Ask the Expert: Engineer Robin Hutcheson explains the need for effective commissioning

Robin Hutcheson is a building veteran. Having worked on a wide variety of projects over the last 30 years as an electrical and energy engineer, he has learned some great lessons that can benefit anyone in the green building industry. In his current position as President of Arborus Consulting, he and his colleagues work with stakeholders, architects and design engineers to develop the most appropriate energy strategies to suit the project.

Given his vast experience, we wanted to speak to Robin about a topic he knows well: the importance of commissioning and how it contributes to greener buildings. This subject is very applicable, given that the CaGBC has recently started offering the An Intro to Effective Commissioning of Existing Buildings course as part of our comprehensive and growing educational roster. As Robin explains, understanding the full process before tackling any project is what puts you at a great advantage in all areas of development.

1) Tell me a bit about yourself, what type of work you do, your background and how you ended up being involved in green building?

I am an electrical/energy engineer with approximately 30 years experience in design, construction and O+M. Where I work now, Arborus Consulting, we work exclusively in the areas of buildings and energy; we are conformance verifiers for numerous organizations, including GBCI, NRCan, Efficiency Nova Scotia, and Efficiency New Brunswick. We got into green buildings back in 2005 (became a LEED AP in 2003) after working in the energy management sector and having a deep philosophical belief in environmental issues affecting our very existence on the planet.

2) Why, in your opinion, should landlords/building managers, and even tenants care about commissioning and how it contributes to greener buildings?

It has been our experience with the new construction projects that all of them have had serious operational issues at the start of the performance verification phase. So, if commissioning wasn't included in the project, then the building would have performance and operational issues from the very start of the building's lifecycle. Furthermore, in most cases, the operational issues impacted the occupant's comfort. It is important for building owners and managers that the building be turned over in the shortest time possible, and occupant comfort will be a key concern for attracting and retaining tenants.

3) Are there any misconceptions about the process?

Yes, there are a number of misconceptions. Design engineers believe the commissioning authority relieves them of their responsibilities with respect to operational aspects of the building design. This is far from the truth. In fact, the presence of a commissioning agent inherently brings the engineer closer to the conversation about the operational side of the design. In some cases, building owners believe the commissioning agent is responsible for optimization of the system operational elements. The truth is, they are tasked with proving the system functionality in accordance with the design specifications.

The trouble is, the design engineers seldom address the functionality and the commissioning agent is left to sort out the intent of the design with the contractors. While the commissioning agent reviews the schematic design and contract documents, the reviews are often ignored and the contract documents are inadequate to describe the full scope of work required. This results in the agent being the troubleshooter to correct shortcomings in the design or interpretation of the contract documents by the contractor.

Much of this can be avoided by engaging the commissioning agent at the very beginning of the project, before the design engineers are hired. They can act as a performance advisor to the prime consultant and owner to ensure design terms of reference and the nature of the deliverables from the design team are embedded in the project from the very beginning.

4) Why might you recommend our An Intro to Effective Commissioning of Existing Buildings course to those seeking to re-commission their buildings?

Similar to all of our energy-related assignments, the project is more effective if the client is informed. Building operators know their building best, but may not know if its performance is good or bad. By educating building owners about the commissioning of their existing buildings, the process can be more effective and engaging – helping to drive a culture of efficiency in the building's O+M. Owners will gain a better understanding of their role, level of engagement with O+M staff and potential outcomes from the process. On a more basic level it will enlighten the owners of the benefits and the economic returns to the building's bottom line.

5) What do you see for the future of green building, especially in relation to your work?

I see the lion-share of our work in existing buildings. It is where we started before the birth of LEED. The winds of change are upon us and building owners are coming to grips with the opportunities for operational savings and certification of their existing buildings to remain competitive in a market where the best buildings have LEED certifications.

The next two An Intro to Effective Commissioning courses will be offered in Saskatoon on January 25  and Winnipeg on March 20. For more information on this course and the many others being offered this winter, visit our Education Course Calendar .