Editor's note: The following is based on “Best Practices for Specifying and Purchasing Commissioning for Schools,” which Ron Wilkinson, PE, LEED AP, presented during HPAC Engineering's seventh annual Engineering Green Buildings Conference, held Sept. 23 and 24 in Baltimore as part of HVACR Week.


The commissioning (Cx) quality-assurance process is especially important for schools not only because our children deserve the healthiest and most productive indoor environments, but because in many parts of the United States, Cx is mandated by law for public and private educational facilities. What's more, school expenses are under increasing scrutiny, and Cx is an important part of minimizing energy use. Although Cx is used widely, there is no systematic approach to specifying and purchasing it for the best results at the lowest price.

This article will provide best practices for developing requests for proposals (RFP) for school Cx. A concise and complete RFP is the first step in an effective quality-assurance process for schools.

The RFP Template

Since 2000, New Jersey School Construction Corp. has contracted with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to provide guidelines for the best schools in the United States. One facet of this endeavor is the creation and ongoing improvement of a school Cx RFP template. The template includes ASHRAE standards, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, California commissioning guidelines, and the U.S. Department of Energy's/Portland Energy Conservation Inc.'s “Model Commissioning Plan and Guide Specifications.” The template provides Cx purchasing guidelines for laypeople who frequently purchase technical services for schools.

The first lesson to learn about preparing a school Cx RFP is that it is not a brainstorming session. When a non-technical school board is tasked with specifying Cx, there is a tendency to pass the RFP around the room and add everything mentioned to the scope of work. The inevitable result of this is misunderstanding on the part of participating Cx providers (the Cx authority [CxA]) and “sticker shock” when the school board receives the proposed fees.

Cx can be applied to any part and system in a building, but that does not mean it should be applied to all parts of every project. For example, if the local fire marshal will witness demonstrations of the fire-alarm and fire-suppression systems, there may be little benefit to adding this to the Cx scope. On the other hand, if the school district has had problems with this in the past and the fire marshal has not helped, it might be good to add.

If state energy-office or utility-incentive programs are used to help pay for Cx, the tasks and equipment required by said programs must be included. Cx also can be funded by property insurance and tax rebates—and in some cases, Cx is mandatory when such funding is obtained. Certain Cx items, such as systems manuals, lessons-learned meetings, off-season testing, and as-built documentation, are required by some programs.

The point is that Cx is owner-driven, and Cx scope as requested in an RFP must reflect the owner's considered, discussed, and thought-out needs. The owners must understand the process, define why they are doing it, and explain what they want out of it.

Commissioning proprietary systems—security, specialty lighting (such as for a theater), telephone, and closed-circuit audio/video (such as closed-circuit television)—is outside the scope of LEED Cx requirements. Therefore, it should not be part of a LEED Cx RFP, unless the owner has a specific reason. If the owner wants Cx for proprietary systems, he or she should check the bid package to see if it already is part of the installing subcontract. If it is, having the CxA witness the testing will be less expensive than arranging the testing from scratch. Adding this clarification to the RFP can result in a lower fee for the overall project. Note the difference between this scenario and HVAC testing, which almost never requires real, documented Cx of the installed system by the installing contractors. This is especially true when systems, such as boilers, pumps, air-handling units, and perimeter heat, overlap.

Describing the Project

It is important to hire the CxA as early in the project as possible. The best time to bring the CxA on board is immediately after the design team is hired, during the pre-design phase of a project.

Although little may be known about the actual structure, a full programming document should be completed by the time the design team is hired. The document will outline the square footage of the building (plus or minus 10 percent), the various occupancies, food service, laboratories, gymnasiums/pools, special features, materials, number of stories, phasing, budget, schedule, the level of LEED certification required (if any), and the level of energy efficiency, quality, and longevity required. This description, along with the systems to be commissioned, gives the CxA a basic outline from which a reasonably accurate fee can be generated.

This procedure can be refined, allowing the CxA generate a proposal for a project in two phases: design and construction/occupancy. The design-phase Cx scope mostly includes documentation and is less dependent on a square footage and actual installed systems than Cx that occurs during construction. The fact that about 25 percent of a Cx fee is expended during design and 75 percent during construction further minimizes the impact of small errors in fee estimation during the design stage.

Toward the end of design, when a job is being bid by contractors, the owner and CxA can revisit the CxA's initial construction-phase fee proposal and negotiate, if necessary. If there is a complete impasse in establishing a fair fee for the construction phase, the owner can solicit new proposals from scratch. This seldom is required.