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The Human Cost of Low-Cost Commissioning

Case Study

Mar 05, 2019

by Michael Flemming, PE, LEED AP, CxA, CEM

It’s a hot summer day at a brand new state-of-the-art LEED Platinum community college, the first session of the Emergency Medical Services program has completed and it’s graduation day. The room is filled with students along with their beaming family, friends, spouses, children and teachers all looking forward to a joyous day of celebration over the achievements of this group of students.

But even under normal conditions a room filled with people on a hot day is a challenge for any HVAC system but even more so for a system designed to maximize efficiency and reduce energy consumption by utilizing advances equipment and complex sequence of operations. When the space eventually overheats and gets stuffy, when people are leaving the room to cool down and doors are propped open with fans brought in to circulate the air who is responsible and how can this be avoided?

The first call will go to the building’s facilities staff as they’re responsible for operating or maintaining the equipment correctly. Then it will be the fault of the design engineer who designed a system that was incapable of meeting the requirements. Or maybe it was the contractors fault for cutting corners or installing a system that didn’t work. But the forgotten member of this team, who is rarely identified as the culprit, is the commissioning provider. For this project to have achieved LEED Platinum, for the contractors to have been able to walk away, for the engineer’s designs to have been approved, the commissioning provider should have been there with approvals throughout the whole process.

Although energy savings are commonly cited as the reason to commission a project and for its inclusion as a LEED prerequisite, the true cost that lives over the life of a building is the human cost.

Additional overlooked effects can include:

  • Loss of productivity of office workers who work in uncomfortable, stuffy office spaces
  • Drop in enrollment or achievement for students who cannot learn in a space that isn’t comfortable
  • Increase in sick days for overcooled or under-ventilation spaces

Over the life of a building these losses can often eclipse the energy savings that come from proper commissioning.

Many research studies have been completed that show that uncomfortable temperatures, especially warm classrooms, have adverse effects on test scores and learning at all levels of education. In the competitive market of post-secondary education comfort and results are paramount to future students.

All this should be taken into account when selecting a commissioning provider and in holding them accountable for the issues that may arise during the design, construction and occupancy of a building. A skilled commissioning provider should be one of the first consultants included in a project and should be one of the last to finish as it’s their role to help develop the requirements of the project and to ensure that they are included and operating correctly at the end. For a role that includes this great of a responsibility, for a role that is meant to ensure that engineers, contractors, manufacturers and programmers all provide the best service possible for the project, the cost savings that come from choosing a low-cost provider are limited in comparison to the future costs that will be incurred over the life of the project.

When choosing a commissioning provider keep this in mind and ensure that the commissioning provider is a certified commissioning provider, understands the building type and systems to be included in the building and is ultimately ready to commit to being involved through the entirety of the project and be willing and be held accountable if issues do arise.

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