Much like a relay race, bringing a new or renovated laboratory facility on line requires the same level of teamwork. Commissioning is a process that makes this team concept a reality. This article will focus on laboratory commissioning and why it is an integral part of so many building projects.

What is Commissioning?
Building commissioning is the organized process of ensuring that building systems are designed, installed, functionally tested, and capable of being operated and maintained to perform in conformity with the design intent. The process begins at project inception with the establishment of project requirements,and concludes with owner acceptance and occupancy.

The process is executed by a commissioning team which includes the owner, architect/engineer, building contractor (and select subcontractors), and the commissioning authority (commissioning team leader). According to a recent report by Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., the most effective commissioning occurs when the owner hires an experienced, independent commissioning authority to represent them throughout the project.

Commissioning the open lab below with walk-in refrigerator will validate that minimum ventilation rates are maintained, that utility distribution systems operate in a reliable and safe manner, and that the refrigerator is properly functioning and is monitored for unexpected failure.


This open lab contains chemical fume hoods and a highly flexible overhead utility distribution system. It is an ideal candidate for commissioning because of the wide range of activities that occur in the space, the room pressurization requirements that must be maintained for safety, and the necessary reliability of the lab services network.

Why is Commissioning Important?
In general, the motivation to pursue building commissioning has been energy efficiency, environmental comfort, and system maintainability. Laboratory facilities are in a class by themselves, though. Of course, they seek these attributes as well. Not surprisingly, though, they consider safety to betheir driving force for commissioning.

Laboratories rely on the proper operation of building systems to protect occupants and the surrounding environments. Laboratories are populated by a multitude of systems and sub-systems that must operate in a synchronous fashion. It is not enough that the individual systems work well on their own, they must collectively work properly. The popularity of laboratory commissioning is on the rise, in part because building owners are discovering that their buildings do not perform as well as predicted. This can be due to the fact that today’s complex laboratory systems require careful tuning that is not carried out during construction. It may also be because budget constraints have forced owners to make sacrificesin order to complete their projects.

It should also be noted that commissioning for all buildings larger than 50,000 square feet is required for conformance with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 90.1. Many state energy codes also require a certain level of building commissioning. If a project is pursuing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification for sustainability, commissioning is a required prerequisite.


This lab is provided with a substantial amount of natural light, direct-indirect lighting fixtures, and lighting controls to take advantage of daylighting opportunities. Commissioning can help verify proper lighting control function and confirm that maximum energy savings is realized when daylighting is available.

Commissioning in the Planning Phase
Laboratory commissioning begins during the initial planning phase of a project. What types of laboratories will be present in the facility? Chemical labs are generally fume hood intensive where space pressurization is critical. Biological labs often house both fume hoods and biological safety cabinets, where HEPA filtration is often a key issue. Concerns often include climate, light levels, noise, and vibration. Physical labs include those involving materials, lasers, and other apparatus, where the presence of odors and debris can be an issue.

Once the laboratory types have been determined, the major building systems to be commissioned can be identified. The table below shows a representative list of systems commonly found in laboratory facilities.

Commissioning in the Design Phase
In the design phase, the focus turns to getting the owner’s requirements down on paper so that the contractor can properly interpret the design documents and construct the laboratory. The commissioning authority is working to ensure that no aspects of the requirements are neglected.

At this time, the function of the laboratories, including agents and chemicals used, will be finalized. The procedures for the operation and maintenance of laboratory systems will be established. Containment goals for laboratory spaces with fume hoods and biological safety cabinets will also be reviewed and implemented. A key byproduct of this effort is the development of a comprehensive Basis of Design document, which will serve both the contractor and the owner. The following is a representative sampling of quantitative and qualitative items included in the Basis of Design:


This chemistry lab requires minimum ventilation rates to be maintained, plus reliable operation of instrumentation critical to the lab function. Commissioning helps ensure that reliable, clean power is available for instrumentation, harmonics and other electrical noise are not contaminating data acquisition, and suitable emergency power provisions are in place to support the lab function in the event of a power interruption.

Quantitative Design Criteria

  • Max/min space, temperature, and humidity requirements
  • Space pressurization requirements
  • “Normal” fume hood sash position and face velocity
  • Max recovery time following system failure
  • Max recovery time following fume hood sash movement
  • Allowable control system tolerance

Qualitative Design Criteria

  • Space pressurization reference points
  • Location of major systems/equipment
  • Critical system operating sequences
  • Provisions for “hand” operation upon a control system
  • Functional test procedures for systems
  • Functional test documentation requirements

Commissioning in the Construction Phase
In the construction phase, the commissioning team’s focus shifts again to four key areas. The first is the integration of commissioning activities into the overall construction schedule. Up until now, commissioning activities have been administered by the commissioning authority according to their plan for the project. At this point, though, the contractor will develop the overall construction schedule for the project, which will include all project related activities. As we will see, it is imperative that the commissioning plan be integrated into this master schedule.

The second key area is visual verification. The commissioning team will regularly walk the site and verify that the installation is consistent with the design intent. This requires careful coordination so that when a particular portion of the work is ready for verification, it can quickly be done. If remediation is required, we want it to have minimal impact to the schedule. Further, the contractor may have to immediately cover the work up in order to continue their efforts.

The third key area is submittal and shop drawing review. The commissioning team will review all submittals and shop drawings for conformance with the design intent and proper coordination with other trades. Due to long lead times for certain pieces of equipment, proper scheduling of these reviews and a quick approval turnaround is paramount.

The last key area is equipment utilization. It may be determined that certain systems or components may have to be operated in order to verify other portions of the work. An air handling system, for example, may be needed to verify the integrity of a containment lab space. If this is the case, these particular systems must be scheduled for completion early enough to be verified themselves, then utilized in the verification of other work. Again, proper coordination and scheduling of work is essential.

Commissioning in the Acceptance Phase
The acceptance phase of the project is where functional testing of the systems is performed and the owner accepts the work. When looking at the systemsfor acceptance, the commissioning team is interested in a number of things:

  • Repeatability of system operation under varied outside influences.
  • Stability of system operation under a duration consistent with the intended operation of the laboratory.
  • Accuracy of data sampling, data transfer, and system control algorithms.
  • Responsiveness of systems to changing environments and other varying laboratory conditions, including normal, emergency, and recovery modes of operation.
  • Efficiency of system operation, consistent with predicted operating cost criteria.
  • Maintainability of systems, including proper access to components and owner training, to ensure long term, high level performance.

Benefits of Laboratory Commissioning
There is no doubt that laboratory commissioning is a substantial effort. It begs the question, “Is it really worth it?” Industry feedback offers a resounding YES. It is generally agreed that commissioning services are beneficial to all project stakeholders. The owner benefits with proof that their facility meets their functional requirements and performs as intended. The owner’s operation and maintenance staff benefit with a full understanding of the intended operation and performance expectations of all building systems. Less training, which can be quite costly, is often needed. The architect/engineer benefits with the knowledge that their design intent has been accurately reflected in the completed facility. The contractor benefits with a better understanding of the design intent and project objectives. There are apt to be less field issues, higher quality project submittals, a reduced numberof change orders, and less service call backs after occupancy.

All parties benefit with the knowledge that their efforts helped to reduce energy consumption, increase productivity, improve operation and maintenance, improve indoor air quality, and maximize safety.

A Word About Existing Laboratories
Older laboratory facilities often contain systems that were designed when energy costs were low, and system optimization was not a significant issue. Many of these systems are in less than peak condition and run continuously, so their current operating cost is high. Small adjustments to systems can often result in large savings.

Recommissioning is applying the commissioning process to a building that has been previously commissioned.

Retrocommissioning is applying the commissioning process to a building that has never been commissioned.
A laboratory that appears to be woefully inefficient may not be beyond salvation. Existing laboratories offer substantial improvement opportunities, if one knows where to look. The same benefits that new laboratories are seeking are available to in-use labs as well.

Final Thoughts
Commissioning is an integral part of so many laboratory projects because it gets results. It provides the owner with verification that the design intent and all project requirements have been carried through to the built facility. It also offers substantial benefits in the form of operation and maintenance cost savings, improved safety, higher quality work environments, and an overall higher level of satisfaction with the project. Everybody wins with an effective laboratory commissioning process.

Michael Cooper is a Principal and Senior Mechanical Engineer with Harley Ellis Devereaux. He has more than fifteen years of experience in the design and management of technology based building projects, including a multitude of forensic laboratory facilities. Mr. Cooper, a licensed professional engineer in twelve states, has also served as a construction site field engineer, which allows him to bring a “real world” perspective to his projects. For additional information, please contact him at (248) 233-0146 or