Influential Projects: Challenges with Project Partners

By Vince Sage, PE, CxA, EMP, CEA, LEED AP

This article reviews a few commissioning challenges that arose from a government/public project that added administration, maintenance, and storage buildings, alongside related site improvements.


A challenge of commissioning is that the success of the project is determined by the actions of subcontractors, but the commissioning authority has no contractual authority over them. Occasionally, the commissioning authority will need to encourage the general contractor to use their contractual authority to resolve the problem. While rare, sometimes it’s the general contractor who is not performing. This can cost the owner, and everyone else on the project, a lot of money. A project from several years ago provided several lessons learned about how to manage this situation.

Delays, Costs, and Confronting Issues

Submittals Issues

In a project, product data and shop drawings must be submitted for approval by architects, engineers and commissioning authorities prior to install. On this project most submittals were rejected multiple times before approval. Good general contractors provide submittals early in the project to allow time to clear up misunderstandings and order products with long lead times. On this project they waited until products were needed, and in some case after they were installed. Repeated reviews, product lead times, and replacement of unapproved product caused numerous delays.

Our Actions

To minimize cost overruns from repeated submittal reviews we started reviewing them after the engineer to avoid duplicating issues. Usually we review submittals concurrently with the engineer, but will switch to this other approach if there is a high rejection rate. Because of our experiences with repeated submittal reviews here, we learned to push for missing submittals early on for other projects. Nudging the contractor to get these in early benefits everyone.

Site Visit Issues

Throughout construction, project teams perform site visits to identify any workmanship issues. This project generated an unusually large number of them. While visiting the site, we frequently found the project was not as far along as the contractor had indicated. This precluded us from seeing what we came to see, potentially requiring additional visits.

Our Actions

After a few premature site visits, we started listing project status criteria for each visit. X, Y and Z need to be complete. The owner also became involved and threatened to back charge the contractor for the cost of the visit if the criteria were not met when we arrived. This resulted in visit dates being repeatedly pushed back, but they were more productive when we finally arrived—avoiding the need for additional visits.

We began to coordinate with the architect and engineer to visit the site together. This allowed us to discuss potential issues and quickly decide whether or not to pursue them. We also assigned one party to track each issue to avoid duplication. Consolidating multiple instances of the same issue also reduced tracking time both for us and the contractors.

Abandoning the Project

Eventually the general contractor walked off the job without completing it. Because of communication from the design and commissioning teams, the owner was aware of, and paid the general contractor proportional to, the actual state of completion. As a result the owner had some budget left to hire another contractor to finish the project.

Response and Resolution

While most general contractors are highly competent, the occasional ineffective contractor can cost everyone else associated with the project a lot of money. Commissioning helps insulate the owner from much of this loss, but potentially at great cost to the commissioning authority. From this project we learned to alter the timing of submittal review, coordinate issues tracking with the architect and engineer, and define specific readiness criteria for site visits when these problems arise. This maintains the value to the owner while minimizing the impact on the commissioning budget.