The market for building commissioning services has always been dynamic – it is not uncommon to receive project bids that differ by a factor of two or three. A major factor driving this divergence is that the level of “witnessing” versus “fixing and optimizing” varies widely between firms and markets. Technology is now driving a further differentiation in the commissioning process. Open protocol building control systems and owners’ desires for smart building automation offer new avenues for commissioning agents to add value and realize the goals for smart, cost-effective buildings.
At Altura Associates, we’ve noticed a dramatic increase in clients interested in pursuing a technology-driven commissioning process. They want increased visibility into the performance of their buildings, more confidence that the building will deliver the energy efficiency goals promised during design, and a way to integrate the building operating data with their overall data management strategies and workflows. In this article, we’ll share some of our experiences using the commissioning process to be a prime driver of the smart building vision and provide a few observations and examples as to how this adds unique value for the owner and occupants.
Increasing the Value of “Value Engineering
Value engineering is a term that implies clever, cost effective solutions and alternatives to costly building features whilst preserving the original design intent. However, when value engineering is deployed as a line-item-based exercise during design, it is difficult to appreciate the extent to which the building must operate as an integrated system in order to deliver a comfortable environment and efficient operations. Furthermore, if value engineering is confined to a design exercise, it misses the potential for productive problem-solving between the construction contractors and designers.
This is an area where the commissioning agent can have a tremendously positive impact if given the proper scope. The first scope piece for the commissioning agent in value engineering is Deep Controls Coordination. We define this coordination process as creating detailed sequences of operation and network diagrams and communication protocols during the design phase. Technology plays an increasingly important role in this phase, particularly when the commissioning agent is empowered to be the facilitator. Equipment and data standards now exist to connect a wide variety of building systems on a common network and to organize all building operational data into a common database. However, this opportunity can be severely limited by something as small as an incomplete controls specification. A savvy commissioning agent understands the technology and can act as the authority that ensures that the control spec is complete.
Substantial construction cost savings can be unlocked by thoroughly vetting the smart building controls strategy, expressing that strategy in a detailed requirements and specifications package, and thoroughly vetting the bids/proposals for controls solutions. Commissioning engineers with expertise in controls architecture, optimized operating sequences, and energy performance verification are uniquely positioned to drive this process.
Integrating Smart Building Controls During Construction/O&M
The second opportunity for deriving increased value from commissioning is in the integration of controls coordination with construction value-engineering. When the commissioning agent is limited to a witnessing and checklist approach, the opportunities to work collaboratively with the construction team to solve problems during construction are also limited. This may result in problems surfacing as change orders and delays, where they could instead be resolved and even serve as triggering events for cost-neutral project improvements.
For example, on a recent project, one of our engineers was in the field with an electrician installing the motor control. The project documents, which we helped refine, specified simple relay-to-contactor (start/stop) control. While this appeared to be the most straightforward and cost effective specification in the design phase context, it quickly turned out to be a headache relative to the field conditions. Initiated by a positive and collaborative relationship with the contractor, we took a second look at the issue and determined that variable frequency drives (VFDs) would be a better all-around fit for control and interplay with the electrical layout at the facility. A decision had to be made: either pursue a change order that would have slowed the project or make a judgment call based on the impact to the total cost to install the complete system. The cost for VFDs was marginally higher, but the contractor agreed the net cost to make the whole system work was roughly the same and within budget. This is simply one example of how a flexible approach and direct involvement during critical phases of a project enables smart decisions that benefit the client. We may go with a higher-tech piece of equipment that may have a slightly higher first cost, but it will deliver the intended overall performance and oftentimes be within budget when all factors, including commissioning time & effort are considered. From the perspective of a commissioning firm that sees necessary ingredients for long-lasting performance cut during line-item value engineering discussions, it is rewarding to be in a position to make these types of value-add decisions.
The role of the commissioning engineer is centered on a practical understanding of how all of the components fit together and which features save time in the field.
We also recognize that building operational data is valuable and will become more valuable over time. As a result, we advocate (and create where authorized), a data-tagging and analytics framework for all smart building control systems. The commissioning agent becomes the advocate, protector, and arbiter of the standards from the field controller level up through all levels of the system, eventually landing in a common database server which instantly recognizes the communications protocols and device identity. Detailed attention to these data standards becomes the basis for an effective analytics platform, for interactive functionality between systems (HVAC, lighting, security, etc.), and for future integration with O&M workflow tools. In effect, the traditional commissioning scope item called Warranty Period Review becomes Building Automation Optimization and Performance Verification. This is truly a different approach to delivering smart buildings, leveraging technology and the commissioning process.
In this evolving commissioning process, we don’t think of a building automation system (BAS) as a standalone box that is selected off a shelf. Our approach for smart building BAS pushes the envelope without sacrificing reliability. High horsepower industrial PCs aggregate data from and control industry-recognized and tested field hardware. The Ethernet backbone is open protocol top to bottom with 100% web-based front ends. Security is integrated into the common network and device level. The resultant system can be serviced by a larger community of engineering firms, systems integrators, and subcontractors.
The role of the commissioning engineer is centered on a practical understanding of how all of the components fit together and which features save time in the field versus add unnecessary flash or complexity. For example, devices are available now that utilize on-the-spot configuration, via such conveniences as NFC (Near Field Communication) from a smartphone or tablet. Ethernet-based field controllers are readily available that eliminate the need to use cantankerous token-passing communication networks.
As we stated at the top of this article, the commissioning process is evolving to provide a unique opportunity to take advantage of advances in technology and data management. The market will continue to evolve, and new technologies become widely available and more affordable. We can expect to see significant advances in the field of open-source building metadata tagging through communities like BACnet and Project Haystack. More importantly, building owners are increasingly realizing the many benefits and cost savings opportunities associated with greater visibility and control of their buildings, and it is incumbent on the building commissioning community to rise to this challenge and bridge the gaps between design, construction, O&M, and technology.