Relationships and Trust Are the Key to Successful Cx Projects

action-2277292_1920 By John Villani, P.E., CCP, CEM, LEED AP

“It is comforting to know you and your team are on board!”

A project manager at one of our firm’s long-term university clients—a person we have worked with on many projects—recently sent me an e-mail containing that comment. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s quite a compliment!” As I considered it, my mind served up flashbacks of my experience with that client, and with commissioning as a whole.
Commissioning in New York City in the early 2000s—or Chicago in the late 2000s
Only a couple decades ago, trying to sell commissioning felt like selling sawdust to a lumber mill. It was all-too-common to hear, “We have a great design team and construction team; what do we need commissioning for?”
Those of us who persevered through those times may remember clients like my first client at this university. After one of the project managers finally asked me for a proposal, I was promptly told that our bid was way too high and was over the client’s budget for commissioning. Three proposals later, shaved down to half the fee (but only a third less scope), we were awarded the project for the princely sum of just under $10,000. After spending the originally proposed fee in work and staff hours, and dealing with a change order or two, we finally finished the client’s new photography studio. (Yes, there were darkrooms and film back then.)
That was the beginning of our relationship with this client, and our history of helping them create successful projects. I recall the skepticism of the designers, contractors, and the university operations team when I told them I was the commissioning provider. Little by little, they were exposed to the concept and, gradually, we built a trusting relationship with the Owner. Commissioning became a service the university wanted to keep.
Owner Relationships and Trust
Today you can’t pick up a management or sales book that doesn’t focus on relationships and trust. Commissioning providers must offer a diverse set of skills, including extreme technical competence and strong communication ability. Not least, we must build relationships and trust with everyone on a project team: designers, contractors, and, especially, members of the Owner’s team.

Over the years, we have seen Owners select our firm over lower cost providers because of our investment mindset. When you really care about the Owner, and exhibit passion about a project’s outcome and success, it shows. The entire project team can see your passion expressed in all commissioning activities—an investment mindset, every day on every project.
Commissioning RFPs often include a question like: “How do you build teamwork and avoid adversarial relationships with the project team?” In every phase of the work, commissioning should be a collaborative effort aiming for the greatest possible outcome: a facility that runs well and smoothly for the client. How can this goal be adversarial? After years of observing our own projects, and hearing stories about other providers’ commissioning projects that didn’t go very well, I realized that this question aims to determine the provider’s mindset. Does the Cx provider really care about the project outcome, or does the job just represent a revenue stream? What is the provider’s attitude about building relationships and trust with all members of the project team?

The Owner’s Passion = Mutual Engagement

While considering our mutually rewarding relationship with this longtime client, I also thought about the projects I couldn’t wait to escape. Fundamentally, these were projects in which we were unable to build a relationship and trust with the Owner and the Owner’s team. Why was that? It’s always important to ask what could be have been done better.
However, one significant common theme emerged; I maintain that this factor is what differentiates lousy projects, mediocre projects, and great projects. It’s the Owner!
Occasionally our firm has done projects where the Owner has zero engagement in the commissioning process. Such Owners may believe the commissioning firm will fight all their battles regarding issues identified through commissioning. It doesn’t take long for the design or construction team to realize that the Cx provider has lots of responsibility but no authority. This situation does not inspire them to be responsive to issues identified in the commissioning process. Again, Owner engagement is key.

And engagement style matters, too. Maybe it’s the gray hair; maybe it’s managing a new generation of millennial commissioning providers. I sense a shift in the mindset of Owners, designers, contractors, and Cx providers alike. In all cases, with younger staff coming aboard, I see ever-growing dependence on technology, including web-based commissioning software, BIM, emails, and texts. However, none of these tools can replace the value of a phone conversation or face-to-face contact.
What is your mindset? You can’t get a compliment like we did without being personally invested. Cx providers, are you trying passionately to build relationships and trust with your clients and team members? Owners, are you open to building strong, long-term relationships with your commissioning providers?
I feel privileged to have earned the trust of, and developed relationships with, many colleagues, fellow BCxA associates, project managers, designers, contractors, and Owners. Thank you for allowing me to follow my passion and develop a relationship with you!


  1. Eileen Westervelt

    Invested providers and engaged owners – a recipe for success and fun!

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