Category: new construction
New York City requires commissioning (Cx) for most* ground-up new construction projects through the 2014 and 2016 energy codes** to build better buildings and protect owners/developers. But if you’re like many NYC developers we know, you may have mixed feelings about commissioning and are not sure what the real benefit is to you.
In the past, someone may have tried to explain commissioning to you in complex engineering terms that just left you frustrated, confused, or uninterested. We recognize that there is a lot of confusion about what exactly commissioning is, and there are many services that fall under the banner of “commissioning,” not all of which provide value beyond checking boxes. This blog will break down the commissioning process and how it can deliver maximum value to you and your projects.
Through quality commissioning, you will see tangible benefits such as cost savings in construction and operations of the building, longer life of the equipment and systems, as well as increased comfort and happiness of the future residents (and staff!).
Commissioning’s Role in Your Project
Commissioning is an essential quality assurance process that helps ensure all systems are designed optimally, installed correctly, and operate accordingly at the time of occupancy. Your Commissioning Agent manages all aspects of the process.
If done correctly, commissioning will save owners and developers the money and hassle by identifying and fixing problems long before a building is ever occupied. Far from being an annoying box to check in order to comply with code, commissioning is a crucial element of each project.
The purpose of commissioning is to make sure that the building you ultimately get meets the expectations you had for it at the start. For maximum benefit, commissioning should be performed in three phases that extend throughout the planning and construction process: Design Phase, Construction Phase, and Pre-Occupancy Phase.
A Great Commissioning Agent
Your Commissioning Agent (Cx Agent) serves as an owner’s representative for mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems. The Cx Agent is a commissioning expert who you can trust to confirm quality, and thus should be integrated early on during the design development to perform reviews and offer feedback to the MEP Engineer. (S)he asks the essential questions that clarify the intentions of the building and ensures design decisions will achieve those objectives:
- What type of population will it serve?
- What temperatures do you want to supply to residents?
- What services or amenities will be on site?
- How will you staff the building once it is operational?
- Are the step-by-step sequence of operations of each piece of equipment appropriate?
- Are piping and duct layouts optimal?
- Will this equipment be serviced appropriately and accessed easily down the line?
- How can systems be designed to increase energy efficiency and savings?
You know you are working with a great Cx Agent if (s)he:
- Gets the project’s big picture yet, at the same time, is detail oriented.
- Anticipates challenges before they arise, often during the design phase.
- Reviews any suggested changes to the design to make sure they don’t cause unforeseen problems before the construction phase.
- Becomes a familiar face at the construction site, coordinating with the construction team to deliver quality and that all milestones are hit in a timely fashion.
- Is a clear, powerful communicator, providing clients with regular updates, and logs.
If a quote for commissioning is significantly cheaper than others, be wary. Do they have the necessary experience? Will they be in design meetings and on site often enough to have a positive impact on both the design and its execution? As with most anything else in life, you get what you pay for. Mistakes in the short term can lead to expensive complications later when tenants have already moved in.
The design phase is critical to the commissioning process. There are a lot of complexities in designing and constructing a building, and it’s important to realize that just because the design makes sense on paper does not mean it will translate that way in construction. For example, a good Cx Agent will suggest locations of isolation valves, sensors, and potential access points to enable the ability for continuous commissioning and the isolation of system components. The Cx agent will also verify that the access panels, piping, and ductwork are designed in a way that will allow for easy maintenance access. Having a Cx Agent ensure the design meets the intentions of the building through a collaborative process allows everyone to create the best design possible, from all areas of expertise. It can also save you a lot of money in the construction phase.
Unfortunately, there is only so much a Cx Agent can do if they are brought on during construction. Each time Bright Power was brought on to a project after the design phase, we found significant components of design that were either overcomplicated (and therefore more expensive than necessary to install and maintain), detrimental to optimal equipment function, or were installed in a way that prevents basic access (ex: no access hatches). Had we been involved from the project’s inception, those problems would have been identified and eliminated before the construction phase, resulting in significant savings and fewer headaches.
You might be tempted to blame such issues on the MEP or the architect. But, having worked with dozens of great design teams with top-notch professionals, I can attest that this level of collaboration necessary to avoid these sorts of problems.
During construction, the Cx Agent will work with your General Contractor and HVAC subcontractors to ensure equipment installation is correct and the start-up and operation of the equipment is optimized to the design. This requires a great deal of coordination and trust between all parties involved. The Cx Agent is there to help provide a good outcome on behalf of the whole team – not to step on anyone’s toes. To do that, they must be on site during all key points in the construction process.
Just imagine the frustration of having to open up a wall to fix a mistake when it could have been caught and corrected by the Cx Agent if they were on site. That’s not only frustrating for you, the owner, but it’s also frustrating for the team who just had to rip out completed work only to do it all again, the right way.
Once the equipment is operational, the Cx Agent will perform a series of functional performance tests designed to diagnose problems that could pop up during occupancy. If any issues are found, the Cx Agent will list them in a log and work with the relevant parties to correct the issues. The kinds of things that we have found and corrected through functional performance tests include fans installed backward; sensors in the wrong place that produce inaccurate readings; ductwork that was not properly attached, resulting in rooms with extremely cold and hot temperatures.
If the Cx Agent has done her/his job, all of the building’s equipment will have been installed correctly. While this doesn’t sound exciting, think of it this way: you just spent millions of dollars on a project that took years of careful planning, coordination, and execution. If the final step – occupancy – would be held up for a few months due to equipment issues, that delay would be both costly and maddening.
But that’s nothing compared to the hair-pulling frustration that would result from learning that commissioning typically represents less than 0.25% of a new construction project’s total cost, whereas fixing a commissioning mistake can cost you millions of dollars (and you might need to put up your new residents in a hotel while you sort out the issue).
The final phase of commissioning is to train your building site-staff so that diagnostic, operational, and maintenance procedures are second nature. As your Cx Agent, we work with your contractors to produce a training curriculum for your building operators. (S)he will then film the training for future use.
Protect Your Investment
There’s a reason why energy code requires commissioning in the first place — to build better buildings. Rather than being a trivial added upfront cost, commissioning is a critical process to protect your investment. Take it from our clients: It’s one of the best investments you can make on your new construction project.
Still have commissioning questions? Our experts are here to answer any of your energy and water-related questions. Contact us today!
*Exceptions include mechanical and service hot water systems in buildings where the total mechanical equipment capacity being installed is less than 480,000 Btu/h (140.7 kW) cooling capacity and 600,000 Btu/h (175.8 kW) combined service water-heating and space-heating capacity.
**The commissioning requirements in the NYC energy code are primarily for testing and report generation during the Construction Phase. However, in order to maximize the economic and building performance benefits of commissioning, industry best practices recommend a comprehensive commissioning process that covers all phases.
The Bronx is quickly becoming New York’s favorite borough for new multifamily affordable housing developments. Bright Power sat down with Aaron Koffman from The Hudson Companies to dig deeper into why.
(Bright Power) How did Hudson Companies come to develop affordable housing projects in the Bronx after much of the firm’s historic affordable housing development activity had been in Brooklyn?
(Aaron) Hudson’s been around for 31 years now. Early on, we did work with Housing Partnership to build home ownership units in various places all over the city. Hudson built a lot of two story walk-ups, low-rises, side-by-side kind of developments that were 80-100 units, in the Bronx, Brownsville and even in Fort Greene. It was a great way to bring stability to the communities, since in many cases the land was vacant or underutilized. Then Hudson took its focus toward market-rate housing in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. We did a lot of deals in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I came on board in 2008 and ever since we’ve focused more heavily on affordable housing. Personally, I really wanted to get us back in the Bronx. The Bronxchester RFP was announced in 2013, and we loved the site. It was mostly vacant, in a great neighborhood next to the subway and all the shopping. And so we went after it, and formed the team for La Central. Thankfully we won and have been going to the Bronx ever since.
Where we can do great work in the Bronx, we would love to do it. Of course, theBronx has become very hot so now there are areas of the Bronx that are not affordable for affordable housing, which is a problem. So we’ve known about it, and then should’ve done more, didn’t do enough, and now we’re back doing a lot.
La Central, 430 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, NY
(Bright Power) How does developing affordable housing in the Bronx differ from other areas of New York City?
(Aaron) From an economic perspective, the difference is very minor, if at all, between affordable housing in the Bronx and affordable housing in Brooklyn. Taking the economics out, there are more cases where the Bronx has better train access. We were focusing on Brooklyn so the Bronx feels new to Hudson – even if some of our fellow developers have been doing great work in the Bronx for years.
I like that it’s new to us. We keep trying to do more deals in Queens, but for one reason or another it hasn’t worked out, and so the Bronx is still sexy. Though, we love all of our boroughs equally, I love the community groups, elected officials, the incredible amount of pride, and the people and their stories in the Bronx.
(Bright Power) What role does the Mayor’s housing plan play in the increased attention on affordable housing development in the Bronx?
(Aaron) I think it’s always important when government makes a statement that they want to invest in communities. There’s an energy there that trickles down to the agencies and staff level where clearly, when the Mayor does make it a priority, the City does its best to execute that priority. For that reason, it’s great that Mayor de Blasio has made it more of a priority to put more investment into the Bronx and so has the Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr.
The Borough President tells a great story about how his son just graduated from college, and he and his friends moved to upper Manhattan but he wants him to move back to the Bronx. He wants his Bronx kid back in the Bronx, working as an engineer and living in the Bronx, and his son wants to be there. So the Borough President is really championing investment in the Bronx, and the Mayor is too. And so everything kind of follows suit with that energy, that’s a lot of tailwind for us.
I do think the City showed their cards a little early regarding the Jerome Avenue rezoning and brought some speculators into the market that drove land cost up considerably. Not trying to criticize the administration, but that seems to be what happened. Now you have market-rate developers like Chetrit who does great work but, in the South Bronx? You know what I mean: all of a sudden, where you wouldn’t have seen a market-rate developer, there they are.
(Bright Power) Congratulations on your success on winning the Spofford RFP! What do you think differentiated your proposal for the local officials, community and the City to choose your team?
(Aaron) Obviously I can’t speak as to how we were selected, but we crafted a team for The Peninsula that was first and foremost of the Bronx. We have incredible community partners, including Urban Health Plan – one of the largest employers in the South Bronx – and The Point CDC. And I think the great retailers, in part, joined our team because of our community partners, including Spring Bank, which already has a few branches in the Bronx, and a supermarket. We can activate it at night, because Hunts Point Brewery and Bascom Catering will be there and we can cater events in our open area. We want to try to bring more people in; it’s about inclusivity.
On the development side, I love our team. Our non-profit partner, MHANY, owns many properties across the street on Spofford so they know the neighborhood and certainly have expertise in affordable housing. Hudson brings even more expertise in affordable housing and ULURPs. Gilbane has an incredible depth – they’ve been around for 130 years as a construction company and are trying to expand their New York development. And I will give a shout out to the architects BLA and WXY – they did a beautiful job designing the project. We’ve all been there before, even on the non-profit side. And when you put it all together, that’s what made us so attractive.
(Bright Power) Do you think that implementing sustainable design strategies was a big differentiator?
(Aaron) I do, it’s about sustainability, there’s no question, and it’s also about resiliency. I don’t know if Hurricane Sandy resonates in the Bronx as much as it does in Brooklyn or the Rockaways, but resiliency plays a role.
We’re in a different world where people are more cognizant of their utility use. People understand that power is polluting. Community leaders want to see that their neighborhood has the most sustainable and resilient development in the area. I’ve heard many elected officials boast about the green elements of these projects. And it is meaningful to people. I have talked to tenants of ours on other projects; they’re happy to brag about this.
At Hudson, it’s not just about us saying that we’re about the sustainable stuff, it’s that we’ve actually done it before. We know solar, passive house, cogen, and yet we still want to do one better. Also, we’re sustainable in a smart way – affordable housing depends on finite resources and we must weigh cost premiums to make sure we are doing it in an intelligent fashion.
(Bright Power) Hudson Companies was one of the first affordable housing developers to commit to implementing solar energy on their affordable housing projects. How has your view of solar energy changed over the years?
(Aaron) We’ve gone from solar being an interesting idea to solar being a no-brainer. We’ve done some great work with Bright Power in the solar and sustainability department, and the economics have only supported more investment in solar. It saves the development money, which makes the project more sustainable and allows us to put more investment back into the development.
I wish at Dumont Green we’d done a bigger solar project. Still, we’re putting in-ground and tree lighting to enhance security at night, which could happen, in part, because we’re taking electricity savings and putting it back into the building.
We see solar success every day at Gateway. I hear from a lot of Gateway tenants how proud they are when they drive down Flatlands Avenue and they see all the solar arrays up on Elton Street and they know that they live there. They are very proud that it feels state of the art. To reach 1 million watts of solar power generated at Gateway was a proud moment for our team.
We were drinking so much Kool-Aid on the solar at Gateway, which The Related Companies was a partner on, that Related has just now installed their own solar array on the Related Gateway mall. A big company like Related is always looking at the bottom line, so for them to buy in on the retail side is quite the testimony for solar.
Gateway Elton Street, Solar PV System
(Bright Power) Have you noticed tangible benefits or received feedback from residents about sustainable design elements of your buildings?
(Aaron) La Central is going to be the first affordable job where we’re doing VRF (variable refrigerant flow) HVAC systems. I’m really excited to move those tenants in, even though it will not be complete until 2020, and have them find out that the air conditioner is remote controlled, it’s already installed, and their windows are as big as possible – you get all the light!
I like to ask our tenants, “You know that new apartment smell, that smell of a freshly painted apartment?” And of course they immediately say yes. Then I tell them, “Yeah, unfortunately that smell is actually bad for you. That’s off-gassing.” When they walk into our apartments, they don’t smell anything. Then, it immediately hits them – oh, these guys are doing it better. Whether it’s no VOC paint, no vinyl, or putting dishwashers in the apartments (major water savers), I see that tenants are happy to be in our developments because we’ve taken steps that give tenants respect. That speaks volumes to how Hudson does business.
(Bright Power) Many of your development projects, including La Central and Spofford, are joint ventures with non-profit housing providers. What do you look for when selecting your development partner/s on a project? Can you describe the benefits they bring to your developments?
(Aaron) Non-profit partners are essential to every affordable job that we’ve done. What do we look for? We want a real partner. We are not an 800 lb. gorilla for-profit developer. We want collaboration. We want feedback and criticism. The non-profits in NYC are incredibly sophisticated, and we want their knowledge to help inform our projects. We look for that feeling of collaboration, competency in a particular field of social service depending on the building program, or general knowledge of services/neighborhood – if we can find all three, the better.
About Aaron Koffman: As Principal, Aaron heads Hudson’s affordable housing pipeline and portfolio totaling over 3,600 units and ~$2 billion in costs. At 797 kW and spanning nine buildings, the Gateway Elton solar project is collectively the largest solar installation on an affordable housing development in New York State. Aaron is the project lead on several large affordable housing/mixed-use new construction developments in the city, including: the 992-unit La Central development in the South Bronx, the 740-unit Spofford Detention Center Redevelopment in Hunts Point, the 659-unit Gateway Elton development in East New York, and a 56-building affordable preservation portfolio in several Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.
Prior to joining Hudson, Aaron was a Project Manager with Forest City Ratner Companies, focusing on the 6,400-unit Atlantic Yards (now Pacific Park) residential development. In addition to serving on the Boards of the NYU Furman Center, Coro New York and the Center for Urban Pedagogy), Aaron is an Adjunct Professor of Affordable Housing Finance at NYU. Aaron received a Masters of City Planning degree from MIT and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UC Berkeley.
Andy McNamara, VP West Coast Operations at Bright Power (left) with Aaron Koffman, Principal at Hudson Companies (right) at Gateway Elton’s solar PV system unveiling.
Being pregnant for the first time is tough. Couple that with spending lots of time on construction sites for work, and I experienced one interesting year!
At Bright Power, I am a senior energy engineer on new construction projects. The job involves a lot of (local) travel and construction inspections. I am on project sites from the time of kickoff, to foundation inspections, all the way through to duct blaster testing of leakage from exhaust shafts (and beyond). I love the work I do, but it is not without its challenges – not only does it include physical labor (e.g. lugging heavy test equipment from borough to borough and up and down multi-story buildings), but it also means asserting oneself as an authority in the midst of construction professionals who are mostly men.
Pregnancy has many joys, like feeling your baby kicking inside you, but it also has what lots of women euphemistically refer to as “stuff.”
For starters, there’s having to use the ladies’ room a lot. Let’s just say the closest I come to a “ladies’ room” on a construction site is being granted use of the “special” Port-o-Potty, which comes equipped with a lock and key. Let’s be real: it’s a Port-o-Potty.
And never have I sympathized more with residents of South Bronx food deserts than while pregnant: I seemed to always be extremely far from a restaurant or coffee shop where I could beg for a bathroom break or satisfy my unending hunger. Did I mention being pregnant means being hungry? All. The. Time.
Then there’s the issue of just being huge compared to the size you were at the start of the project, and site supers never quite knowing if they can broach the topic. And though some days I’m totally ready to chat about bringing new life into the world, some days I just don’t feel like it. So, we skip the banter while instead I descend a giant dirt pit on a precarious ladder they’ve pointed me toward that’s been assembled from leftover two-by-fours.
In 18-33 months, this pit below me will be a beautiful building I’ll take much pride in having played a role in. But for now, I’m exhausted, hungry, desperate for a real restroom, and for the life of me (not to mention the little one’s), am trying my hardest not to fall off this ladder!
Elan Klein Brennan was born on 4/25/2016 and is already asking Mama when he will get to join her to play with all the power tools and big trucks.