On Episode 77 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with Dan Frasier, co-founder of Cornerstone Commissioning Inc., about construction commissioning.

Show Notes

Cornerstone Commissioning Inc.’s Website
About Dan Frasier
About Cornerstone Commissioning
Find Cornerstone Commissioning on Twitter
Find Cornerstone Commissioning on LinkedIn
Find Dan Frasier on LinkedIn
Cornerstone Commissioning’s Blog
“The Importance of Communication During the Commissioning Process”
“Why The Construction Industry Needs Commissioning?” by Dan Frasier
Link to SaviorLabs Assessment

Sections

Introduction
What is Commissioning in the Construction Industry?
Verifying the Performance of a Building: What A Commissioner Does
Specializing in Biomedical Research and Infectious Disease Research Facilities
Making Sure Systems are Functioning: APV — Annual Performance Verification
Who Needs a Commissioning Service?
Testing and Fixing Commissioning Issues
More Episodes

What is Construction Commissioning? With Dan Frasier

Introduction

Paul: Hello, and welcome to the Edge of Innovation. Today we’re talking with Dan Frasier from Cornerstone Commissioning Services. Right? Is it Cornerstone Commissioning?

Dan: Cornerstone Commissioning, Incorporated.

Paul: Okay. Cornerstone Commissioning, Incorporated.

What is Commissioning in the Construction Industry?

Paul: So, I’ve known you a while, and I have to honest. I don’t know what Cornerstone Commissioning means. What does commissioning mean?

Dan: So commissioning is a process that’s used in the construction industry to verify the performance of buildings. So it’s — mostly for us anyway — it’s mostly related to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems but also life safety. And we have a special focus on building control systems.

Paul: Okay. So let me think. So most ordinary people have maybe built a house, at the extreme. Do we do commissioning in a house?

Dan: We actually have done a few houses, but that would be a very high-end home.

Paul: So give me an example. You know, no names, nothing. Just what does it actually mean? So, they’re building a new school. Is somebody actually going to be doing the commissioning part of the new school?

Dan: Most schools today, if it’s a significant project, are going to have commissioning related to it. And there will be two primary types of suppliers of commissioning services. We are involved in the MEP, the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, life safety, building control side of things. The other version would be the building envelop, so the building enclosure. There are people that focus on the enclosure of the buildings for energy, for air tightness. And we have subs who do that work on some of our projects. That would be higher-end projects where it’s a net-zero building where it’s a highly energy-efficient building that actually may have some other kind of power generation with it so it never takes anything off the grid.

Paul: Interesting. We’ll get into that.

Dan: But you need a really good envelope to do that.

Paul: So, let’s step back. You’re really close to this. We’re talking to relatively ordinary people, and the local town is going to be building a new high school. And you’re saying there’s aspects to commissioning with that. The envelope, the outside walls and the roof.

Dan: Yes.

Paul: And even the floors?

Dan: Yes.

Paul: Okay. And then there’s also like the plumbing, electrical, mechanicals. The heat pumps and the heaters and furnaces and air conditioning systems. Am I accurate in that?

Dan: Yes, that’s accurate.

Verifying the Performance of a Building: What A Commissioner Does

Paul: Okay. So what do you do? I mean, does the architect sort of say, “We’re going to put all this stuff in”? And then you guys come back and make sure it works? Or do you make sure they put in the right stuff? What happens?

Dan: So, because we’re verifying the performance of a building and we want to make sure that that is verified relative to what the owner of the building really needs, the right way to integrate us into a project is during the design phase. And so the way that happens is typically — I would say over 90% of the time — a building owner is going to hire us directly. They’re going to hire the architects and engineers directly, and they’ll hire the contractors to actually build it. The reason we like to be hired during the design phase is because we get to know buildings so intimately — how well they perform — that during the design phase is the best time to start thinking about how well the building is going to operate to meet the owner’s needs. And so during the design phase, we’ll be reviewing the designs by the architects and engineers. And then some of the more complicated projects, we’re going to be hired to do a program evaluation as well. So we specialize in some pretty unique buildings. And so we’re going to ask questions that perhaps nobody thought to ask because we know how difficult it is to get this buildings to work right if they have mission-critical requirements.

Paul: Okay. So let me rehash that a little bit. So let’s say I’m the owner. Okay? And I say, “Gee, I want to build this private high school.” Or even I’m just going to build a high school. I have to hire an architect, a builder, and I imagine not engineers. The architect would hire the engineers?

Dan: Typically. Yeah, the design engineers work as a sub consultant to architects.

Paul: So I hire a builder; I hire an architect; and I hire a commissioning company like you guys.

Dan: Yes.

Paul: Who else do I have to have at that table? There’s four of us now. Me and those three guys.

Dan: That generally covers everything that you’re going to need. There may be some other unique things that would be permitting people or code-related people. And that usually falls under the architects and engineers.

Paul: Right. That’s what we’ve had an architect on the show before, and he sort of said that we help with that. We can help with that. So I’m trying to think. So I’ve got the architect. I turn to them and I say, “I really want it to look like this kind of building.” And I show them a picture of a building. And they say, “Great.”

And the builder is sitting there thinking about “Can I make that?” And “Can I make it at a reasonable price?”

And I say, “Gee, I want to do these kind of things in the building” to tell the architect. You know, I need a gymnasium. I need a lunchroom. I need science labs. And then you’re sitting there and hearing all of this, and you’re collecting all this list and saying, okay, science labs, heating, cooling, etc. And do you then say, “Well, what else are you going to do in it?” Do you actually get down to the functional use of it?

Dan: Yeah, very much so.

Paul: And say, “Uh, gee, do you want locker rooms?” Do you say, “Gee, do you want a wood shop or a cooking center?”

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Paul: And then, oh, well if you’re going to have a cooking center, you’ve got to have ventilation. So is that sort of your role in conjunction with the architect? Because the architect, I would imagine, if they said, “Oh, here’s the cooking center. Well, we’re going to put an island in. We’re going to put a vent in and all this.” How does that interaction occur?

Specializing in Biomedical Research and Infectious Disease Research Facilities

Dan: Well, the kind of buildings that we’re involved in are…The questions that we ask during the design phase usually elevates the level of attention to some of those things you’re talking about because we specialize in biomedical research facilities and especially in infectious disease research facilities.

Paul: Yeah. We don’t want to have a failure in that.

Dan: No. And so there are a lot of things that we’re going to ask about, systems that are going to support some of the unique requirements, like if they’re going to house animals or they’re going to do research with infectious diseases. And the air flow directions are important. And so there are a lot of things that people just don’t think about that we’re going to ask the lab directors and the environmental health and safety people about some of their testing requirements or performance requirements related to biocontainment, for example.

Paul: So I think your comment of saying there’s just a lot of things that people don’t think about is extremely at the crux of this. It’s very much the focus of… You know, when we’re ordinary people on the street thinking about oh, we’re going to do this, there’s a lot of things. When we talked to our architect friend, Benjamin Nutter in Topsfield, he sort of unmasked a lot of the things that you didn’t think of. And now you’re saying for a commercial building or for something that’s going to have all of these functions, there’s a whole set of layers that we might not understand. It sounds like not only do you call those into, to view, but then you actually validate them once they’re put in. If you were to value the sort of importance of what you do, which one is the most important? They’re both equally important, but, me saying, “Hey, you need good ventilation in here” is one thing. Or a scientist saying, “We need good ventilation,” they’re not going to know the specs. Do you guys know the specs and say, “Oh, we need this kind of ventilator”? And then what happens with that?

Dan: Yeah. So during the design phase, the people who we do repeat business for, they’ve relied on us to ask questions about the type of systems that are going in, some of the components related to it. A lot of it comes back to the performance verification criteria. So we actually have a document that’s call the PVC, the Performance Verification Criteria, and it’s essentially the pass-fail criteria that’s going to be used to measure whether or not a building meets the owners requirements.

So an example of that would be… It’s an infectious disease lab, and they want to know that they don’t have dirty air going out into the public areas.

Paul: Okay. Seems good. A good thing.

Dan: Seems like a really good idea. So, the actual delivery of that means that there are certain redundancies that have to be in place for your ventilation systems, for your power supply to the building. There usually would be an emergency generator. There will be uninterruptible power supplies that help certain things ride through that loss of normal power. And so there are components that we know have to be included in a building that may not even appear during the design phase. And we need to make sure those are there to make a unique requirement like that be met.

Paul: Right.

Making Sure Systems are Functioning: APV — Annual Performance Verification

Paul: So we’re sitting here just a few days after Hawaii announced that there was an incoming missile headed toward their island. And everybody is criticizing that to say how could that mistake could happen so easily. So it sounds like a lot of the things you’re doing — not necessarily in missile avoidance, or missile announcement — is to make sure that the systems that are put in place are actually going to function when they need to function.

Do you test them after they’ve been deployed? I mean, you hand over the keys to the building, are you guys done? Or do you have to retest them?

Dan: Some buildings we’re required to retest. Or I’ll just put it this way. Some buildings are required to be tested by the owners every year. Some owners will hire us to come back on an annual basis to do performance verifications. We call them APV — Annual Performance Verification, especially if it’s related to biocontainment laboratories.

Paul: What are the ones that don’t have you come back and do it? Do they do it themselves or…?

Dan: Some will do it themselves, but some of them just aren’t real critical. I’ve just talked to you quite a bit about biomedical research within infectious disease. That happens to be one of our primary areas of focus. But we do a lot of other kinds of buildings. Some of them are kind of fun buildings. We’ve done a done a passive house where it doesn’t have any power to it.

Paul: Really?

Dan: Because it’s a high performing house in New Hampshire. And we were doing a museum for a car dealer who’s getting all these exotic cars. And so that’s the kind of a thing that’s probably not going to be verified on an annual basis. Museums, a lot of museums as well.

Who Needs a Commissioning Service?

Paul: Are there needs? So we just talked about disease, and we’ve talked about a museum and a house. So there’s three radically different buildings there. I mean, who’s requiring doing this? Is it the owner saying, “I asked for it. I’m paying for it. I want to make sure it works”? Or is it the that the government is saying, “You need to make sure this stuff works”?

Dan: Well in the case of infectious disease research facilities, it’s Center for Disease Control.

Paul: Okay. So do you work with them?

Dan: We don’t work with them, but we work with the owners of these facilities who are going to be inspected by CDC.

Paul: I see. So that’s what’s going to happen. The CDC is going to come in and look at it, and they’re going to probably say, “Show us that this has passed.”

Dan: Yes.

Paul: And then they hand them your documentation.

Dan: Yeah.

Paul: Okay. Cool. Do you ever get involved in talking with them about that? You know, are there questions or is it just more of a paperwork issue?

Dan: It’s more of a paperwork issue. I mean, we’re recognized in the industry. And we’re speaking at the CDC Symposium in a couple of weeks. They have an international symposium on biocontainment, and we’re at that meeting every two years that they have it. So we’re recognized. We’re on the standards committees relative to defining what performance is required out of systems, especially ventilation systems.

Paul: They’d look at the documentation. Oh, Cornerstone did this. They’d be a relative comfort with that as opposed to Joe’s Commissioning. They’d say, “Who’s this? I don’t know Joe.” “What is this?” And they might dig deeper, but you’ve got a good reputation out there.

Dan: Yeah. And they’ll just look to make sure that our documentation shows that we tested the things that are required to a level of scrutiny that it ought to be taken to. Some of it’s prescriptive; some of it’s not. And so they rely on us to ask the right questions and test appropriately.

Testing and Fixing Commissioning Issues

Paul: And now, when you go and test, if you have a thousand tests that you have to perform, I can’t imagine they would all pass. There must be a lot of, “Oh, we’ve got to fix this. We’ve got to fix this. We’ve got to fix this.” I mean, just having had work done around my house, it’s like, “Oh, that’s not right.” Does that happen? Is there some churn in the work?

Dan: Yeah. So I’ll just say you, you’ve talked about three different kinds of buildings from a house to a museum to these high-end biocontainment facilities. I don’t care which one of those you pick, none of them are going to be done on time. I mean, that’s just the nature of construction projects because construction is complicated. But if, as you increase the sophistication and user requirements for a building, it elevates the challenge to get something finished on time.

Finishing it on time is one thing. You know, as a contractor will say, “I just packed up my tools. They’re in my truck. I’m leaving. I’m done.” Okay, that’s not usually defining when an owner of a building says, “Okay, it’s done.” That doesn’t usually coincide with the contractor leaving. There are usually things that still have to be done.

And when it comes to commissioning, making sure that a building actually works right, we find a lot of issues. We call them commissioning issues. And one of the most important aspects of working on the project — and this is a company philosophy that we have to work very closely with the owners, architects, engineers during the design phase. And then during the construction phase, we work with those same people but more even with the contractors.

And because it’s so hard to get some of this buildings to work right, we really have to engage people in a way that’s winsome and not irritate them. We don’t want people looking at us and saying, “Oh no. Here comes Cornerstone. Here comes the commissioning agent. All they want to do is document the living daylights out of any possible thing they find wrong, and then they’re going to get paid for finding all this stuff and making us look like we can’t get this building working.”

No. What we want to do, we go, “We are going to find issues. To the extent that we can resolve issues when we find them, that is part of our focus.” And so our interaction with these contractors is to build relationships, to work on this stuff together so when we find something, we brainstorm it, we document it, we hope to not have to have it addressed again on a repeated basis. But it really it’s a quality control process to get the building to do what the owner really needs it to do. And so when it’s done, we can all feel good that we’ve worked together to deliver an owner a building that really does what it needs to do with great proficiency.

Paul: Well, we’ve been talking with Dan Frasier of Cornerstone Commissioning. And we’re really delighted that you took the time to come in today and look forward to talking to you in the future.

Dan: Thank you, Paul. This has been a pleasure.

More Episodes:

This is Part 1 of our interview with Dan Frasier. Be sure to listen to Part 2 here! We’ll be talking about building control systems and continuous commissioning!