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Getting the Building You Paid For

Your new building may have problems that won't become obvious until it's too late to fix them. Clearly defined deliverables and construction oversight can minimize the risk of unpleasant surprises.

Jun/Jul 08
When beginning a new construction project, it seems reasonable that the building owner should expect to occupy a building that is functionally complete with all components and systems fully installed, started, controlled, balanced, and tested. However, most commercial buildings today are occupied prior to all systems being complete, and this overlap of systems completion and occupancy invariably has a significant negative impact on both the immediate and lasting performance of the building.
Problems manifest themselves in the form of high initial levels of occupant complaints and the resulting maintenance costs, as well as long-term performance deficiencies and higher energy costs on the building. All of these problems and their associated costs are subsequently inherited by the building owner.

Defining Project "Completion"
Why do we continue to see this occur on so many construction projects? Essentially, it's because the construction industry has changed over time in response to the pressure of tight budgets and fixed completion/occupancy dates. One basic indication of the change can be seen in the definition of "completion." The definition has become somewhat nebulous, often with very different meanings to the construction team, the owner, and the architectural/engineering (A/E) team. It is important for owners to be aware of how these changes can impact their projects and what oversight they should expect to provide to ensure they get what they paid for.

From the contractor's standpoint, the building is "substantially complete" when the occupancy permit requirements have been met. Most owners have come to accept this view, with the understanding that the "punch-list" will be completed by the contractor, and accept the building as ready to occupy. However, from a commissioning (and historical) perspective, substantial completion would additionally require that all components and subsystems of the HVAC system have been completed, started, fully controlled, and balanced per the building's design intent and contract documents. Without this process, systems may be operational yet not complete and not achieving all performance goals specified in the contract documents.

Impact of "Substantial Completion"
Most building system performance shortfalls will quickly become evident upon or during occupancy. Performance deficiencies, such as insufficient air distribution to certain end-use spaces or failed reheat coil operation, could easily go undetected prior to occupancy but will contribute to excessive maintenance calls upon occupancy. Additionally, critical areas dependent on these systems operating properly - such as clean rooms, laboratories, painting operations, or any process-related area that relies on water (cool or hot), steam, air flow, or filtration - can be negatively impacted. While blatant failures will be immediately noticeable, many performance deficiencies such as inadequate air or water flow may not be as easily detectable under certain load conditions and may cause problems to drag out for months.

The system completion process in these cases will generally cause business disruptions and complaints from the occupants due to potential system isolation and/or shutdowns required during occupied hours. An occupant will be exposed to heating or cooling deficiencies and any anomalies related to power, lighting, or thermal comfort (i.e., anything that they can physically sense). In these instances, the building can quickly develop a reputation as a "bad" building.

In a recent project in which final completion occurred 12 months after occupancy, a conservative estimate of unexpected maintenance costs to the owner was more than $150,000. The energy and equipment life costs are more difficult to quantify, but they are significant since they can continue to add cost over the entire life of the building. For example, one large air handling unit (AHU) serving a critical area of the facility was installed improperly, causing a permanent inability of the outside air dampers to fully open and close. Discovered after occupancy, the problem could not be fixed due to internal operations; therefore, the AHU will operate inefficiently for the life of the building.

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