March 15, 2014

The practice of building commissioning is changing with the new push to certify and license commissioning agents. In this Conversation, Joe Lstiburek and John Straube discuss what the impacts might be and why the building industry should pay attention.

March 15, 2014: I recently heard a presentation about building commissioning, and it was mostly about doing a whole series of silly tests in order to extract more money from clients. I was quite stunned that there was such an emphasis on the testing side of commissioning.

March 15, 2014: Joe, it’s the quality control versus quality assurance divide. They want to provide quality control because there are very low requirements and very little liability involved in delivering that service. You just follow the ASTM standards and you’re done. Requiring someone to think about what tests should be done and the meaning of the tests – that’s expensive. That’s the work that really needs to be done in building commissioning.

March 15, 2014: Well, one of the things that also came out is that people are pushing to certify and license commissioning agents. And I’m thinking that will be a game-changer. Because then you have NIBS and BTEC dealing with ASHRAE and ASTM and courses and licensing and certification, and to me, I thought the most important thing was to sit down with the owner and the architect and have a discussion right at the very beginning of the project and say “What is it that we’re trying to do with this darn building?” So commissioning to me is really the design process. It’s too late afterwards. It’s the start that’s important.

March 15, 2014: NIBS and ASHRAE actually have a really good commissioning protocol. It basically emphasizes that one needs to make clear at the start of the project what your expectations are. Is it going to be a humid interior in Minneapolis, or do you want it dry in Florida? But that’s not how we’re seeing commissioning being implemented. Too much of what we see is people coming up with a whole series of tests that don’t tell you anything about whether the building is doing what you wanted it to do. Commissioning done right is the way we always intended to build good
buildings. Get the team together, understand what you’re trying to do, check in at various stages to see if you’re meeting your objectives, and then when you’re done, check to see if you met all your objectives. It’s totally common sense.

March 15, 2014: It’s become like the term “green.” Everything is green, and now everybody’s a commissioning agent. “I was a roofer last week, and now I’m in building commissioning!”

March 15, 2014: I think there’s a lot of parallels, in the sense that LEED, for example, had a lot of people in the early days who really cared about green building, and were trying to come up with a system to make it more widespread. But as they turned it into a standardized checklist system, the people who cared about green building got lost, because it did get so widespread. Same thing with building commissioning. It was a good idea in the beginning, but now that it’s getting more popular, and everybody and his brother is jumping in. But all they do is follow the list of ASTM standards. This leads to a situation where you have building materials and systems being subjected to water leakage tests under arbitrary and capricious water loads and pressures, without looking for holes at the windows or shelf angles first, because that’s not an ASTM test, that’s a Joe test – the walk-aroundand-look test.

March 15, 2014: We now have some pretty sophisticated toys available to us. But the question that keeps going through my mind is “what is the pass/fail criteria and what is it based on?” So why would you take a building that’s particularly tight and then over-ventilate it, or over-pressurize it? Where are these loads coming from? What are these numbers? What’s happening is that a lot of this is actually getting written into the architectural specs. So you’ve got the drawings and design details, and then you’ve got basically a set of tests and compliance requirements. And I’m appalled at some of the requirements because they aren’t possible to achieve.

March 15, 2014: Waterproof membranes are a classic example, and flashing products. Air-sealing products. Windows – I was working on a GSA project and they want 500 Pa for an hour on these windows on a two-storey building in the Midwest. It’s insane.

March 15, 2014: The testing requirements are over the top – there’s no product in the world that could meet them.

March 15, 2014: And if you do find a product that passes, it doesn’t actually assure the client that when they install 700 windows that 10% of them are not still going to leak. Because the thing that got tested is not the reason they’re leaking, it is the variability in how they are made and installed. So that’s why setting up the requirements for commissioning is going to be important as it becomes more popular and people start entrenching this stuff into specs.

March 15, 2014: But then there's also another danger: that products will be engineered and optimized to pass the tests which have nothing to do with actual performance. So for water tests, for example, we wind up drilling a lot of holes solely to help windows pass the tests because we’re dumping an unreasonable amount of water on them during the tests.