The Big Picture

Written by Travis E. Poling, a New Braunfels-based freelance writer. From the San Antonio Business Journal, Week of Dec. 11 – 17, 2009
photos-of-jasmine-20On time and under budget. Those are the words the people paying for public building projects most want to hear.

The norm for some major projects, however, has been just the opposite. The problem, industry experts say, is that it takes something akin to a rare alignment of the planets to keep some part of the process from becoming a sticking point.

Architects, engineers of several varieties, landscape designers, contractors and project managers all come into play. Each has their part of making the project successful, but sometimes problems are found along the way that bring things to a halt and result in potentially higher costs.

To avoid such issues, some entities are turning to something the industry is now calling total building commissioning. Acting on behalf of the owner, a commissioning agent provides a multidisciplinary approach to making sure each part of the project goes as planned and to the specifications of the owner. One of those entities is Harlandale Independent School District.

“We probably would have spent a lot of money if we had (used) another way,” says Josie Scales, chairwoman of the Harlandale ISD Bond 2006 Oversight Committee. The project she’s referring to involves multiple new schools across the district.

Harlandale brought in 25-year-old San Antonio firm Jasmine Engineering to do total building commissioning and take the place of multiple commissioning agents for each part of the process. Headed by founder Jasmine Azima, the engineering firm’s team took a fresh look at some projects already under way and caught a few things that would have cost more to change later in the process, Scales says. “She (Azima) has helped us every inch of the way.”

Public option

The idea of total building commissioning isn’t completely new, but more public entities such as school districts, universities, municipal governments and the federal General Services Administration have come to adopt the concept in recent years.

It is something akin to being a project manager representing the owner and taking accountability for each step, says Azima. The company did traditional engineering design work for buildings, but became involved in commissioning and energy saving aspects of building in the late 1980s.

As the concept of commissioning became a bigger part of projects, Azima hired architects, engineers in several disciplines, and seasoned project managers and embraced the idea of representing the owner.

“Problems will not arise if you have a firm with the right people, resources and accountability,” Azima says.

When brought in at the very beginning of the process, even before the designers are hired, Azima says, she has proven with past projects that she can save the building owner 20 percent. She’s so confident of the savings that she accepts liability if problems arise.

If the firm isn’t brought in until after the project is bid out to designers and contractors, a savings of 5 percent is still possible, she says.

“The need for total building commissioning is growing all the time,” Azima says. “As technology becomes more sophisticated, construction projects are becoming more complex. This creates additional challenges for projects to be built accurately and function properly, all while adhering to schedules and budgets.”

Start to finish

A total or comprehensive building commissioning typically starts with a detailed program of everything the owner wants to see in the building. A cost estimator then prepares a book that breaks down what each aspect of the project will cost. This becomes a shopping list for the owner to pick and choose from.

The next step is to build a 3-D model that allows the owner to get an even better look at the project and decide what they want or don’t want up front. Then when architects, engineers and contractors get the project, they have a better idea of what the expectations for the building are. The owner’s commissioning agent then oversees each part of the process, working with everyone involved to make it successful for all parties involved.

In some cases this process can bring what should be a 10-month-long building project in on time instead of adding months or even a year to deal with change orders that hold up other phases of construction, Azima says.

Edward Faircloth, current president of the national Building Commissioning Association, says he has seen the concept evolve from what used to be called “startup,” into a more comprehensive approach.”

“It’s not just a matter of saying the water’s running this way and the air is running that way,” Faircloth says. “It’s every aspect of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing. It’s the magnitude of the systems working together.” The commissioning agent, “is an advocate for the owners. He’s not adversarial to the architects and engineers.”

Federal attention

Faircloth and 40 employees at Gilbane Building Co., where he is senior project manager for NASA’s buildings at Johnson Space Center in Houston, have overseen the commissioning work that is now required by NASA and the federal government’s General Services Administration. All federal buildings now have to go through commissioning for new projects, recommissioning for those under way or retroactive commissioning for completed projects.

With the three completed and certified projects at Johnson Space Center, the process has proven its benefit, Faircloth says, with no odds and ends needing to be fixed at the end and very few callbacks in the first year after completion.

The trend of total building commissioning has been helped along by governments adopting requirements for LEED certified buildings, which require commissioning. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

Although LEED doesn’t require total building commissioning, it does use commissioning agents to oversee parts of the project. Regular building commissioning often involves separate firms each for the plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems. In contrast, total building commissioning has one agent responsible from the earliest stages of the project to the end for everything from the flashing on the roof to the guts of the building.

Local view

Still, some area government projects are getting a taste of commissioning, although not total building.

Thanks to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s request that all new county buildings achieve LEED certification, commissioning has come into play in the building of the $57 million, 215,000-square-foot expansion to the Bexar County Justice Center in downtown San Antonio.

Betty Bueche, Bexar County facilities division manager, says the testing process of commissioning has helped along the way, but that in-house project management and a team led by Zachry Construction Corp. has achieved some of the same goals of total building commissioning, which would have begun earlier in the process.

“It’s fairly new and emerging,” Bueche says. “There is an added cost, but we’re certainly not opposed to it.”

She says the county may look at it for future projects that haven’t already been budgeted if it can produce savings.

Commissioning agents also are in more demand since the passage of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires existing federal buildings to be recommissioned with an examination every four years.

The agent reevaluates a building to see if the demands on the building have changed and what needs to be done to improve the efficiency, says Martin Weiland, director of subject matter expertise in the General Service Administration’s Recovery Program Management Office. If, for example, a restaurant or a computer center has been added, there may need to be tweaks to the building.

“Buildings are highly complex, maybe more complex than the people operating them can understand, and they will only become more so,” Weiland says.

Read the article in the San Antonio Business Journal