A Commissioning Fable

Once upon a time there was a man who needed to get from here to there. So he bought a plane ticket to his destination. On the day of his departure, he arrived at the gate to discover that the plane was late.

When the plane finally rolled up to the gate and the flight attendant began taking tickets, the man was informed that he would have to pay an additional 10% to cover the unexpected cost of moving the plane from the hangar to the gate. The passenger was frustrated, but he had already invented a lot in his plane ticket, so he handed over the additional 10%.

At last he and all the other passengers boarded. As the plane taxied down the runway, the pilot announced: “This airplane is a new, one-of-a-kind model. We’re honored that you could join us for the first test flight ever of this aircraft.”

Only a few of the passengers heard this announcement. Most were too preoccupied with attempting to adjust their seatbelts, which were jammed. Passengers on the right-hand side of the plane began to complain that their fans only blew hot air. Passengers on the left side realized that their fans only blew cold air. Flight attendants tried to improve the situation by offering soft drinks to the passengers on the hot side and coffee to the passengers on the cold side. However, their beverage cart was too wide to fit down the cabin aisle. Passengers began to feel faint and nauseated from the poor air quality in the cabin.

Meanwhile in the cockpit, the captain, who had received no training with the more advanced, efficient technologies on this aircraft, was having trouble figuring out how to make the plane take off. He tried consulting the manual, but it was written for a different system (and appeared to be missing pages, anyway).

Taken at face value, this story seems absurd. What passenger in his or her right mind would fly on such an aircraft? And what airline would purchase such a poorly-performing aircraft in the first place? However, people are willing to accept and occupy buildings under these circumstances on a regular basis.

No wonder so many occupants and owners of commercial buildings are dissatisfied. The equipment in their buildings fails to operate as intended. Operators do not receive adequate training and documentation. Occupants are less productive due to indoor air quality and comfort problems.

There is a remedy: building commissioning. Building commissioning is the systematic process (beginning in the design phase, lasting at least one year after project close-out, and including the training of operating staff) of ensuring, through documented verification, that all building systems perform interactively according to the documented design intent and the owner’s operational needs. 1 (see footnote)

The above excerpt is presented here as an excellent (and humorous) analogy of what can be expected from a building which is not properly commissioned. While one would expect aircraft to be fully tested prior to production and public use, buildings regularly are not, which, with no exaggeration, results in the same problems as the hapless aircraft in this story. When we are describing the reality of our industry, it really is not very humorous. Buildings are complex and one-of-a-kind (even identical designs have significant differences due to the different trades, products and people involved). Buildings need commissioning.

It should be noted that the type of commissioning referred to above is full scope commissioning (for the owner), which starts at the design stage and continues through to proper training of the operators.

As the plane story highlights, this type of commissioning (full scope commissioning for the owner) ensures that:

  • the project is done on time
  • the project is within the budget
  • the design is proper to meet owners needs
  • the systems and sub-systems perform properly
  • the operators are properly trained
  • the documentation is correct and sufficient

1. The above excerpt is from: “Commissioning: Adding Value to Your Business” by Nancy Benner and Carolyn Dasher of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc. and Jeff Harris of Northwest Power Planning Council as presented at The Northwest Conference on Building Commissioning (1996).

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