A Matter of Integrity – Challenging Perceptions of Commissioning Engineering
The world of commissioning has evolved in the last thirty years — but something that remains unchanged is the need for integrity.
Back in the '80s and '90s, construction projects in the U.K. often had a full-time resident engineer that had been employed by the mechanical, electrical and plumbing design consultant, especially for large and complex projects.
Resident engineers were typically curious, inquisitive and knew their stuff; they were able to clarify design requirements and issue site instructions to overcome the inevitable day-to-day complications which feature in construction work. They would also hold the relevant people to account for the work they did, which included work related to the quality of the installation, compliance with the specification and to the commissioning of the engineering systems.
The Benefits of Strong Relationships
For young site engineers back then, myself included, it was clear that a solid relationship with the resident engineer would be beneficial — they had considerable knowledge that could be drawn on. As projects would conclude, site engineers would share testing and commissioning documentation with the resident engineer, involve them in witnessing and seek their agreement that testing carried out by domestic subcontractors had been a success.
The resident engineers being employed by the MEP consultant made a lot of sense; they were able to see first-hand, as it happened exactly what was going on on-site and whether the installations and subsequent testing and commissioning work met their specification. Then something changed.
A Shift in Behaviour
Resident engineers fell out of favour; in the late '80s ISO 9001 (an international standard for quality management systems) and self-certification became the norm and understandably, consultants visited sites as their fees permitted. There began a requirement for independence in the commissioning of MEP systems.
Fast forward thirty years.
The industry seems to have got into a situation where often the norm is that the commissioning engineer needs to be completely independent of the designer. Sometimes it might just seem like the right thing to do, or it might be based on experience or a requirement of a commercial certification scheme.
A Matter of Integrity
It is important to highlight that whether an engineer is independent or not, does not determine whether systems will or will not work as intended. Nor will it determine whether there is transparency in the commissioning process — that is a matter of integrity. Systems either comply, or they do not. If they do not, or if there is some shade of grey then – with the commissioning engineer’s support — it is the designer’s responsibility to establish why their design is not doing what they had hoped it would.
Perception Versus Reality
There is sometimes a perception that there is a conflict of interest if the commissioning engineer being engaged on a project is from the same company that also designed the project. In order to determine whether or not there is a conflict, it is important to understand what the role of a commissioning engineer is and equally importantly what it is not.
Typically, we have three different appointment models:
- Commissioning Management (Managing the process of building services commissioning and presenting the results of the exercise).
- Commissioning Validation (Verifying that the process of building services commissioning has been properly executed and that the results of the exercise comply with the design requirements).
- Quality Control (Verifying that workmanship quality and specification compliance facilitates best commissioning practice).
In each of these models the core tenet of our role is to see that compliance with specifications and drawings is achieved. If the specification calls for xl/s and we achieve yl/s, then our role is to identify that discrepancy to the design engineer and to work with the designer in determining how best to overcome the problem that this may cause. If in the event of a fire alarm activation a smoke damper should close, our role is to check that it does close as specified; and equally if it does not, to identify and communicate that to the design engineer and work together towards a resolution.
The role of the commissioning engineer is not to audit the design and nor is it to determine if some parameter that is outside specified requirements is acceptable or not — that responsibility remains with the designer. Our commissioning engineers report the facts transparently; systems comply or they do not, buildings perform or they do not and while we may be involved in determining why performance may be suboptimal, it remains the designer’s responsibility to see that the systems are capable of doing what they were designed to do.
Change is Happening
Working on an HDR-designed job has many parallels with my resident engineer example. Despite the trend in recent decades for a commissioning engineer to be independent of the designer, we are starting to see change. Until earlier this year, as part of the LEED Enhanced certification process, a project owner was obligated to designate a commissioning authority who is independent of the project’s design team. This has now changed and been amended to allow the commissioning authority to be a qualified employee of the owner, an independent consultant, or an employee of the design or construction firm as long as they are not part of the project’s design or construction team. This is a welcomed quantum leap forward and means that our commissioning team can now be appointed on projects where we are the designer despite being part of the same organization.
No Conflict of Interest Then or Now
There is significant value in providing our clients with holistic solutions. Our commissioning engineers use robust and innovative systems such as our self-developed management and validation software, Nucleus. This provides further transparency as governance documentation and certification can all be accessed in one place, demonstrating a clear digital paper trail of compliance.
It is our ability to provide an end-to-end service — from design, through construction, to commissioning and handover — that really adds value for our clients. This combined with the fact we act with integrity, always. Our reputation and that of our clients depends on it.