Truth or Consequences

03/30/2005 |

Greener Facilities newsletter

For the past 2 months, we’ve been discussing building commissioning – the process of ensuring that building systems are designed, installed, functionally tested, and capable of being operated and maintained according to the owner's operational needs. In January, we looked at commissioning efforts at the University of Washington. In February, we provided a deep analysis on the cost effectiveness of commissioning, as evidenced by a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study.

So I thought – and still believe – we were on the right track in establishing the business case for commissioning. And then I got an e-mail from a thoughtful reader (not unusual), only this time the thoughts expressed in the e-mail stopped me cold.

Now I must tell you, after many years working for a large corporation and 12-plus years of involvement with the U.S. Green Building Council, I believe I understand the value of getting more than one opinion. However, this particular opinion caused me to wonder whether there’s more to the acceptance of commissioning than is readily apparent.

So I’m going to do something a bit unconventional: I’m going to share with you portions of this e-mail, and ask you to provide more feedback. I truly believe that the best way to remedy problems, misperceptions, and the like is by giving them air to breathe, rather than trying to suffocate them out of existence. I’m hopeful that true progress comes when those vehemently opposed to or fervently in favor of an issue see it from the other side.

Enough prologue. The reader began his response to last month’s column by saying, “There is something absurd about the commissioning concept.” Okay, you got my attention.

He proceeded to rather elegantly document how all those involved in the commissioning value chain – design engineers, contractors, installers, OEMs, commissioning agents, LEED specialists, various other consultants – make promises to deliver a high-performance building but rarely deliver. In the end, the building owners are left with often conflicting direction and lots of invoices from people being paid to do the same work.

While he admits that, “Over the life of a building, commissioning can work to save energy and provide a better environment for the occupants,” he notes that, “…the energy saved cannot compensate for the initial cost of firms failing to do their jobs correctly the first time out, the added cost to engage commissioning agents, third-party oversight, LEED costs, or the added time to get the job finished.”

As I’ve stated here before, imagine buying a high-performance car only to find out that it doesn’t deliver the horsepower or fuel economy as advertised. You’d return the car to dealer faster than you could say “lemon,” and demand they fix the problems under warranty and give you a loaner car in the interim. You can go through a similar process with a high-performance building that doesn’t deliver, except that there are multiple parties to whom you’d have to appeal, each blaming the other. And of course, there’s no such thing as a “loaner building.” So I can understand where the frustration comes from, and I also can understand why commissioning gets a bad rap.

Commissioning is, at least on paper, and I believe in reality, a viable means of ensuring that buildings deliver as advertised. What it shouldn’t be is a morass of red tape, double talk, and fat payments that don’t yield conclusive or actionable results.

What I’d like to understand better is whether the experience of this reader reflects that of the majority of you who have been involved in commissioning projects. Does commissioning suffer from poor perception, or poor reality? Certainly for this reader, it is the latter. If it’s a case of poor perception, it can be repaired. If the reality of commissioning is such that it is not taken seriously, then we have to dig deeper and perhaps come up with a “Commissioning Code of Ethics.” This might not be such a bad idea, regardless of the outcome.

So why am I belaboring these comments? It’s not that I have issues defending and promoting something that one, two, or any number of you thinks “absurd.” But imagine for a moment the power of “the grapevine.” I don’t know how many people this reader has related his story to besides me, and now you, but let’s for a moment assume that he has griped about his bad commissioning experiences with his colleagues, associates, friends, and relatives. Is his word-of-mouth enough to offset all the worthy and prestigious research that I’ve referenced the past two months? Sort of the “anti-tipping point?” I don’t know. But I do know that if commissioning is to have any “street cred,” then we need to address either the perceptions or the realities, or both.

I value your input and feedback, and pledge to do my best to hear and present all sides. Tell me if you’ve been involved with a commissioning effort that’s worked, and what were the keys to success. Or tell me why it didn’t work, and what doomed it to failure. I’m up to the challenge. Are you?

Rick Fedrizzi is a principal with the Global Environment & Technology Foundation, the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions and president of Green-Think Inc., an environmentally focused marketing and communications consulting firm providing services for the residential and commercial built environments. He also serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, of which he also is founding chairman, and president of the World Green Building Council. Contact by e-mail: (rfedrizzi@usgbc.org).


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