How the Design-Build Process Improves the Chance of Success for the Commissioning Process

by | Dec 13, 2021

The beginning stages of the design-build process may seem premature to begin discussions on commissioning, but early planning improves the chance of project success. Collaborating on commissioning with the design-build team allows an owner to articulate their goals and expectations for the project, develop a commissioning plan that is built upon throughout the design process, and successfully execute the plan. The commissioning team can work collaboratively during the design phase to develop warranty and functional testing requirements for process systems that articulate those owner goals and expectations. Early work packages with the design-build process also allow for the commissioning process to be spread out rather than everything occurring at the end, reducing stress on operations staff. For these reasons, utilizing the design-build process improves the chance for success in the commissioning process.

Owner Goals and Expectations Collaboratively Developed into a Commissioning Plan

Owner goals and expectations are typically developed by the owner and their owner advisor (OA) during the project development phase. They may then be incorporated into the project solicitation as specifications for design-bid-build projects but denoted as objectives for design-build projects. This is a key attribute of design-build where the owner and design-build team can immediately work together to build a plan to achieve those desired objectives. That plan not only includes the basis of design document and construction plan, but a final vision for how the project will come together through the commissioning plan.

When the team begins discussions, it is important that commissioning plans are specific but not restrictive, allowing flexibility through the design-build process. It is also important to maintain the collaborative nature of design-build as there may be a perceived conflict of interest by the design-build team to focus on their perception of success vs that of the owner. To that end, another early step is to determine the owner’s role in the commissioning process and to lay out the line of communication, process for issue resolution, and reporting structure.

The commissioning team will review the drawings and specifications at specified points during the design and construction process to make changes if necessary. The commissioning document will serve as the historical roadmap throughout the iterative design process detailing the project success criteria. Once the system is delivered, the document becomes part of the transfer of materials along with O&M and SOP documents for future system maintenance. The commissioning document serves as final compliance and acceptance of the system, and a testament to the design-build team to work collaboratively with the owner to achieve their stated goals and objectives for the project.

Staggered Commissioning Reduces Operations Stress

In a typical design-bid-build process, commissioning is rarely thought about until contract start-up plans are due. During the submittal phase, contracts and schedules are developed, but rarely is further thought given to this task until documents on startup are required. The contractor will rely on the commissioning requirements laid out in the specification documents. Training for operations staff will often be stacked for multiple systems and, in many cases, it may be the first time they have had experience with the new systems. With no prior experience on the new systems and having to attend multiple training sessions in a short period, there is a greater possibility of future failure after final contract requirements have been reached.

With the design-build method, development of functional testing and warranty requirements are built into the commission plan during the design phase. This transparency between parties develops a solid foundation for the project schedule and defines each team member’s responsibilities for the commissioning phase of the project. The ability to perform early work packages in the design-build process allows functional testing and training to be spread out, providing additional time and opportunities for operations staff to become familiar with new systems. Additionally, by spreading out the commissioning activities, impacts on schedule and cost are reduced that can many times be a big issue at the end of construction on design-bid-build projects.


Commissioning may be one of the last tasks in a design-build project, but a project’s chance of success will be much higher when the process is started early. By setting goals and expectations of what the owner defines as success, the design-build team can develop a path to achieve the stated goals. The design-build process allows all stakeholders to collaborate throughout the project to achieve a successful delivery from well executed planning.

Jamey Steffen, PE, BCEE, Business Development Manager, The Walsh Group

Jamey Steffen is a business development manager for The Walsh Group’s water division. Jamey has 20 years of industry experience having worked for a municipality, water and wastewater equipment supplier, and as a contractor. His favorite moment as a water professional was fixing leaks in water distribution lines with bicycle tubes when serving as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer.