HVAC Rx For An Aging Building Market

February 3, 2005
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ATLANTA - Steve Wiggins, a senior associate with Newcomb & Boyd, knows about a commercial service market where things are done right, top to bottom; where all problems are traced back to their root causes and fixed; where occupants wind up with a level of comfort they have probably never experienced before in that building.

Is this just in Atlanta, or perhaps the Land of Oz? Nope. Probably it's in your own community. It's called retrocommissioning. It's not a new market per se, but it is being driven more and more by state requirements and the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC's) LEED-Existing Building program.

During the retrocommissioning process, many large problems can be uncovered and repaired, to bring the building to a proper operating condition for its current use. This picture from Newcomb & Boyd shows damage to the outside of an air-handling unit.

What It Is, What It Isn't

Wiggins defines retrocommissioning (ReCx) as "the systematic process by which the owner ensures that the building and systems are optimized to perform interactively to meet the current operational needs as closely as possible. This may include remedial design and construction to accomplish this goal."

He said it offers huge opportunities for commercial HVAC contractors. "One hundred percent of the projects I've been involved with include HVAC." Controls are another 100-percent item. Other electrical systems are involved 15 percent of the time; elevators, 5 to 10 percent; plumbing, 20 percent; roofs, 2 percent; and the building envelope, 2 percent.

Retrocommissioning is not the same as preoccupancy building commissioning, he said. "Most people in commissioning are not technically oriented." ReCx is a combination of troubleshooting, redesign, repair/replacement, and commissioning.

ReCx is a contract between the commissioning authority and the owner. "It's you and the owner," Wiggins stated. The commissioning authority performs tests on existing buildings and documents results. Depending on those results, the project may involve remedial design, remedial construction, and commissioning of the remedial construction.

"In retrocommissioning, the building's original intent is no longer applicable," he said.

"New tenants change things." Keep in mind, too, that existing buildings may or may not have been commissioned.

You can only guess what caused the damage to this ductwork outside of an air-handling unit, but during retrocommissioning.

Long-Term Commitment

Because of its scope and complexity, the ReCx sales cycle can take two to two and one-half years from the initial contact, Wiggins said. Newcomb & Boyd typically retrocommissions hospitals, labs, and universities.

"Almost 100 percent are negotiated projects," he said. "‘Bid' is a bad word in retrocommissioning."

A successful project adds long-term work for the ReCx company.

"Clients typically last a lifetime. I have never executed work for a client that I am currently not working for," Wiggins said. "We have clients for life."

One project can also open up vertical markets for the ReCx company. "The market has an estimated $4 billion to $8 billion growth over the next five to 10 years," Wiggins said.

It is vital that the ReCx contractor takes time to systematically diagnose the building. "You have full authority, but also full responsibility," he explained. "I will not put a price on a building that I have not physically walked through.

"There needs to be a systematic, sequential process to identify all problems, not just symptoms. You can't skip steps. When you find something, ask yourself if it's a problem or a symptom; trace problems back to their source and fix that as well as the symptom," he said.

"Solutions have to be holistic," Wiggins said. "If you fix the building, you're handling 100 percent of the problem at once."

There are two ways to price a ReCx project: setting a firm, fixed price, or pricing the project based on time and materials. "With the fixed price, I can make more money or lose more money," he said. "With time and materials I may not make so much money, but I won't lose as much either."

This damaged ductwork was in an archival building for a major southern university.

Building The Team

Team makeup will vary according to the ReCx company's capabilities and the project's requirements. The team may consist of:

  • The ReCx commissioner 100 percent of the time. That's the contractor.

  • Remedial engineer(s) 25 percent of the time. "They tend to want to run the team," Wiggins warned. "When you feel you need a remedial engineer, take him out on the ReCx with you. If he's out there getting grimy with you, he will buy into the project. Put him on the ReCx team."

  • The test-adjust-balance (TAB) contractor 100 percent of the time.

  • Controls contractor 100 percent of the time. However, Wiggins said he prefers to write the programs himself to make sure he is not getting a cookie-cutter solution.

  • Electrical contractor roughly 15 percent of the time.

  • Elevator specialist about 5 percent of the time. "You must find a licensed guy," Wiggins said. The liability for elevator repairs is extremely steep.

  • Plumbing contractor 20 percent of the time.

  • Roofing contractor 2 percent of the time.

  • Structure/envelope specialist 2 percent of the time.

    The most essential team members, Wiggins said, are the building's operations and maintenance staff. "Get them involved in the process." It raises their confidence in the project and any system changes, gets them involved with a minimum amount of resentment, and helps them buy into the project.

    "Retrocommissioning is a systematic process to identify all the problems, not the symptoms," he re-emphasized. "Solutions are holistic in nature, and the process must engage the owner's staff.

    "I will not retrocommission if we won't get the maintenance staff to work with us. We take the maintenance staff with us on the project."

    The Basic Steps

    The ReCx process is truly complex and time-intensive. Wiggins breaks down the process into a few basic steps. Each step contains many layers of planning, coordination, and processes.

    1. Develop a plan. Lay out the process clearly for the owner, so he or she understands who is responsible for what and when each step will happen. "It's the skeleton for the final report," Wiggins said.

    2. Review existing documents. How was the system designed and what was it supposed to do? If there are no documents immediately available, Wiggins advised investigating the building and creating documentation based on what you find.

    "If you know how to use the Web, you can find just about anything," he added. Utility bills also are a useful source of information and typically are readily available.

    3. Interview the maintenance staff. "Tell the owner you need a maintenance history," Wiggins said. "I review it and sit down with the maintenance guy and people who will be on my team."

    4. Interview the occupants.

    5. Perform a thorough site investigation to observe current occupancy and space use. "You get to see how the building is being used."

    Survey the facility's air and water flow. Survey zone temperatures and rh levels. Survey lighting levels, carbon dioxide, etc. Document everything for analysis and reporting, and for putting together the ultimate repair of the entire building.

    What You Can Do

    ReCx is not the same as performance contracting, Wiggins pointed out.

    "Most buildings will save some energy, but I never market on energy savings. Five percent will use more energy when you get a building working the way it should.

    "We don't promise a payback. We don't know what's going to happen to the building when we get into it. Ninety-five percent of the time, a retrocommissioned building will save energy," Wiggins said. In his experience, savings have ranged from 10 percent to 69 percent. However, that is not the goal. "Our goal is getting the building into the shape it should be in for its current use."

    Sometimes customers ask, "‘Who messed my building up?' We're doctors, not police," Wiggins pointed out. The ReCx company is there to fix problems, not point fingers.

    Fixing all the problems in one project is much more cost effective than fixing one problem at a time, due to the interactive nature of building systems, he said.

    Fixing individual problems instead of finding their causes and examining how they affect other areas of the building is both time- and cash-intensive.

    When the project is done and the building operates as it should, there is immediate gratitude from the owner, Wiggins said.

    "Give me your worst building, the one that nobody can fix - the one that never worked. If we fix that one, we can fix them all."

    Sidebar: What's A Typical Retrocommissioning Project?

    It's a trick question. There is no typical retrocommissioning project. They all offer individual challenges - just ask Steve Wiggins of Newcomb & Boyd.

    "I've had all kinds of fun projects," he said. "One of the neatest ones was a six-story lab building, a teaching-research lab on the campus of a southern university." Extreme negative pressure in that building was measured at 1.5 inches wc. "It sucked the windows on the fourth floor onto the students," he recalled. It was a biological safety lab.

    He has also worked on another university's special collections facility, a multiuse building. The building's first floor contains rocks and fossils from around the state. On the second floor is a library of rare editions.

    The third floor contains natural history collections and a forensics bone research lab; fume hoods and other types of lab equipment are used. The fourth floor contains a center for biodiversity and systematics (a fish specimen forensics depository), photographic collections, and a darkroom.

    The building also holds Civil War generals' uniforms and a legendary coach's coat, hat, and tie. It was the coach's displayed clothing that finally got the school motivated to fix the building. "Moisture almost dripped on his hat," Wiggins recalled. If the problems weren't addressed, heads would have rolled.

    "It was the worst facility I've ever seen as far as number of problems," said Wiggins. "We started investigating on the first floor, and didn't find a functioning device until we got to the third floor." The project took nine months from the walk-through to the handoff.

    Incidentally, the building has a fifth floor - the central plant penthouse. "One chiller had been running backwards since it was started up, and they never knew it," Wiggins said.

    - B. Checket-Hanks

    Publication date: 02/07/2005

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