifications. Working with the owner, the design team develops and maintains “standards specifications guidelines” describing design intent and performance criteria for building equipment and systems. Serving as a basis for design continuity, this guideline is used by the design team and is kept current throughout the project.

At the 95 percent stage of construction documents, a peer review team performs a constructability review to flush out inconsistencies and define operations requirements for the design. The peer review team consists of the owner/operators, architect/engineer, construction adviser and commissioning authority. If an owner employs a separate commissioning agent, it is imperative the agent is a registered professional engineer (or architect, as appropriate) with state licensure and has adequate professional liability coverage if modifications are made to the design.

During the bidding phase, bidders should be informed about construction phase commissioning requirements. During construction, commissioning services consist of regular reviews of installations with prompt coordination for corrective work.

The most important part of the commissioning process takes place toward the end of construction, when testing and systems startup occurs. Installation and calibration verification, documentation of operations protocol, preparation of M&O manuals, training of building operations staff, and ongoing monitoring of equipment/systems are invaluable services that benefit the project. The construction contract should specify that trained personnel provide systems training to the owner's operators.

As a project is completed, commissioning should be integrated into the education institution's operations and maintenance plan, and the design team should update the “standards specifications” with new findings and building systems preferences for incorporation into the next project.


Building commissioning is performed on new construction, existing buildings never commissioned (retro-commissioning), and buildings previously commissioned (re-commissioning). Over the years, a building loses its peak performance. Retro-commissioning brings building systems near to optimal original performance.

Monitoring-based commissioning, an expanded approach to retrofitting buildings, combines ongoing monitoring of systems in conjunction with retro-commissioning. Advantages include opportunities for benchmarking and systems performance data trending, providing building operators and designers with concise information for monitoring energy use and troubleshooting issues.

Wrapping it up

As commissioning services are reviewed, education institutions should involve the architect/engineer to evaluate proposals, as services may overlap with standard owner/architect agreements. The cost of professional services is dependent on the scope of services and the systems commissioned. Typically, fees for services are based on building square footage and vary depending on project scope and geographic location. Professional engineering associations can provide guidance about services and expected fees. Commissioning is well worth the investment, as education institutions will realize a quick cost payback and good value for the fees expended.

Building commissioning is the joint responsibility of the designer, contractors, education institution and the commissioning agent. Each entity has its own responsibilities, with the best interests of the education institution as the major objective. Communication and collaboration are critical to understand design intent, construction initiatives and expectations. Ultimately, the commissioning process integrates the responsibilities and activities of each party for a successful project.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a firm specializing in pre-K to 12 school planning and design. He can be reached at [email protected].


Year that the Minnesota State Legislature enacted a commissioning statute requiring schools to confirm performance of HVAC systems before or shortly after occupancy.

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