Volume 50, Issue 7 - July 2015

Are You Ready for Building Enclosure Commissioning?

by Ellen Rogers

hou shalt not leak water.

It seemed so simple 20 years ago. Avoiding water infiltration was the key performance criteria. Architects or owners would often hire a curtainwall consultant to make sure the building was water-tight. Those consultants provided an inspection test plan, which typically included a performance mock-up. And it all amounted to verifying and validating that the curtainwall would not leak.

But the fact is, a lot of buildings leak—and that’s a failure. Though not necessarily catastrophic, the number of those experiencing air and water leakage alone is significant.

John Runkle, vice president/ building sciences, with Intertek-ATI in York, Pa., points out that an estimated 85 percent of post-construction dollars go toward water-related damage or problems. Some sources, in fact, say moisture damage contributes to 90 percent of all building and building material failures.

So it started with water and now, 20-some years later, there is no longer a single performance requirement, but many, including air, structural and thermal testing. Performance characteristics are also more clearly defined than in the past, through means such as test standards and guidelines.

Enter Building Enclosure Commissioning (BECx). This process, simply put, is a holistic, quality assurance program that confirms the building is constructed per the owner project requirements (OPR).

“Over the past 20 to 25 years, we have seen an increasing interest not only from owners, developers and design professionals but also from the general public in energy-efficient, environmentally conscious, higher-performing buildings,” says Daniel J. Lemieux, principal and unit manager with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. in Fairfax, Va. “At the same time, this demand has also uncovered serious flaws in the project delivery process and our ability to deliver buildings that achieve even a modest level of performance relative to air leakage, rainwater penetration resistance and condensation potential. BECx is a process developed to address those concerns.”

Brian Stroik with the Boldt Co., an Appleton, Wis.-based general contractor, points to the growing number of buildings that fail very early in their lifespan—two to five years—as a reason for the developing interest in the commissioning process.

“People want to know why these issues happen and what can prevent them in the future. With this process, you’re validating if things are not installed properly, and it will help the sustainability and durability of the building,” says Stroik.

Sounds pretty good, right? Yet there are still questions among those on the contract glazing side when it comes to how they will be affected by BECx. It can add another layer of complexity, increased oversight and testing and is a more involved process compared to what they are already used to. As Mic Patterson, director of strategic development, Advanced Technology Studio – Enclos in Los Angeles, explains, “The risk is that the commissioning process is either ineffective on one hand, or overly burdensome on the other, further taxing the already highly challenging undertaking of facade design and delivery.”

So, the question is: Are you ready?

This pre-construction laboratory mock-up evaluates water penetration resistance in accordance with AAMA 501.1, Standard Test Method for Exterior Windows, Curtain Walls and Doors for Water Penetration Using Dynamic Pressure.

BECx Explained

Let’s begin with a closer look at the commissioning process. Typically, it starts with the owner. According to the American Institute of Architects’ best-practices document titled “Building Enclosure Commissioning: An Introduction,” there are two main reasons for owners and architects to choose BECx: “1) the number of problematic issues of enclosures which manifest themselves during construction and the quality of built enclosures can be a frustration to owners reflecting on the services provided by the design team and 2) the increased complexity coupled with the drive for improved performance of building enclosures with regard to sustainability considerations.”

Lemieux explains, “BECx is an owner-driven process intended to reinforce the project delivery process through the establishment of milestone deliverables during the pre-design, design, pre-construction and construction phases of a project, including periodic evaluation and performance testing during occupancy and operation of the building.”
He adds, “Clearly defined OPR and an appropriately developed basis-of-design that includes performance testing appropriate to the project and necessary to verify the installed performance of building enclosure materials, components, systems, and assemblies are hallmarks of a properly developed and enforceable BECx program.”         

Stroik points out that curtainwall and glazing are a huge part of today’s modern building. “That’s a component in the enclosure that we need to make sure fits in right …There are a lot of good products, but can we make them more airtight, etc.? Commissioning helps to validate that you’re getting as close to possible in the field as what was tested.”

BECx vs Curtainwall Consultants: What’s the Difference

As design and construction move increasingly toward Building Enclosure Commissioning (BECx), what does that mean for the curtainwall consultant? Will this segment no longer have a role to play? And what, exactly is the difference between the two?

As Brian Stroik with the Boldt Co. in Appleton, Wis., explains, “A curtainwall consultant is really focused on their one aspect. If you’re looking at a commissioning group, they look at the whole building. So, they do need to know how curtainwall ties into the rest of the systems and how it affects the others”

Daniel Lemieux, principal and unit manager with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. in Fairfax, Va., adds that the BECx provider (BECxP) is typically operating at a higher altitude [than a consultant] and is focused more holistically on the broader requirements of the established owner project requirements. 

“The role of the BECxP is to document for the owner/developer that the necessary steps have been taken by the design and construction team to deliver a fully integrated exterior enclosure that meets or exceeds the requirements of the contract documents,” he says.

So, if a project calls for BECx, will that replace having a curtainwall consultant? Not necessarily.

“That commissioning agent may go out and hire a consultant, especially if it’s a very complex curtainwall,” says Stroik. “Again, BECx is looking at everything on the façade … and they may need the curtainwall information to tie it together, but they may not be specialized in how to obtain it. But then again, they might be.”

Speaking of complexity, Lemieux adds that if the design calls for a single or perhaps combination of several different types of aluminum and glass curtainwall and rainscreen exterior wall systems that are beyond the technical depth of the design team, then a curtainwall consultant is often retained to provide direct support. 

“While the BECxP may also possess a unique level of knowledge and expertise in these systems, their role on the project as a consultant to the owner should be clearly (and contractually) distinguishable from the role and responsibilities of the architect-of-record and technical consultants to the design team,” he says. “A decision by the owner to engage a BECxP to provide BECx services and serve simultaneously as a technical consultant to the design team, while allowable under current BECx guidelines and standards, can, in certain circumstances, blur the lines of contractual responsibility on a project and, therefore, should be given serious consideration by the owner.”

Why Care?

BECx may not be a requirement on every project, everywhere, just as curtainwall consultants aren’t on all glazing projects. Expect to see it on large-scale curtainwall projects such as arenas, hospitals, and educational facilities.

Dan Shields, director of sales for Alliance Glazing Technologies Inc. in Romeoville, Ill., says his firm is starting to see BECx more and more.

“We’re seeing it introduced more on design-assist opportunities, so when we’re brought in during the early stages of a project and working on it, we look at it in terms of both cost and schedule components. Then there is the performance and quality assurance, which really starts in the design phase,” he says. “We’re trying to be aware of that on the front end by starting the process during the design phase rather than trying to react to it toward the end.”

Shields says his firm found itself in a learn-by-doing scenario, and that’s how it came to understand BECx.
“We’ve [learned] it through being part of the process and now we understand it, having gone through it,” he says. One concern he points to is the additional consultants that are brought into the process, “We tend to find different views on different topics … [and] it all comes down to time. That’s my biggest concern: are we spending time appropriately?”

There’s often a level of uncertainty any time something new comes into the picture, and for many contract glaziers commissioning is new. As Runkle explains, in general, everyone, including contract glaziers, often have concerns about something new.

“They are comfortable with the world they know; if something is new and affects them post-bid … there’s a fear of the unknown in terms of roles and responsibility and extra costs,” he says.

Runkle adds that he sees several touch points with contract glaziers; one being that it’s a more involved quality control process than what they may be accustomed to.

“There’s increased participation, expectations, etc.,” he says. “On the flipside, the scrutiny is put into the interfacing of the fenestration system with the opaque wall; before, they were alone in the battle, and they now have an advocate to make sure the installed system is functioning properly. Also, because of the early learning, there are fewer mistakes and fewer errors/changes when they get to the construction phase, and the overall risk of failure is significantly reduced …”

Patterson sees BECx as very good with the potential to favorably impact the performance of the building sector.

“The industry has found that many facade systems never perform as intended due to quality issues in fabrication and/or installation, problems that often go unidentified in the absence of commissioning,” he says. “I’m told that there are more than 5,000 glazing contractors operating domestically. There is no appropriate certification system in place, so quality among these contractors varies widely. The impact of commissioning on the glazing contractor will vary as a function of quality and skill. Top-tier glazing contractors will be impacted very little, if at all, beyond the possible accommodation of logistics to facilitate the commissioning process.”

Tracy Robbins is a sales manager in the Seattle office of Walters & Wolf Curtain Wall, a design-build contract glazing firm that builds its own glazing systems.

“Initially, we meet with the stakeholders including the owner, general contractor, architect and consultant to discuss the project and the commissioning scope. Then the scope is defined through a commissioning plan that is developed by the team and included in the specifications,” he says. “The scope is quantified and priced. Typically, there would be a comprehensive menu for consideration. Lastly, the costs are evaluated by the stakeholders for acceptance or modification.”  

He says for companies such as his, BECx may be an unnecessary burden. Firms like his, he says, are essentially already doing the steps commissioning agents are calling for.

“We’re highly specialized in high-rise building, and what the commissioning agent is doing is coming into the mix, developing tasks and so forth to make sure we’re doing what we already do. It’s almost a double-duty,” says Robbins. “So they [get involved] looking at the testing, specifications, quality control processes, etc. and make sure what the owner wants is what the glazier is doing. But if we’re working collaboratively with the architect and doing our job as a design-build contractor, we’ve already done [that]. There can be a costly duplication of efforts depending on the scope of the commissioning.”

He continues, “Do we [contract glaziers] need someone to ensure compliance with the specifications, drawings, etc.? Maybe some do, but with A-players, probably not. The key is working with the stakeholders from the beginning of the design.”

He’s not the only one with these feelings. John Wheaton, president of Wheaton Sprague PE, a Stow, Ohio-based curtainwall consulting firm, adds, “If those providing commissioning understand the relevant issues for cladding and enclosures, then it is a benefit. If not, it just causes disruption. The issue with glazing systems is that many require specific and detailed skillsets in order to provide relevant commissioning.”

He points out, though, “On the flip side, if done by a competent resource, it should provide better exterior cladding and glazing performance, less risk, continuity to air and water barriers, thermal performance, proper design, fabrication, supply and installation.”

BECx Reference Documents

• NIBS Guideline 3-2012, Building Enclosure Commissioning Process BECx

• ASTM E2813–12, Standard Practice for Building Enclosure Commissioning

• ASTM E2947–1, Standard Guide for Building Enclosure Commissioning

• U.S. Green Building Council LEED Reference Guide for Green Building Design and Construction, 2009 Edition

• LEED BD+C: Core and Shell, v4 - LEED v4, Enhanced commissioning

• International Green Construction Code - 2012

What Will it Cost?

But someone has to pay for the commissioning. Generally, this is the owner, sometimes the architect.

“An informal review of our own data, together with data that is becoming increasingly available from the industry as BECx continues to gain traction in the marketplace, indicates that the total cost for BECx – regardless of the scale or complexity of a project – is approximately 3 to 5 percent of the design fee and less than 1 percent of the total construction cost of a building,” says Lemieux. “When you consider that, by some estimates, up to 80 percent of all construction claims in the U.S. each year arise from moisture-related failures in the building envelope and that approximately 40 percent of energy use worldwide can be attributed to our built environment, the ability of BECx to deliver energy-efficient, environmentally conscious, higher-performing buildings at a reasonable cost is becoming increasingly apparent.”

What about added costs for the contract glaziers?

For Shields, he says the process may increase expenses if you’re not prepared.

“If you do the cost analysis, it can be a time issue, especially if the team is not all on the same page,” he says, explaining that each party has a unique need. “We are all committed to the end result, but we each have certain areas that are our main concern. As long as we understand those needs at the meetings and tailor the process so everyone gets their needs met, there’s much less risk of cost increase if we understand the requirements upfront. If you’re not prepared, I think that can hurt you substantially, because you’re wasting time and sacrificing efficiency.”

He adds that his concern with the BECx process is that, if everyone is not working collaboratively, there can be potential delays or a more labored process.

“If we have everyone at the meeting from the start and we do it together, it’s good. But, if we don’t have everyone at first and then we have to revisit certain steps, the process is delayed,” he says “It’s hard to prepare for that reaction. Sometimes the delays can hurt, but they are still manageable, especially if you anticipate them ahead of time.”

Mock-up testing is a requirement in the BECx process, so for the contract glaziers doing these jobs, that’s likely not an unfamiliar step. However, Runkle adds, that the mock-up costs, and sometimes the challenges of getting materials, etc. ahead of time might be a concern for some glazing companies.

“Also, if there are failed tests they can be back-charged for those. But in the end, I don’t see it as a net loss; [if a building fails] contract glaziers can be hit hard with liquidated damages, etc. during the costs [of re-construction]. Often those are well in excess of a mock-up cost.”

Speaking of mock-up testing, Stroik adds, “The mock-up is critical to validate that the design can be built and constraint any weaknesses before the project is actually built. It’s a vital and key component.

“I’ve been told by some testing labs that if you do a full-scale mock-up, on average 93 percent fail in the first round of testing. Knowing that, it should startle and scare a lot of people.”

Lemieux adds that it’s important to understand that BECx is much more than a vehicle to “sell” or otherwise require performance testing, which he says is often leveled at independent testing laboratories that have embraced BECx as an extension of their services. 

“Instead, BECx is a holistic process that begins during the pre-design or design phase of a project and endeavors to ensure for the owner that the necessary steps have been taken by the design and construction team to deliver a fully integrated exterior enclosure that meets or exceeds the requirements of the contract documents,” he says.

The Weakest Link?

Thermal testing is just one of the requirements that goes along with Building Enclosure Commissioning (BECx). Unfortunately, fenestration sometimes gets a bad rap when it comes to U-factors. In its most basic form, thermal performance may be somewhat of a concern.

“There is a bit of risk because it (BECx) does highlight that fenestration is a weakness in terms of U- factor when you look at the whole building,” says John Runkle, vice president, building sciences, with Intertek-ATI in York, Pa. “So discussions like window-to-wall ratio do raise the question, if the focus is on energy performance, how much window area should we have? However, daylighting and quality of space for occupants also come into play. So commissioning provides ammunition on both sides of the fence for that argument.”

Another positive for the fenestration industry lies in the belief that BECx may ultimately push the market toward newer, higher-performing technologies.

“In the U.S., triple glazing has not been common, and [BECx] is going to help drive that part of the business. If it does, that’s a big benefit for glass, because then the fenestration doesn’t stick out as much in terms of U-factor,” he says.

Though not yet common in the marketplace, there have also been discussions around the possibility of thermal testing in the field mock-up. Some in the industry have questioned whether the step is necessary given the glazing products already undergo testing to meet National Fenestration Rating Council numbers.

Runkle responds, saying, “The proposed/protocol energy testing at site is more focused on the opaque wall, roof and the joining of the assemblies rather than trying to re-create the NFRC values. In fact, the concept is to use the existing NFRC values for the fenestrations to assist in determining the contribution of the wall and roof elements. Essentially, the goal is to verify the inputs and analysis of the energy model to the actual project conditions.”

What’s Next?

As efforts to design and construct higher-performing buildings continue, many expect this will also continue to accelerate the demand for BECx. And it’s starting to make its way into codes and standards. LEED v4 is calling for it, as is the General Services Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, among others. ASTM International has published E2813 - 12e1 Standard Practice for Building Enclosure Commissioning, as well as E2947—14 Standard Guide for Building Enclosure Commissioning.

Yet, some experts point out that even with all the benefits BECx can offer, it may not always be necessary.

“Depending on the team, you may or may not need to hire a commissioning agent,” says Stroik. Speaking of his own work, he says, “I look at blueprints with a fine-tooth comb, I like to design with the architect … but there are not a whole lot like myself. Same with architects … if you’ve got a good architect and a good general contractor, do I think you need a commissioning agent? No. But there are others not as versed, and they should hire one. So, it depends on the expertise of the team. It’s an important part of the building … but it comes down to [complexity]. If it’s a complex job, there should be a third party to at least look over the prints.”

He continues, “We need to make sure the building is built right. BECx is validating installation and making sure it’s done right and proving it through the commissioning process. And it starts from day one when the project begins. You need the team assembled early, to know the rules and work processes all the way through.”

“Everyone benefits if it reduces the percentage of problematic jobs,” Runkle adds. “When you reduce the callback work and expand the anticipated maintenance schedule, it’s an advantage for the subcontractor.”

Shields offers advice for contract glaziers who may soon find themselves in BECx projects: Be prepared.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to understanding what the [agents] want to accomplish so you can help drive the project toward completion,” he says. “If you don’t know what they are looking for, it will be much more difficult to navigate through the process correctly.”

So what’s next? If predictions hold true, BECx will continue to come on strong. Are you ready?

the author
Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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