The role of commissioning in today’s built environment


By Ryan Schmidt

Your agency bids a project for a new high-efficiency facility or the upgrade of an existing plant. The contract documents clearly outline concept to completion requirements and operational expectations—and yet, when the project is complete, nobody can really tell you if the building operates as intended.

Sure, your engineers and contractors can verify that they’ve designed and installed the systems correctly and even that the individual systems work.  But are all the heating, ventilation, cooling, electrical, lighting and multitude of other systems working together? Are they installed correctly and tested as an integrated building system?

Many owners believe that, if contractors and engineers did their job to design and install as intended, the answer to the question is yes. But, that’s unrealistic in today’s world of increasingly complex buildings and mechanical systems that are embedded with ever more intelligent sensors and devices.

A Systems Approach

Historically, the AIA contract for professional engineering services has included provisions for validation services to ensure the installed systems function in accordance with the design intent. The designer would specify any specialized testing and inspections that must be carried out by the contractor.

Yet, the designers and contractors rarely have the opportunity to look at an entire as-installed building system in a holistic manner. The level of quality control employed by designer and contractor varies widely, depending on factors such as project complexity and client expectations, along with the firm’s own specific business standards.

It is understood that design engineers and contractors have a stake in the delivery of a satisfactory project. The engineer’s evaluation is based on specifications, performance and efficiency expectations. The general contractor and specialty subcontractors install the system per the engineer’s specifications, often with tunnel vision focused on their specific responsibilities. The specialty subs will install, test and balance their individual systems, but don’t always consider broader system interactions.

Schedule and budget constraints also create the potential for conflicts of interest that may limit the rigor of quality control and validation programs. That’s why the USGBC LEED rating system requires that commissioning authority (CxA) must serve as an independent third-party inspector/auditor to satisfy the LEED Enhanced Commissioning Credit.

In today’s environment, owners hire a commissioning agent to take a systems approach to a building’s engineering and operational solutions. Experienced commissioning engineers provide a multi-disciplinary view to a project, allowing for a deeper understanding of all factors that affect the project life-cycle (e.g. performance, efficiency, reliability, operations, and maintenance). Beyond the improved performance and efficiency realized through installation verification and functional testing, commissioning has the potential to show real project cost savings and schedule improvements via focused design reviews, product and schematic submittal reviews, and objective foresight throughout the construction and acceptance phases.

In essence, the commissioning agent is the quality assurance expert, assessing the overall system from the design phase throughout construction and into operations, always keeping the owner’s original project requirements in mind.

Collaborative Commissioning

What’s the price of this assessment verification? Building commissioning costs for commissioning agent services ranges from 0.5% to 1.5% of total construction costs according to U.S. Department of Energy’s Rebuild America Program.  The National Association of State Facilities Administrators (NASFA) recommends budgeting 1.25% to 2.25% of the total construction costs for such services.

A CxA cannot, alone, deliver a successful commissioning program—we are simply the leader of the commissioning team, which consists of all project team members associated with the commissioning scope of work (e.g. owner, design professionals, contractors, building managers, and operations personnel). There must be “buy-in” from all team members in order to maximize the effectiveness of any commissioning program.


Ryan Schmidt, PE, CEM is a commissioning project engineer with Sebesta, an NV5 company. He has 10 years of experience in building commissioning and retro-commissioning. Ryan can be reached at 919.436.2860 or



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