Effective building commissioning: Make a plan and make sure it happens

CETF, College of Engineering the Future building project, ongoing photographs of the project, 11.4.16
Some of the contractor team at the College of Engineering, 2016

The goal of commissioning is to ensure that a building and its components function as intended from day one. Effective commissioning minimises contractor callbacks to make good non-conforming elements, and reduces the operational costs associated with managing that process.  

It’s safe to say that we didn’t appreciate the complexity of the commissioning process at the beginning of our rebuild programme, but by the end we had developed a much more mature approach, and along the way we learned some important lessons. 

  1. Plan for commissioning from the design phase 

Don’t think you can leave commissioning until the end of the project. Standards, criteria and responsibilities need to be defined from the outset and refined as the project takes shape. To achieve this, commissioning needs to be consciously resourced from the beginning of the project, and you should expect it to last for some time after construction is completed.  

Commissioning expectations should be set out in project contracts. We found the NZS 3910:2013 model contract to be satisfactory with some additional risk management clauses. Testing and commissioning plans also need to be developed, and documented right through to sign off. 

  1. Consider an Independent Commissioning Agent 

An ICA reports directly to the client. Being independent of the design team, they can provide an unbiased assessment of the quality and efficacy of work. They also focus on commissioning documentation, ensuring quality remains a priority during the intense drive to complete and hand over the building.  

Sustainable practices for waste disposal on the Rutherford Regional Science and Innovation Centre project, 2016
  1. It can be a juggling act 

Even with the best advance planning, the heaviest commissioning workload comes at the end of the project, when building users will probably be waiting to move in, and commissioning time can be compressed if there have been delays during construction. Building users will have developed decant plans for existing spaces, equipment and people, and delays can have a knock-on effect for other campus functions, creating even more pressure to complete pre-handover commissioning quickly. 

Our primary strategic driver was an open, functioning campus, ready to receive students, and keeping that goal top of mind meant we had to occupy some facilities before commissioning was complete.  

It’s not desirable and it becomes more difficult to address issues as time passes, but disaster recovery may require this sort of compromise. One possible strategy might be to stage commissioning so that key elements are resolved early on, and to define ‘no-go’ points which must be passed before the building can be used.  

The key is to document the commissioning gap at handover and create a plan to manage it going forward, including resourcing commissioning beyond the project team if required. Effective commissioning doesn’t typically save time, but it can save money, and it is an important cornerstone of project quality. Don’t let it fall off the list.