Project Commissioning: The Key to Meeting Your Food Plant’s Construction Goals

Constructing a new food plant is more complex than ever. Increased competition, changing consumer trends, automation technology and energy efficiency are all factors that owners must consider.

Among all these moving parts, it can be easy for a plant owner’s original vision or goals to be lost or not fully realized. That’s why commissioning is becoming a critical part of the design-build process. A commissioning partner works with the owner throughout the design-build process to ensure their goals are achieved.  

What is commissioning? 

Commissioning is commonly thought of as a verification process that happens near the end of installation when engineers test that a facility and its equipment are working properly. 

However, the definition of commissioning has expanded. Today, commissioning is an ongoing quality process that monitors the plant owner’s requirements and confirms that they are met. Commissioning starts at the pre-planning phase of a construction project and runs all the way through the first year of occupancy.  

The goal of commissioning is to meet the owner’s project requirements (OPR). OPR can encompass whatever is critical to an owner in designing a new facility, whether that’s building performance, design standards or specific efficiencies. For example, an OPR for a Starbucks location could be incorporating the brand’s signature green throughout the design. 

These OPRs are tracked by a person or firm called the commissioning authority, who leads the process as well as a commissioning team. This team generally consists of the plant owner, general contractors, project manager(s) and lead engineer. Other system experts may join the commissioning team as needed. 

Your trusted partner: How the commissioning authority benefits owners  

The commissioning authority is looking out for the owner’s best interests throughout the process of building a new food plant. They translate what the clients want into what that means on the design-build level — even if it’s not spelled out in the contract. This may include details like sizing a boiler properly or making sure doors are wide enough to accept specific types of shipments.

The major benefits of a commissioning authority include: 

  • Defining and ensuring owner’s requirements are met every step of the way 
  • Translating what the owner wants into how the contractor can accomplish it 
  • Minimizing re-work by confirming things are done right the first time
  • Saving time and money by preventing conflicts with subcontractors 
  • Training owner(s) and staff on how to run the facility 

5 phases of commissioning for a new food plant 

The role of commissioning changes during the course of a project. 

1. Pre-design 

The commissioning authority should ideally be involved at the initial stages of planning when owners and developers discuss their vision for the food plant. The commissioning authority will help develop and document the owner’s project requirements.  

2. Design 

As engineers design the new facility, the commissioning authority acts as the owner’s representative verifying that the plant design meets the OPR. The commissioning authority accomplishes this by developing a Basis of Design (BOD) or supervising the design team on BOD development. This document translates the owner’s requirements into actual building components needed for construction, such as appropriate equipment, technology or storage.  

3. Construction

During food plant construction, the commissioning team is monitoring progress and affirming that all building tasks are in line with the owner’s requirements. This extends to tracking submittals from subcontractors and suppliers. For instance, the BOD could require a water boiler that pumps with 400 horsepower. The commissioning authority would make sure the submittal from the equipment manufacturer reflects that. 

The operation and maintenance (O&M) manual, which must be in line with the OPR, will also be developed.

4. Startup

The startup (or turnover) phase is when the team adjusts and balances tests of equipment. This involves turning on systems and making sure equipment is functioning per specifications and meeting the owner’s requirements. (The commissioning team monitors this process but doesn’t perform the actual adjustments.)

At the same time, the commissioning authority will develop a training program for the owner to understand how the facility functions. The owner determines how in-depth the training is and will also be provided with O&M manuals and documentation.  

5. Operations  

After the plant is turned over to the owner, the commissioning team will continue to monitor it for a year to check that all equipment is performing as expected. There may be seasonal testing of equipment to ensure it’s working properly during different times of the year.

This is also a great time for a “lessons learned” workshop where the owner and project team review what they learned and how this knowledge can benefit future work.  

Finding the right commissioning partner for your project  

Owners should look for a commissioning authority that has training, experience and a collaborative approach. While many owners think a third party is required, there are benefits to working with a firm with expertise in both design-build and commissioning. 

At Stellar, we offer both services, but the commissioning group acts independently from the design-build staff. Our team of qualified commissioning professionals (QC XP) are laser-focused on meeting the owner’s requirements, and they can communicate more easily with the contractors since they’re colleagues within the same firm. With commissioning, we can better ensure our clients’ goals are achieved at each phase of the design-build process. 

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