Commissioning in the Wall and Ceiling Industry

Michael A. Quiroz and Robert C. Grupe / May 2015

Wall and ceiling contractors who strive to provide quality to their customers while maintaining cost control of project variables face a juggling act that is often fumbled through no fault of their own performance. How then, can a contractor find a balance between profit and providing a quality product to his customers? This article will look at Commissioning (Cx) as a possible solution to verifying and maintaining quality control, and support the contractor’s ability to meet the goals of profit and a satisfied customer.

The wall and ceiling contractor faces many challenges in today’s construction market, and yet the process of bidding and performing on a project still relates to two simple factors: labor and material costs. The syntheses of these costs are based on the anticipated scope of the project, which ultimately shall meet the owner’s expectations as defined within the contract documents. While those two factors appear to be controllable variables as they relate to the project and contract documents, the reality is that there are several issues that surface as dependent and independent variables that will impact them either in a positive or negative way prior to, during and well after the project completion.
    
The potential of any profit is measured by the reduction in the negative variables that impact the cost of labor and material. The long list of those negative variables is all too familiar to any contractor reading this article, especially if the contractor has been subjected to litigation, which unfortunately is all too common in our industry. Additionally, while the contractor may strive to reduce negative variables within his or her grasp as with internal customers, the most common negative variables come from the outside as those defined as external customers.
    
As an industry we have evolved from the notion that productivity is the only solution to success, while in the end we have realized that quality control is truly the means to enable sustainable positive results toward providing the customer a quality product and maintaining a profitable company. The growth of Cx in our industry both from a mandatory and voluntary basis is one area that should be considered as a positive step toward quality control and maintaining cost control.
    
From its storied history dating back to the shipbuilding industry, Cx has since weaved a path through industries that were linear in design and purpose. Recent years have brought forth the understanding that the energy performance of a building could not rely on the dependence of active mechanical systems to reach the designed levels of performance that are required and or expected by the building owners. Voluntary verification processes have primarily supported the passive systems, which include building enclosures, as part of the equation of the energy consumption of buildings. The commissioning of building enclosures will most likely move to a universal mandatory code enforced requirement across the country. Many wall and celling contractors may see this as another unnecessary regulation imposed on the industry, while others may accept Cx as a useful tool to quality assurance and a path to profitability.

What Is Commissioning?
Commissioning in the building industry used to mean the testing of the mechanical equipment (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) prior to occupancy. The term originates from the ship building industry where a ship must be fully tested for functionality prior to the first voyage. Recent changes in both the International Energy Conservation Code and the International Green Construction Code expand commissioning to include what is called the building enclosure or exterior envelope. There are now mandatory requirements for verifying the continuity of the air barrier, and moisture control. Further, this verification must be completed by a recognized third party. This is what is termed the commissioning process.”
    
Commissioning is defined in the ICC G4-2012 Guideline for Commissioning as “a process that verifies and documents that the selected building and site systems have been designed, installed and function in accordance with the owner’s project requirements and construction documents, and minimum code requirements.” As mentioned, the commissioning process includes more than just the mechanicals. In 2014, the International Accreditation Service published AC 476, Accreditation Criteria for Organizations Providing Training and/or Certification of Commissioning Personnel. This document provides a glimpse of the intended areas of a building that may require commissioning. It references 12 areas: HVAC, lighting systems, plumbing, energy systems, irrigation systems, indoor environmental quality, building enclosure systems, fire protection, fire alarm, vertical conveyance, site development, and construction waste and demolition.
    
Out for public comment at this time is ICC 1000-201 Standard for Commissioning. This standard parallels AC 476 in that it references two levels of commissioning. The first is the “commissioning provider” and the second is the “commissioning specialist.” The provider is the individual or agency that is “responsible for the overall building commissioning process and who leads, plans, schedules and coordinates the commissioning team to implement the Commissioning Process.” The commissioning specialist is “an individual who works on a project to conduct commissioning on a specific technical area or system.” Assuming there is a specialist for the building enclosure, this is the individual who will have the most impact on the building enclosure contractor.
    
The role of the commissioning specialist will be to provide oversight on the design and installation of the building enclosure. This conceivably involves such exterior envelope performance attributes as thermal resistance, moisture migration, and the continuity of the mandatory air barrier. The specialist is involved with the project from its inception and will remain after the certificate of occupancy is delivered. The specialist is an integral component of the design team. Essentially the function is to mold the owner’s project requirements into an exterior envelope that is energy code compliant and aesthetically pleasing. While this may seem like it would limit the opportunity for value engineering, the reality may be that the specialist is the best source for considering alternates. The commissioning specialist “owns” the responsibility for the entire exterior system. Therefore, any trade issues on the job-site or unforeseen field conditions will be dealt with from a total system approach. With responsibility only to the owner, the specialist can be viewed as the contractor’s advocate. The National Institute of Building Science has published “Exterior Enclosure Technical Requirements for the Commissioning Process (2006).” That would be a good resource to further research the role of the building enclosure specialist.

Impact on the Wall and Ceiling Contractor
In the paper “Navigating Uncharted Waters: Understanding the Energy Codes and How They Impact the Role of the Contractor” (Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry 2012),it is proposed that the contractor should become “captain” in navigating what might appear as uncharted waters as it applies to the energy codes and the exterior envelope. The same advice is advanced in the AWCI Exterior Envelope—Doing it Right® program. This logic has its place with Cx. Active participation in the Cx process far outweighs the concept of another layer of oversight that the contractor must overcome.
    
Oversight on the building enclosure is falling into two categories. The first category is that which is mandatory, or required by the local building code. An example of that would be the requirement for either prescriptive R-value or a performance-based solution should the IECC be enforced. The other category is more voluntary and not necessarily from the building code. If a project falls under voluntary regulations, and inspection is not directly covered by the local building official, and the contract documents require commissioning of the building envelope, who is qualified to provide commissioning? One of the advantages of the commissioning specialist is that the individual must meet certain academic thresholds combined with recognized experience with commissioning on building enclosures. This comes as part of the AC 476, and the intent is for decisions that are based on the practical application of sound building science. The contractor can now control his/her destiny by asking for oversight from a qualified commissioning specialist.
    
Our industry has become highly fragmented over the years. The exterior envelope has been denigrated to a compilation of individual building products and materials. This can be seen in the proliferation of section numbers in the latest versions of the CSI MasterFormat®. The irony here is that both the building codes and the Cx process are focusing on the total envelope as a system. The codes and the Cx do not differentiate between individual products or even building components such as roofs and walls. Commissioning is systems based and performance driven; CSI has recognized that in the same MasterFormat® listed above. They have a special section on commissioning: 01 91 19.43 Exterior Enclosure Commissioning. The point here is that codes, regulations and architectural specifications are focusing more and more on the performance of the system. This has the potential to increase the role of the contractor from a framing contractor to an exterior envelope (system) contractor because the contractor becomes the single source for the entire exterior system.
    
Information on a product or system is becoming singularly more important than the product or system itself. The codes and the Cx process require systems-based information. The contractor, through the Cx process, can become the single source of information for the exterior envelope. Several steps are suggested to leverage the potential of the codes and Cx. Simply stated, they are as follows:
    1.    Position your firm from a framing contractor to an exterior envelope contractor.
    2.    Learn the energy codes in your respective market. Establish an in-house energy code expert.
    3.    Expand your company’s scope of work to include air/water barrier and continuous insulation.
    4.    Increase competency in commissioning by obtaining a Cx specialist status.
    5.    Integrate principals of Cx into your company’s quality control practices.
    6.    Leverage the expertise of your favorite building product manufacturers.
    
At the beginning of this article the statement was made that the emergence of the Cx in our industry will be an aide to contractor quality control and therefore a tool that can be used in maintaining cost control. The Cx looks at the exterior envelope or building enclosure as an entire system that must function as required. Individual components that make up the system must be compatible. They must be designed and installed properly. Commissioning is a tool that forces communication throughout the construction phase. Any trade that has a part in the building enclosure must participate in those meetings. Further, the commissioning specialist, with responsibility of the overall enclosure and speaking on behalf of the owner, will mitigate and arbitrate issues such as sequencing. This can only lead to increased productivity and quality control.
    
It is human nature to resist change, especially a change that at first glance is simply another source of oversight on the way we do our business. Oversight in our industry has historically been adversarial. Commissioning is no different. However, if we embrace the concept of the commissioning specialist, (possibly take on that role) make them our ally, it can be a path that leads to minimizing the negative variables, increase quality control, productivity, and ultimately profitability.

Michael A. Quiroz is an industry consultant with over 40 years’ experience. He is currently the chairman for the ICC 1000-201 Standard for Commissioning and also was a committee member of the ICC G4-2012 Guideline for Commissioning and the ICC International Accreditation Committee AC 476 Accreditation Criteria for Originations Providing Training and/or Certification of Commissioning Personnel.

Robert C. Grupe Jr. is a wall and ceiling industry consultant with over 40 years’ experience. He was a committee member ICC International Accreditation Committee AC 476 Accreditation Criteria, and is currently a member of the IAS Technical Advisory Committee supporting the standard.