Recently, our in-house engineers were checking a new boiler. While it produced hot water, the controls were improperly set so it cycled on to full heat and then quickly shut down as the temperature met the set point. This is something like driving your car by pressing the gas pedal to the floor when the light turns green and then slamming on the brakes when you get to the next red light. Obviously, your fuel cost will be higher, and your car won’t last as long but you will get to your destination.

One solution offered to avoid these issues is independent or third-party commissioning, also known as validation, start-up, operational hand-off or systems certification. In the broadest and simplest terms, this is the process for ensuring the building actually works when it is turned over to the owner. And it’s a growing business for many mechanical/electrical-consulting engineers.

But many in our industry can’t believe that we have to pay extra to make sure our capital projects actually "work." While modern building systems are more complex, it would seem that hiring quality architects, engineers, contractors or construction managers and subcontractors would be enough to ensure that your new building operates efficiently and effectively. Apparently not. If we, as owners, have to spend more and more on each project just to make sure it works, then that is less we have to spend on future buildings that will generate earnings. That means there will be less building. This will ultimately hurt everyone so it appears we all have a vested interest in making sure projects are adequately commissioned without paying a third party.

The costs for independent commissioning can be significant. We have taken proposals from third-party agents and found them to be $1.00 to $2.00 per sq ft. Assuming $1.50 per sq ft for our new 400,000-sq-ft hospital in Denver, this would add another $600,000 in costs, or the equivalent of providing another X-ray room, which could provide needed health-care services in this growing community and help us grow our business.

Some owners with large capital programs have no formal commissioning process. Others have the design team and contractors do verification as part of their contract. We use a hybrid approach where the designers and construction managers are required to follow a written process and our corporate engineers spot-check for compliance. But problems remain.

Commissioning needs some basic elements, such as the following, to be successful:

  • Early focus so quality and operational efficiency is built in and not added on.
  • Review of design and installation to ensure effective operation and maintenance.
  • Verify that the systems actually work when they are in use under design loads.
  • Pre- and post-occupancy in-service training for plant operators.

With these steps, the majority of commissioning issues, which usually seem to be HVAC-related, could be avoided.

Wouldn’t it be better for the owners, designers and contractors to work together to implement this process rather than add another layer of oversight and cost with an independent commissioning agent? What do we, as an owner, do when the commissioning agent and the design engineer disagree? Do we need to then hire a commissioning "referee" to resolve the dispute? Further, is the engineer still responsible for the design if the "referee" rules against them?

The owner’s representatives, designers, contractors and subcontractors should accept their responsibility for providing a quality, fully operational building so the end users can effectively produce their goods or services, or there may not be as much need for all our services in the future.

Thomas C. Gormley is vice president of design and construction for
HCA Inc., Nashville. He can be reached at tom.gormley@hcahealthcare.com.


ith over 60 health-care projects under way nationwide, we are always working to finish on time and on budget with good quality design and construction. However, we continue to face challenges ensuring that our new buildings and renovations actually operate effectively and efficiently.