Lifecycle BIM and commissioning have the same goal - the successful operation of buildings. In this article we will explore the interdependencies of the two. We will argue that Commissioning needs BIM. Then we will argue that BIM needs commissioning.
What is commissioning and why should you care?
A commissioned ship is a ship deemed ready for service. It has done its sea trials and it is ready for open waters.
For the AEC project organisation commissioning means to “Bring into working condition”. For the building owner commissioning means you “Get what you pay for”
A more formal definition of building commissioning is this :
When a building is initially commissioned it undergoes an intensive quality assurance process that begins during design and continues through construction, occupancy, and operations. Commissioning ensures that the new building operates initially as the owner intended and that building staff are prepared to operate and maintain its systems and equipment. Source : California Commissioning Collaborative
As you may recognise, commissioning has many similarities with the soft landings methodology we have previously covered. Some sort of commissioning process have been common for mechanical equipment in buildings for a while. Lately we have seen a more broad focus on commissioning as an integrated part of the facility acquisition process. Commissioning has been recognised as one of the most effective means to ensure that all building systems will perform as designed after handover. The goal is to detect and correct problems that would eventually surface as more costly maintenance or safety issues.
Commissioning challenges today
Even if in theory commissioning make much sense in practice the uptake has been limited. Most of the uptake, especially in the US, has been driven by LEED certification requirements, where fundamental commissioning are mandatory and enhanced commissioning give you extra points.
Part of the reason for the slow uptake is that there is generally a lack of awareness in the industry. Owners have not had the skills and competence to know how to set requirements. Responsibilities have been fragmented and without a specific budget the commissioning has been done by the project team members themselves as part of normal quality assurance activities.
To fill its purpose an objective third party consultant should be used as an commissioning agent to give unbiased advice, suggestions and verifications. To get this third party consultant up to a level where s/he can give sound advice takes time and is therefore an investment. Similarly training and involving the operations team is an investment. We live in a world where operations are often outsourced and suppliers are regularly replaced. Owners do not know how long the technicians will be working on their property and may be uncertain if the extra investment make sense.
The commissioning process is hard to get right. With a complex building with a lot of technology and systems that need to interoperate there are thousands of checks, tests and fine tunings that needs to be performed as a continuing process. It is generally challenging to keep track of the responsibilities, statuses and results of all these tasks. Deviations and issues needs to be communicated between the trades, resolved, verified and brought to closure. The owner needs to take an active part in this process and there is a big risk of miscommunication.
It is hard to get an overview of the status and the result of tweaking one setting will affect another. It is hard to capture knowledge from the field and transfer it to the people that will later operate the asset.
How BIM can help commissioning
There are multiple ways BIM can improve commissioning. We already mentioned the common goal of delivering a building ready for operation.
In addition to BIM being a process, a BIM is a lifecycle information repository of a construction project. The structured and integrated nature of the model will help the project team move from document-centric to data-centric ways of working. Done right BIM will connect data to processes and connect people to those processes at the right time.
When using BIM during design there is easier for both the commissioning agent and the operational team to get involved as early as needed. They now have a way to explore the systems and how they are proposed to work together. They will be able to test the design intent before any equipment has been ordered. The building should be designed for end use and operational use. Owners and users representatives can now verify that.
Having access to a model should make it easier for the commissioning agent to get familiar with the building and its systems quicker and therefore the path to value is quicker.
The commissioning process itself can be streamlined by using specialised software that keeps track of all the equipment, systems and all the checks and tests that should be run and then what the status of all those are. Having such a shared tool that is accessible on mobile units give all the participants a common platform to resolve issues, see status of tests and handle exceptions.
If this shared commissioning tool is running “on top” of the model you reach yet another level of productivity. With a well structured model you have a complete inventory of the equipment to be ordered and installed on the project. You also know how these components are supposed to work together in systems and you have the design intent and construction documentation readily available as links. You can use this both when planning for inspections and when doing the real tests on site
Whenever you do a test, fill out a checklist or coordinate an issue you have access to the component and system specs and by working in the shared repository you automatically update the component and system history.
A lot of time in commissioning is spent on tracking down information and making decisions based on limited data. With an updated BIM for commissioning repository you can easily visualise the status of functional tests to see what needs a retest and see if larger systems are ready for test, alternatively what is holding it back.
Lifecycle BIM challenges today
Now let's switch our focus on the status of lifecycle BIM. Owners have been told that if they design and construct assets using BIM methodologies, then at handover they will have a complete digital twin of their facility that contains, among others
- A complete asset and component register of what has been installed and where
- A functional and logical description of how equipment work and interoperate in systems
- Embedded properties and parameters that describe both design requirements and delivered capacity and performance
- Links to procedures, operations manuals, product datasheets etc
- A history of the life of the component and systems so far.
Today what you can typically expect from a BIM based handover is a combination of federated discipline models and some sort of semi-structured handover set of data and documents. The data and documents can be in a standard format, e.g. COBie or it could be according to some standard data format specified by the client or generated by a data management tool. Whether links are kept between the model objects and the handover data varies a lot. Often there has been no requirements to link data and documents to the model and creating the links after the fact is a very tedious process. If you start creating the links manually you often find that the models are as-designed and not as-built so working in this situation where the map do not fit the terrain is challenging.
Even if the situation is improving in the industry, the generic state is that models non-verified and as-designed, data is bad and largely unusable, links are missing and the overall quality of the handover set is at a state where you wonder if you can trust it.
How commissioning can fix Lifecycle BIM
If the handed over models are not ready for operational use maybe we should explore the use of commissioning methodologies to improve the quality and readiness of the digital asset as well? As with “conventional” commissioning it involves stating what you want, breaking the requirements down into parts that can be individually tested and then continually verifying, testing and tweaking both the model objects and the larger systems during the phases
Then as the procurement, product install and start up processes progresses use the commissioning process to make sure you get a good “digital twin” of the actual asset. When you do your test and checklist, part of the check should be to verify that the location and quantities of equipment is correct and you should input and/ or verify key equipment attributes and physical tagging when you are on site doing your physical checks.
The resulting model should be according to owners handover requirements - it should be as-built and as-requested. The only way to achieve that is adding extra commissioning data to the model and logging adjustments made on site for the designers to update the model.
To achieve this the owner should have a portfolio strategy for what is required for BIM based facilities management. Requirements in this strategy should inform the BIM execution plan and there should be templates based on industry standards that supports the process of ensuring structured commissioning of model data - commissioning the digital twin
With proper BIM requirements and a proper model the operations organisation will also be able to test run procedures and perform “what if” scenarios using the models and documentation as a foundation. With a list of typical tasks the maintenance and operations managers will easily be able to quality check the models and documentation and their suitability for real life use.
Putting it together
As we have seen there are a common goal and synergies between lifecycle BIM and commissioning. Lifecycle BIM will help make the commission process more efficient and effective. Using commissioning principles on the model generation and delivery itself and integrating model data capture into commissioning tasks will fix model quality, help training and prepare for smooth handover and operations.
By combining the two you do not only get the traditional deliverables of building commissioning, but a digital asset that offers information on the future operations and maintenance of the facility. The can trust the contents of the model, it suits your needs and you have access to design intent, installed equipment data and history and performance data of the systems starting the asset history.
The same way you have completion tests to ensure that the product delivery functional requirements, you should have completion test to verify that the digital asset structure and contents fulfills requirements and fully reflects what is really installed in the facility
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