Commercial real estate owners and managers have increasingly sought to have new or renovated buildings certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED program.

But now many are dealing with the next stage in the process—maintaining those standards as buildings age. As a result the process of commissioning, that is, continually monitoring buildings, is becoming more important. In fact, commissioning is already mandatory for LEED certification of buildings. But as part of the next generation of the program, LEED 2012, owners and managers will be required to commission even more of their buildings and the USGBC will offer a credit for continuous monitoring of entire buildings.

Global mechanical and engineering firm WSP Flack & Kurtz has worked on energy-efficient projects since 1969, and designed sustainable building systems since the mid-1980s. The firm has completed more than 60 LEED-certified projects and has more than 65 projects pending certification. Flack & Kurtz also currently has approximately 30 people supplying commissioning services throughout the country, and considers commissioning a growth area for the practice.

Below, two executives from the firm—David Cooper, managing director, and Paul Meyer, vice president of commissioning, spoke to NREI about the growing importance of commissioning.

An edited transcript follows:

NREI: What exactly is commissioning?

Paul Meyer: Commissioning is a quality control process that should give the owner of the building the facility he intended, meaning that—from the design phase all the way through the construction and operation—the building matches his requirements. When we do commissioning, we are doing quality control, making sure that the building is designed according to the owner’s wishes and constructed according to the design.

NREI: How is commissioning becoming more important—particularly with LEED?

Meyer: Commissioning is a requirement in almost every type of LEED certification. Certain parts of the building must be commissioned: the air conditioning, the water heating system and the lighting.

David Cooper: When the next version of LEED comes out in 2012 there will be more rigorous requirements around commissioning.

NREI: How will the LEED commissioning requirements change?

Meyer: They’ll start to include the building envelope—the exterior of the building, the walls, windows, roof assemblies—and more plumbing systems, not just the water heater.

Before, commissioning would focus primarily on energy-saving in LEED; now it’s moving into a more holistic approach of energy, human comfort, indoor air quality and durability.

Cooper: The durability part gets into ongoing commissioning, meaning after the building is occupied and up and running. So commissioning is going to be an ongoing requirement. It used to be a one-time requirement.

NREI: How frequently will LEED require ongoing commissioning to occur?

Meyer: There are a few types of commissioning. There’s new construction commissioning: When you build a new building, you commission it—make sure everything is constructed and operating properly when you first build it. Then there’s existing building commissioning, where you can have a building that’s five years old, 50 years old or whatever, and you go in and you commission it to try to establish where it is and how you can improve it at any point in its life. And then there’s ongoing commissioning, or recommissioning, where every year or two, you go in and commission a building again to maintain a level of performance.

Normally, recommissioning would be on one- or two-year basis, but there will be a new LEED credit coming out in 2012 for continuous commissioning—that is, commissioning done using the building’s computer system. Continuous commissioning is in real time— if something started to degrade in performance, you would know about it immediately and not two years later.

Cooper: Continuous commissioning is essentially a more active monitoring of the real-time performance of a building as opposed to a once-a-year process of putting a building’s system through its paces to ensure performance on an annual basis. There are third-party software applications that interface with building management systems which eventually will probably get integrated into building management systems, and continuous commissioning becomes a dynamic real-time building optimization.

The historical data shows that a regular process of commissioning will optimize the energy performance and give you significant energy savings.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory came out with a study in 2009 which studied hundreds of buildings and hundreds of commissioning projects and determined that on average whole building commissioning saves roughly 16% of energy performance.

NREI: When did commissioning first start to take off?

Meyer: Commissioning has been around for a long time, but only for a very small amount of customers. The Navy has been commissioning ships forever, but for buildings it was mostly just large, specialty clients like hospitals or universities that knew the value of it.

Commissioning took off when the LEED rating system first required it. People who wanted to get a LEED-certified building depended on doing commissioning. I’ve seen a great increase in commissioning, I would say, over the last six years; people call up and say, “What’s commissioning? I just found out I have to do this now.”

Cooper: It’s really been going hand-in-hand with the momentum of the green building movement and recognition about energy performance and carbon and those issues. Sustainability has significantly increased in its applications and the need for monitoring them.

NREI: Are building owners generally more receptive to commissioning now?

Cooper: Owner-occupied buildings were always more receptive to it. They saw the benefits to it for themselves. With developers, it really was and still is more dependent upon their outlook and what’s driving them and their mission—whether they embrace commissioning, whether they embrace LEED, whether they embrace sustainable design into their practice.

More and more developers are embracing these things, so commissioning is much more commonplace. And of course now there are regulatory issues. In California, they require all buildings over a certain size to be commissioned. PLANyc does that as well. There are regulatory pushes now because people recognize the value of commissioning.

Meyer: LEED is going to have an optional credit for monitoring-based commissioning in real time, so owners can elect to do that. Because it’s a new requirement, it’s not a requirement yet; LEED tends not to make prerequisite for a new credit, to help get people used to it.

At the same time, LEED has made the scope and the rigor of commissioning stronger by requiring you to commission more systems and to do more of the commissioning process on those systems.

Cooper: We actually think that pulling the building envelope into the commissioning requirement is a very positive step. The building envelope is the first line of defense in energy performance and energy efficiency. You can do wonderful things with the systems in a building but if you have a poorly designed and/or constructed envelope, then all those great energy savings that you achieve through your systems fly out the window.