46 min read

🎧 #088: From connected commissioning to connected construction

“I've been giving presentations on why commissioning agents should be using data analytics and commissioning since 2013. It's completely unsatisfying to me to do it the other way. And still the vast majority don't...


But the construction industry is different. By the end of the project, they're saying they'll never do another project without analytics. That transformation will happen much faster."


—Jim Meacham

Welcome to Nexus, a newsletter and podcast for smart people applying smart building technology—hosted by James Dice. If you’re new to Nexus, you might want to start here.

The Nexus podcast (Apple | Spotify | YouTube | Other apps) is our chance to explore and learn with the brightest in our industry—together. The project is directly funded by listeners like you who have joined the Nexus Pro membership community.

You can join Nexus Pro to get a weekly-ish deep dive, access to the Nexus Vendor Landscape, and invites to exclusive events with a community of smart buildings nerds.

Episode 88 is a conversation with Jim Meacham and Elliot Alvarez of Altura Associates.

Summary

We talked about how analytics technology can and should transform the construction process and lead to better outcomes for owners, developers, contractors, and operators.

From my standpoint, Altura is the pioneer of analytics-based commissioning, so we unpack the story behind that, but then we widen our gaze to the entire construction process and how analytics is changing the whole game. This is a fascinating look at the past and future of construction and one of the keys to delivering high performance, decarbonized buildings.

Without further ado, please enjoy the Nexus podcast with Altura Associates.

  1. Altura (2:35)
  2. Data Analytics from Cradle to Grave (15:24)
  3. Skyfoundry (20:07)

You can find Jim and Elliot on LinkedIn.

Enjoy!

Highlights

  • Altura’s founding story (2:35)
  • Why is commissioning even a thing (7:27)
  • Pioneering analytics-based commissioning (15:15)
  • Keys to making analytics-based commissioning work in the construction process (32:48)
  • How analytics can benefit the entire construction process (41:10)

Music credit: Dream Big by Audiobinger—licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

Full transcript

Note: transcript was created using an imperfect machine learning tool and lightly edited by a human (so you can get the gist). Please forgive errors!

James Dice: hello friends, welcome to the nexus podcast. I'm your host James dice each week. I fire questions that the leaders of the smart buildings industry to try to figure out where we're headed and how we can get there faster without all the marketing fluff. I'm pushing my learning to the limit. And I'm so glad to have you here following along.

James Dice: This episode is a conversation with Jim Meacham and Elliot Alvarez of Altura associates. We talked about how analytics technology can and should transform the construction process and lead to better outcomes for owners, developers, contractors, and operators. From my standpoint, Altera is the pioneer of analytics based commissioning.

So we unpack the story behind that, but then we widened our gaze to the entire construction process and how analytics is changing that whole game. This is a fascinating [00:01:00] look at past and future of construction and one of the keys to developing high performance and decarbonized buildings. So without further ado, please enjoy the nexus podcast with Altera associates. Hello, Jim and Elliott. Welcome to the show. It's great to have you guys on can we start with Eugene? Can you introduce yourself?

Jim Meacham: Sure. Jim Meacham, I'm one of the principals and founders of Altura associates. I'm mechanical engineer by training, been in the HVC energy controls business for about 19 years now.

And uh, we're an avid nexus labs fan and, and happy to be here. So thanks for having us. Yeah. Thanks for coming on. Elliot,

James Dice: how about you? Can you introduce yourself and give us a little hint at your

Jim Meacham: back?

Elliot Alvarez: Sure. Yeah. Not, not too dissimilar from Jim's background in mechanical engineering and during design of HVAC systems for a while, and then obstructed into commissioning of the built environment after that.

So [00:02:00] I just got a few years on me. I'd probably 15 years in the industry or something like that. And it's be a social principle, all.

Jim Meacham: Cool.

James Dice: And I first came in contact with Alterra. I met Matt Schwartz in, I think 2017 ish. But you guys have been thought leaders in this whole commissioning world, which we'll unpack analytics world for a really long time.

So thank you back. You guys are big nexus fans. I'm also a big Altera fan. So I appreciate that. And shout out to Matt, Matt, Matt, and I have collaborated a bunch and I'm sure he'll listen to this and, and smile. So Jim, tell me about, before I heard of Altera, can you talk about founding it? What were you doing before and then what was the impetus for

Jim Meacham: creating the company?

Yeah, that's a good, good question. So we're coming into our 10th year now, which is kind of hard to believe. I I'll never forget. How old Altura is because my son was born three months after we founded Altura. So you can [00:03:00] imagine what that time was like, you know, like on my laptop, in the hospital and the early days so pretty exciting memories, but yeah, that, the story goes back actually, a couple of firms ago, a number of us, including Elliott worked together at a sustainability consulting firm, which also did energy work, but much broader, more broad lead and kind of master planning level sustainability work.

And that was fine. It was a sole proprietorship. It got sold just, you know, older owner needed transition and uh, we got bought and uh, didn't work out super well and just leave it at that. So we took the opportunity to say, you know, we've got a great team. What's the best thing we can do. To impact the industry.

And so that's what altar was born out of. We're a mission driven from our mission is to improve them performance in the built environment. And what [00:04:00] we did was we focused the energy of our from coming out of this kind of broad sustainability, which is great, but it kind of leads to too many paths. And we said, what were you're really good at?

And what we can have the most impact on is energy and building performance. Okay. So let's, let's be focused and let's do that. And we had a few mantras back then and our values are the same. We revisit it every year. That's like core values are the same. And one of the mantras was, we don't want to write reports anymore.

We want to implement projects like no more. And we still say that today because every time you're spending time writing a report, it's less time that you're actually getting something done, so, or super impact implementation, get it done. Focus. We kind of tweaked the professional services model a little bit to [00:05:00] allow us to be in that space.

And uh, yeah, we try to be disruptive and push the industry forward. That's our, our, our, our game. And we've had a whole bunch of fun over the last 10 years doing that.

James Dice: Cool. And what type of clients do you work for and then how do you get involved on those

Jim Meacham: clients projects? Sure. I guess taking a step back, what do we do actually within that context first, right?

Like. We do, obviously we're talking about analytics and commissioning, so we do a lot of analytics work and we can talk about that. We do a lot of commissioning work and talk about what that is all around the built environment, right? The buildings. We also do a lot of building automation system work.

You mentioned MatchWorks, he's our lead in building automation and disrupting that whole market, which has its own energy and thread deeply intertwined with the discussion topic today. And we also do a lot of environmental programs where, which is managing large scale environmental improvement programs for like automotive [00:06:00] dealers and healthcare to see they have goals.

Like we want to reach 30% reduction, 50% reduction of carbon emissions. And, you know, you can have a Centure Mackenzie, come write you a report that says you should have 30% or 50% reduction, but how do you actually do that? That's where we, that's what we can do. We can connect that strategy to. In the building, this is what we're doing to achieve those results over time and monitor and use analytics, obviously, right.

To get the persistence and performance. So that's the what and the who part? You know, we, we have a pretty, very business. I would say we do a lot of work in the university space. Uh, We do a lot of work in the healthcare space. So some of our big clients in the university space, university of California, I think we worked for like half for the UCS, Cal tech.

Stanford we've done some work. So a lot of those in the university space and [00:07:00] then healthcare Kaiser sharp MD Anderson. So some of the major healthcare enterprise level, and then corporate to, you know, decent amount of corporate work, but NBC universal on and others that are, most of our engagements tend to be like big campuses or big enterprises.

That's where we kind of do the best work instead of single project kind of work.

Elliot Alvarez: Cool.

James Dice: So we're going to kind of zoom in, we talked about a bunch of different types of projects there. We're going to kind of zoom in on commissioning a little bit today and the construction process, Elliot, I'd love to get for you to give us kind of an introduction to commissioning.

Like if I'm listening to the next, this podcast, commissioning probably hasn't been brought up for like 60 episodes like that. So if I, if I'm totally new and I'm just coming to this from idle, I care about technology and buildings, but I have no idea what the hell commissioning is. Can you give us just an intro you know, the types of commissioning, [00:08:00] what the scope is?

That kind of

Elliot Alvarez: thing? Sure, sure. Yeah. I think that the you know, the commission for the builders do commissioning for a lot of different industries, particularly for the commission for the built environment, has like really Become more and more commonplace than the other word, California do a lot of our work in California here.

So like that's mandated by code and has become that way for awhile. But I think it's got, you know, rationale from the transitions that the building industry has gone through where. Hundreds of years ago, you were just kind of, if you were an institutional client, you would go hire a builder and they would kind of usually one person that you would like really, or one entity that is like in control of the quality of your building.

And I think that the construction industry has gotten. There's a lot more parties involved with it now, and buildings have gotten a lot more complex. And I think, you know, like we've covered pretty well on your podcasts, like how complex buildings are getting [00:09:00] especially in the recent past. But it's worth just kind of like recognizing just like how hard it is to make just even a simple building.

There's like millions upon millions of things that all have to go right. To get the building to stand up and like get the windows to open and close and, you know, the heating and cooling systems to nominally do. Okay. And so the commissioning and industry in new construction came about because there just needed to be some sort of quality control.

Like somebody kind of like looking out for the owner's interest in actually getting a building that works. And so that's new construction. Commissioning is essentially an advocate for the building owner to validate that they're building. Yes. Nominally. Right. There's other flavors of commissioning existing building commissioning is kind of taking that same kind of like, is it right?

Type of mindset to an, a building that's already been built. And so, you know, Hey, this building was supposed to do this thing. Let's kind [00:10:00] of take a systematic approach to validating that it's still operating as best as it can. And there's a couple of other. Flavors within existing building commissioning of ongoing commissioning or retrocommissioning, or, you know, different names for it, but it's all kind of boils back up to like, can, can we make this building right again?

And there's also, you know, if you want to get really specific, there's a commission of specific systems, right? So you could be commissioning an AAV system or you know, like, a pharmacy kind of like pressurization system. There's like very discreet commissioning activities, but they're all kind of based on like, let's set up a really rigorous QA QC process.

That's got a well-defined process and validate does this building.

Jim Meacham: Yeah.

James Dice: And everyone knows what the process is before the project, and then you do it. And then it's very clear whether there's pass or fail for each system

Jim Meacham: that gets commissioned clear.

Elliot Alvarez: Yeah. I think like that's, that's the theory, right? The practice of that, which is [00:11:00] why we're talking about that today is like, it's a lot grayer, right.

It's kind of like our industry has kind of evolved into like, oh, there's a commissioning agent. We just kind of get them to say is the building. Right? But like, nobody really recognizes the fact that there's actually a lot of gray area in that. And so, and that's on good projects, right? Like we like to, instead of be work a lot with institutional clients and who really do care about this, but there's plenty of code mandated commissioning.

This is the check, the box exercise. Right. And so it has devolved a little bit into that.

James Dice: Yeah, the biggest gray area I've been a part of on the projects I've worked on is like, whose fault is it and who, who should fix it? When something is found, that's always been the biggest problem. And it always goes back to

Jim Meacham: like, follow

James Dice: it up to the top of whoever's managing this thing.

And it's like the commissioning agent and just doesn't quite have quite have the authority, everyone wishes they would when they're in that

Jim Meacham: [00:12:00] position. Yeah. I would say the data have the authority. If you have the right data. But we can get there. That's a great segue,

James Dice: but first I want to ask you guys real quick.

Can you talk about, so we just introduced commissioning. I'd also like to introduce for everyone who's waiting for tech us to talk about tech, just hold on. We also need to set the context a little bit more, which is like, what is construction? Which is, I don't mean that like we understand how buildings get built, but what are the phases?

And like, what does the commissioning agent do in each of those

Jim Meacham: phases?

Elliot Alvarez: good question. There's probably a lot of different answers to that. You know, there's a lot of different kind of like project delivery methods that will pick and choose different kinds of like restructure fat. At its highest level, right. There's some sort of design phase. And then there's some sort of, kind of like getting ready to do construction phase and then there's the construction phase.[00:13:00]

And then, you know, the real pointy in there is like the testing and validation phase, right at the end of commissioning or right at the end of the construction. And then there's the operations phase where the buildings turned over to the client and, you know, they get to Deliv with that building forevermore.

Like I said, a lot of different ways to pick and choose like maybe reorder, maybe, maybe it's a design build contractor. So we're kind of mashing together some of the design and construction phases, but at its highest level, that's, that's what the phases are

Jim Meacham: cool from a commissioning perspective. As for saying that the ideal commissioning process for a building starts in design where you have this third party.

Looking from that perspective, a different perspective of the other interested parties and in how it's being designed, how it's being procured and how it's being constructed and off, obviously they've been tested and validated. So that through line is super important to, to have that kind [00:14:00] of perspective of how do we set it up to be successful from an operations perspective.

I mean, it's worth noting, right? That most design engineers don't ever get to see how the building they design operates. If you think about the phases we just discussed because the design phase might be a year, let's say, and then your construction phase might be two years, and then it goes into operations, you know, and you have the testing evaluation and the engineer.

Is maybe around a little bit, might've gone to a different firm, right? Like it's and they have really not much feedback unless there's a major problem. Right. So it's a really kind of broken loop from an engineering perspective in that sense. And the idea of the committee is in, is to try to connect it more operations back.

We, you know, as commissioning is we get to see a lot of projects, way more projects in the design Institute, because you know, we're seeing dozens of projects finish[00:15:00] every year and how they actually do with the systems and sequences and technologies they have in them. So, so it's, it's a, it's an interesting breakage that, that commissioning is kind of solving for to some degree.

Cool. All right.

James Dice: I think that's good context. Let's let's talk about technology now. So, so you guys not remember who exactly the authors were from Altera. You guys wrote this article and Asher journal. I want to say 2016, something like that 25 years ago. And then we'll link to that in the show notes, it was called something along the lines of connected commissioning.

And I remember my mind just being like, so I was doing analytics-based retrocommissioning at the time.

Jim Meacham: Like

James Dice: the firm I was at just viewed commissioning as like this other department. And I remember my mind just being like,

Elliot Alvarez: Why

James Dice: aren't we doing it over there too? And I was like running our analytics based [00:16:00] services and I read this article and I was just like, just like went over and handed it to the commissioning lead.

It's like, we need to do this on the next project. So will you talk about kind of the history of that, Jim?

Jim Meacham: Yeah. Getting to that point. That's a good way to, yeah, that was 2016 data analytics from cradle to grave. And it was, I got a shout out to Adam roll-off was the main author on that and I helped them do that, but yeah, rewind.

Right. So, we started alter going back to that story back in 2013, At the beginning of 2013, and we had this focus on getting it done impact and being laser-focused on that we had just started to use data analytics at the time. We had flirted around with it for awhile as commissioning agents, right?

As the people who kind of have this responsibility of making the building work we're in there, we're testing, we're tuning, we're working with controls, contractors and everybody and making it work. [00:17:00] And then you walk away from the project and you have no insight under the traditional model. You know, this is for us, this was like mid two thousands.

And you hope that it keeps working well, all the effort, the hundreds of hours and blood, sweat, and tears, you put in these projects and, but you walk away and you have no idea unless you get a call. And the only time you ever get that call is not to say, Hey man, this thing's working great. It's still three months later, that call doesn't ever happen.

Right. Right. You get the call away. It's all screwed up. You know? And then my reaction is what is you do? And cause it did work right. But I have no, I can't help. Right. I had no way of helping. So it's pretty unsatisfying to have, even, even if you never get that call that is not working just to not know.

And yeah, you can go back 10 months, you know, lead says go back in 10 months and like hear everybody, but that's, [00:18:00] that's a paper exercise, right. To a large extent I'm probably being dramatic there, but still like, you really don't have any visibility. And

Elliot Alvarez: so I would say actually, maybe Jim, a buddy in here too.

Cause there's like, you mentioned being unsatisfied about like you walk away from it, but there's also. Like the reality is up there. Construction process means that like, even like a lot of times on projects, you walk away from testing and you're like, I hope it works because you have doing testing on systems where it's like, oh, sorry, the doors got delayed.

And so we can't really do building pressure testing right now. Cause like the doors are like not here. So you're kind of like, like, well I was kind of scheduled ConAgra to do this and it's like, we can kind of guess, but like you're, there's also the satisfaction of like, you've done your best to try to get it to work.

But just the realities of construction mean that you, you never really feel like I [00:19:00] nailed it. Right. With absolute certainty that like everything is going to work forever. And so there was that frustration piece of,

Jim Meacham: yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, add to that, right? Like when we're testing at that phase in construction, there's not a single occupant in that building.

Doing what they're going to do to that. So it's like, what are you really testing under? It's not real, right. It's, it's never going to be accurate to what the building's going to see. So yeah, you add all this together. And we, in the mid two thousands, we started playing around with building our own analytics stuff, database on the back, you know, jamming in connections to the backend of Johnson controls, SQL databases.

And it was, you know, hacked together brittle. But man, when you could get data, it was amazing. Right. And I could hit a button and get new data and fast forward, a little bit of kind of messing around at that level of there. Weren't a lot of [00:20:00] analytics platforms available, especially for users like us as engineers.

And then we got introduced to sky Foundry who developed sky's park around 2010 and it was more of a platform approach, which works well for us and as energy engineers. And so we started using sky spark around 2011. The very first project we use put sky spark on for new construction was the Conrad and Hilton foundation headquarters.

It's seven, a gray Hills, zero net energy, super, you know, pushing the envelope design. It's a fan lists, HPAC system, buoyancy driven under floor air operable, dampers, and louvers to catch the wind, then do all these things. Super cool building, but very complex, never really had been done in the U S it was a WSP flak encourage design and uh, We just decided to [00:21:00] going into like, Hey, this, we're just kind of getting our feet wet with what data analytics is and sky spark, like, let's just throw it on this project.

We had no idea really how to pull it into the process, but like, let's just throw it on here. And I think some good will come with it. And it was beautiful, super, super painful. The first time that you're trying to get data from all these systems and normalize the data in some useful way. And how do you build analytics?

I mean, but, but we just said, we're just going to do it and see what happens. And I am so like looking back on that, by the way, we're still collecting and getting data from that building. And to this day, our very first building, right. 10 years on. But that, that design was so complex and so nuanced if we didn't have data analytics, we would have never made that building work.

It took three. To get that building to work. And, you know, the sequences of operations we had to do some design [00:22:00] changes throughout. Like it was a very complex building. I mean, it could have a whole podcast on that thing. But I think the moral of the story is that, you know, that experience of going through that, and you could ask anyone that was there's a lot of people involved with that project from contractors, owner, you know, our team, the building would never have worked in my mind without the analytics to really see the patterns and relationships that allowed us to solve problems in a normal, just building automation system context.

You couldn't sit there and observe enough and pull the trends into Excel enough to ever see it. So that kind of lit our fire right, where we said, wow, like this is game changer. Now we just have to get better at this. And so for awhile, we were kind of doing. Some projects with analytics and some projects without analytics in the kind of 20 14, 15 range, but we were committed to more and more [00:23:00] analytics.

And so building our own methods for making it easier and easier and easier to get connected, use case stack, to tag the data and make meaning out of it, the data. And we got some bumps and bruises along the way, for sure. But we've stayed true to like we know that having the data is going to improve our process and make us more satisfied with what we can deliver for our clients.

And we were really fortunate to have some forwardly thinking clients like Caltech mapper bay who's now at NBC universe is a huge mind in the industry. He saw the power, he said, We can add such a level of transparency and accountability to the process with this. Like let's just start doing it. A lot of that article that ashtray articles were began at Caltech in that time period to build a new commissioning program around it.

So that's really what led up to that. And we just stayed true to, we're [00:24:00] gonna make this work. We don't know what we're doing yet for both from a technology perspective, using the technology, but also the process it's disruptive to the whole process now to have to use analytics and that's its own thing.

But we stayed on that course. And now we, we literally don't do projects without analytics or, you know, very, very few little parts of projects where we wouldn't use analytics and and it's much more efficient in, in, in much more impactful. It

James Dice: was beautiful. And one of the things I hope to get out of this producing this podcast episode is that we have a lot of building owner listeners these days.

And if you don't have analytics-based commissioning as a standard part of your capital project process, I would highly encourage you to start looking at doing so, because what if you, if you don't, you have a number one, a sub-optimal process, but you're then putting it on the commissioning agent to then try to reconstruct the process from [00:25:00] their vantage point.

When really ideally it would come from the top, it would come from the person sort of designing the development process, design the capital process. You guys have had a, a long, hard road to get to this point, but I know that now many of your clients have it standard to do. With analytics now, is that right?

Jim Meacham: That's right. Yep. Yeah. That's, that's been a really cool transformation that we're seeing in the industry, you know, both our, you know, our clients, we're the early adopters because we're pushing it and then they're seeing the value and it's like, let, let's standardize this across the enterprise, right across the campus, whatever we have, Kaiser is a great example.

Really forward-looking, you know, enterprise wide, how do we improve this process and make it performance driven with analytics and that's really changing the market. And now we see others when we know, you know, you've changed the market. When someone comes and ask you for something that without you having to sell it to them.

Yes. Yes [00:26:00] we do. We can do that. Thank you for asking

James Dice: that, that kind of

Jim Meacham: invented that what

James Dice: let's get super practical here. Elliot, we'll go over to you. Let's like name out, I'm doing the traditional commissioning and process versus I'm doing it with analytics. I'll start us off, like in a normal construction process or commissioning process, you're going to like functionally test 10% of all of the, you know, smaller terminal unit type equipment out there with analytics.

You can then test them, test them using air quotes here with fall detection diagnostics a hundred percent. So that's like, just that right there could be valuable enough, but there are like five or six different, different value propositions. What are a few more of them?

Elliot Alvarez: Yeah, I think.

You've you've nailed kind of a big one. And I think that it's worth kind of like exploring that for different industries. Cause it's one thing for like a VAV, [00:27:00] right? Like sampling 10% of an office VAV is like, okay, but you know, if you're doing a hospital project, you know, you kinda have to test every single room because every single one of those matters.

And so that that's a huge amount of resources. And if you can come up with a way to you know, do that in a more robust way that you know, like we've said is like, not just like one point in time which is like, I've got my most junior commissioning agent out there. It was just going to go around to all these different VAV boxes in these operating rooms or, you know, holding rooms and kind of.

Oh, shoot some temperatures. Like that's not that's yes, that's doing every single one of them, but that's probably not the most robust way to make sure that you are, are actually validating the operational though. So, you know, it's, it's a hundred percent equipment that you can do, but also the longevity of what you're looking at is, is a huge thing [00:28:00] of moving from a point in time to a, a continuous Kind of swath of, of data and, and most importantly, bringing that swath of data up on to, you know, turnover because in a traditional approach, you know, you could go out and do your error handling functional test.

And then it's two months until that, that building's turned over. And then that intervening time, all sorts of stuff has happened. And like, who knows if that thing is actually still performing. And so when the owner and operator gets the keys that like this air handler doesn't do anything I want it to.

And then it was just like, then, then you gotta go chase, chase your tail and kind of figure out what happened. And it was intervening two months. So, yeah, moving from a single point to a SWOT is a real, real value proposition.

Jim Meacham: And the other one, I haven't had to that to being able to do system testing.

So it's, it's often hard in a [00:29:00] traditional commissioning approach to do coordinated system testing. But when you use software and you can do a lot of mated testing, which is a thing that we've developed and kind of pioneered in that article, right? So you can automatically test all these systems.

And when you, for example, like load up the terminals zone level systems for cooling or heating, that loads up the system, the air system, and stress tests that which is also stress tests, the hydronic chiller plant or hot water plant system. So you can really start to do these coordinated tests and really like anytime you want, because it's software, it doesn't cost you anything else to hit the button.

Once you set it up again that's kind of a game changer. As well and a practical thing.

Elliot Alvarez: Yeah, I was, was I think the, you know, that kind of like hit the button to test. It is like a, is a really fun idea. Right? And it's like something that [00:30:00] is doable and practical, but I think that also, doesn't just matter for the construction phase that can bleed into the operations phase.

And so I think that's another big value proposition. Centering your, you know, project delivery on an analytics driven process is that then you get those analytics for the rest of the life of that building. And we find with our clients it's really hard to justify, you know, adding analytics to a building.

I think there's been a lot of discussion about that and like, how do you, you know, how do you kind of justify that investment? Is it in maintenance or is it in thermal comfort or is it an energy savings? There's always that conversation, but like a lot of that goes away when like you're dealing with like a multimillion dollar construction project and it's like, oh yeah, analytics.

That's just another, you know, X, thousands of dollars. That's like a drop in the bucket versus like having to go through a big old rigmarole [00:31:00] on the existing building side.

Jim Meacham: One more practical. Side of that too, which is kind of an interesting finding from the field that we didn't think of when we were doing it. But automated testing allows us to do a lot of testing at night during the construction phase. I mean, obviously you do that during operations too, but particularly during construction, when, during the day you've got fire alarm testing and they're doing power shut downs and you know, everybody's trying to get their work done and it's a mess, like the construction sites, a mess it's really hard to do good testing.

And so all that stops a night. Generally you just leave the systems running and auto and then do automated testing at night. Really get to see what happens. You've got your punch list in the morning, ready to go. And that's turned out to be [00:32:00] super impactful in the way that construction project.

Fascinating.

James Dice: Hey guys, just another quick note from our sponsor Nexus labs. And then we'll get back to the show. This episode is brought to you by nexus foundations, our introductory course on the smart buildings industry. If you're new to the industry, this course is for you. If you're an industry vet, but want to understand how technology is changing things.

This course is also for you. The alumni are raving about the content, which they say pulls it all together, and they also love getting to meet the other students on the weekly zoom calls and in the private chat room, you can find out more about the course@courses.nexus lab. Start online. All right, back to the interview

So what are the keys? Do you guys have been doing this for five plus seven plus years or whatever? What are the keys to sort of take in the commissioning process as it exists today in most buildings and sort of inserting analytics into it.

Jim Meacham: And this is

James Dice: probably like a [00:33:00] three hour discussion that we could hopefully

Jim Meacham: fit.

Elliot Alvarez: I think, well, it's probably maybe just before we hop into like our battle scars from that is like maybe how, how we used it. Like, I think Jim has kind of, covered that at a high level, but it's, you know, when we're talking about data driven commissioning it's, it's pulling, you know, real time data from whatever's is creating that out in the field.

And so, The bulk of that from the BMS system. But, you know, we pull stuff from lighting system or energy meters, or other kind of like packaged systems. And then you just trying to that and organize that in a way that like your commissioning agents can, can use it. So it's like, just it's, it's not value in that.

Like Jim said previously building engineers th the designers of this, you know, they love this data. It's like, oh, I can actually see what this thing is, is doing. Like, that's, it's, [00:34:00] it's a treasure trove of information for them. And so it's just not valued from that. It was just like, if you're trying to troubleshoot something and you can go pull down, like, what are my, all my fan operating conditions and not painting, map those against my VAV or whatever, or whatever.

It's just like a good analysis of just having that data so that it's got that's one way we use. Then there's the FTD portion of that, right? Like letting the, the, the FTD portion take care of some of this, of the issues that you would typically functionally test for. And so those are running all the time.

And so you can use that FTD portion of it to do some of your functional testing for you, but obviously it doesn't replace going out and looking at equipment. I still that kind of boots on the ground piece of it, but there's just that FDD always running in the background, this passive piece of testing, there's active testing, like Jim talked about, right.

Where we're going to like force the functions. You're going to automate testing, see how this stuff happens. You know, oftentimes the [00:35:00] analysis of that can be either through FTD or like popping up to trends in the morning and see how our chillers staged. And we got stuck at this stage. We never got beyond that.

Something's wrong there. And then I think something that we can talk a little bit more about is like, you can also just like. Monitor KPIs and monitor the performance of the building as, as it's going through this process. So, maybe not doing discrete functional testing, but just what is the performance of the system as I'm measuring it?

So like, when we talk about analytics driven commissioning, it's kind of a mixture of each of those. And we kind of pull in different pieces of that, depending on what the project is, how complicated it is, like what, what are the specific things we're, we're looking at so helpful to just put that out there before diving into the kind of like, what can go wrong with all of that?

And like how, how hard is that? You know, I think I probably said data 20 times in the last minute there. Right. Getting the data is probably the, the number one thing that is[00:36:00] Can be a trip up. And so really in the new construction context, that requires just like a lot of discussion and coordination about when stuff is happening so that the commissioning provider, or, you know, sometimes the client, if they're doing that for themselves, can just know when that that is available.

And then it kind of a constant monitoring of that data to make sure it doesn't go away, right stuff. It's a construction. There's like people, you know, cutting the wires, like moving stuff around, you got to kind of keep an eye on that to make sure your flows are always kind of still still there. The way we've gotten around that is just bringing that concept very early in the process and making sure everyone's aware that, you know, we need to have data in this project early there's trickle down implications of that are, you know, IOT rooms need to be up and running.

Okay. What are the it room requirements? Oh, they have to have conditioning. They have to have key cards to have to have, you know, kind of like painted plywood [00:37:00] everywhere. Oh, okay. Well now you got to start talking about, when were you about like, there's all that knock on stuff that is, can be intimidating, but you know, if you just kind of like get people in the room, like people will advocate for themselves.

And if you kind of like, say like, here's our, here's our goal, what do we need to do to reach that? Then like we found that people will kind of like help craft that schedule to. I would say that the, maybe last piece on that data, one is probably a lot of headaches are caused. If you do not include the it team from the client early.

No, there's a ton of different ways to set up BAS networks. Like if you've got plenty of hours of content on that, James, but like, you know, having the people in the room to really make sure that that network architecture and connections to that are going to be passed muster with everyone is really critical early on in the construction phase.

Jim Meacham: I'll add and pull it back a little earlier, even pre startup kind of [00:38:00] is, is design, you know, really looking at if we want to get the most out of the data and the most data we can. What is the design and selection of all these different systems to make sure we're going to get those data right. And there's a lot of examples of isolated, you know, stranded data systems out there because it wasn't provisioned to have a connection, but I know, you know, I could connect to the computer room, air conditioning unit and get all these data to help the commissioning process.

But if no one dragged a cable over there and connected it so that we get out access to it, it's it doesn't do anybody any good. And there's so many examples of that. So really taking a thoughtful look at and the design and the controls, submittal package are we getting and maximizing everything we could.

The other thing that we've learned is obviously you have to impact the specifications with how does this flow through [00:39:00] the trades and a major one that we've worked a lot on is standardizing point names. Right. So that when you see data, when you finally available after all that headache of getting the it rooms, right.

And you know, all that, that stuff that we don't have, you know, the wild west and how points are named and configured, which just makes it much harder to get to an organized database that you can use software on. And if you, if you manage the design process and, and, and buyout and submittal process with your contractors, well, you can enforce all that and know it's no surprise.

And then they, you know, stupid if they don't do it well, it's in the contract document, so you gotta go fix it. And it makes it way easier to start early. Think about your specs, think about your standards and naming and what automation system you're using and how that's going to parlay [00:40:00] into. Getting access to those data.

James Dice: Yeah. And I think the reason I wanted to like, bring this up with you guys and thank you for the, for the real talk, just like explaining how the, you know, I can tell that there's challenges that have been navigated for many years. Technology involves people, processes and the right tool. Right. And so this is something we stress in our foundations course, but that applies here too.

You can't just. A new tool onto an existing antiquated process and expect everyone to just automatically adjust to that new tool. Right? So it's, if you're a commissioning agent out there and you're like, this sounds really cool, like rethink how you want to approach this approach. This strategically from the beginning of the project, ideally from the client's perspective as well, have them buy in, have them get everybody else to buy in.[00:41:00]

That's what I would say. As advice as someone who's gone through this.

So let's, let's transition a little bit. So Jim and Jim, when you, and I first started talking about this podcast, you weren't talking about commissioning to me, you were talking about construction and I was surprised by that because I was like, I don't actually know what you're going to talk about. So let's unpack that a little bit.

So let's zoom out from let's zoom out from the commissioning process to the overall construction process. Talk to me about your, your current thinking around how

Jim Meacham: that can be improved. Yeah, that's a good one. Yeah. It's interesting. And you'll see, like on the industry, right? Or on the market that we're all kind of.

Part of it in some way, most of the focus for data analytics is for existing buildings, right. To support some kind of operational workflow and dashboarding, whatever. I understand that makes [00:42:00] sense. And at a certain scale, right? Because again, like most buildings exists, so that's a big market. Right.

And commissioning, right. We hit a lot of the new construction projects. We also are in existing buildings, but. What we found, is it just to your point, you're just making chains, right? Like if you just bolted analytics on to the normal construction delivery process. So you said I'm going to wait till the end and I'll use the data to just validate that it's working at the very end.

Well, that that actually is still gonna add some value, right? Cause you're gonna have more rich context and be able to do have better insights and it's still continuous data stream those kinds of things. So there's value in that, but you've missed out on a lot of potential to impact the actual delivery process.

And that's something that we've been exploring for the past year or two and trying to pull into how do we actually [00:43:00] impact the delivery process and use data to help the builders and their trade subcontractors. Earlier, instead of just waiting to the end to tell them that it doesn't work. Right. So really know there's more opportunity if we could get in there earlier.

The other interesting thing that we found, you know, we, we often were and, and we'll go more into like, what does this mean? I process-wise in a minute, but just to tee up more of the why what we found is, you know, we often work for the owner, so we're, we're on that owner's team, or we're kind of on the outside of the actual delivery process of the building, because general contractor owns all the contracts with the sub contractors in the buck, stops with them.

Once they buy it, they have to meet the owners requirements and like the commissioning specification and all these things. But, at that phase, the contractor really has the leverage. [00:44:00] Yeah. Which is a little counterintuitive, right. It's like the owner's paying the bill. But it's already bought out based all his documents and everything.

And so what we found is where we start to work directly for the builders, or at least with them, even from the owners angle, there's way more, there can be a lot more leverage on the outcomes. And a lot of that has to do with where we're at in the process, like advising through the process. And that's, that was unexpected.

I think for us, we did not anticipate that, but things, you know, we get an a, if you're on the owner side of the table and you want to try to improve something that wasn't on the contract documents, let's say, or it was gray area. We could sit there and have a fight with all the contractors forever about like who owes what and how much more is going to cost.

And then you can go around the room. When, when you, when you're on the bill [00:45:00] team side and he can say, well, this is more efficient and we're going to have better delivery and we're going to have a shorter risk window at the end. Like you can get that decision made in five minutes. Yeah. And, and it has been fascinating for us to, be a part of that.

Elliot Alvarez: Yeah. I think another kind of lens on that is that I was just at a commissioning conference a couple months ago. And like was one of the panels they add a commissioning agent who had crossed over to the dark side, as they said. And it was known MEP coordinator for like a major GC and It was like a further validation of kind of what Jim says that like there's, you know, the builders want to do a really good job, but this woman was relaying just like you commissioning yahoos out there.

I have no idea how much stuff comes across my. Plate as an MEP coordinator, [00:46:00] like I'm trying my damnedest, but like, I've got so much stuff to take care of. Like I have to juggle a tower crane schedule and like shipments of duct work that got delayed by two weeks. And you know, this subcontractor who bought out this subcontract for them.

But now that subcontractor is like gone belly up. So now it's just like, there's so much stuff for like an MEP coordinator or a GC in general to kind of deal with that. Like whether or not. The fan coil is like optimizing its fan power is like not even close to like what they have time for. And I think that it's it's as commissioned agents.

Like that was our very narrow lens of, of like, oh, you guys just don't care. Like you guys are just trying to kind of like, you know, ignore all these facts and it's like, they kind of are, but that's because they're trying to get the building built and like that's got its own value in it. You still have to build the building.

So, I think that it, it. [00:47:00] It's, it's not that the general contractors don't care about this, like building performance stuff. It's just, they don't quite have the data information, like the information to really drive that process. Well, and so we are finding that using a lot of the same tools as from the commissioning process.

Like if we just apply those to the construction process, then yeah. The general contractor cares and wants to fix it. And exactly to what Jim said earlier to, you know, the mechanical contractor is like at that table, literally in that morning being like, oh, I've got a fan call on my punch list. Okay, great.

I'll go fix that. And then you fixed your fan coil and now you don't have to think about it ever again. Right. So it's just like a way more efficient way to drive performance, which has been really cool because that's what, we're all, I mean, we set it, I don't know, at the top of this thing about like, what we're all about is just like delivering performance and we've got a really good way to do that.

Jim Meacham: Yeah, let me, let me share the typical transparency [00:48:00] model from a project and anyone who's been a part of the pointy end, as Elliot said, that lasts three to six months of a construction project. Can, can totally sympathize with this. You know, there's a controls contractor. Who's responsible for a lot of them making it work.

Right. And that controls contractor is contracted to as a subcontractor to a mechanical contractor. Mechanical contractor is a subcontractor to the general contractor. So you've got a second tier subcontractor who kind of controls. Performance of a lot of the building systems. And so you're sitting at a MEP or commissioning meeting and it's like, yeah, we're done with floor.

One floor. One is done, says the project manager. Who's like gotten a word from another project manager who gotten word from a technician, let's say from the field. And you got three degrees of like, you know, phone tag in there. And [00:49:00] that's all that the general contractor has to go on to say, we're ready for commissioning.

Like, it's ready to be tested. Like you guys told me it's done. And there's like seven caveats comment from the controls contractor and another like six caveats coming from the mechanical contractor who goes to bed and nothing like, but there's no way to see. There's no way to like quickly say like, yeah, it's really.

And so then you bring the commissioning agent. Who's like, you know, got their clipboard and is ready to say, like, show me that it works. And nothing works inevitably the first time. And you're like, guys, what the hell? You're ready? Yeah. Like, and then general contractors, like guys, what does me do in here?

You told me I wasn't ready. And the mechanical contractor, like guy, I mean, this is like, what is happening? And it's to Elliot's point, none of these people, [00:50:00] why did a good wall want it to work, but everybody's doing their own job and like there's telephone. And there's just no easy way to know what the heck is actually happening.

I think about like, I always use this analogy for. you know, a general contractor doesn't actually do anything except for coordinate all this stuff, kind of swinging hammers and build stuff, right. Their job is to make sure everybody else does their job. Right. And there's risks and things like that.

So they can walk down the hall and see if the door is missing or the windows not put in correctly, or if it's not painted or whatever, right. Carpet, all things you can see, I'd be whatever you get into the technology systems. And what's happening in the guts of all of these different systems and how it's actually operating, delivering performance, not a single thing to see.

So it's a whole different world, especially those smarter and smarter and smarter. These buildings get a more [00:51:00] integration of systems. There's nothing to see. Like to validate it from a general contractor and that's just not fair. So a lot of what we've been bringing to that industry is ability to actually see it and see what's happening.

And what's the actual status and bring that kind of transparency that brings accountability because then instead of arguing about whether it's done or not in the hall, then you look at the data, look, it's not done. The data are telling me that, oh, they all go fix.

James Dice: All right. So give me some examples here.

So we've talked about commissioning that scope of work. There's also all these other scopes of work. How would another trade actually use the data? Let's talk like practically.

Jim Meacham: And maybe I'll jump in there first Elliot and you can add what we're trying to do is make [00:52:00] the data available. So in the typical process we mentioned was like, did you use trend data or something at the end?

Right. What we're trying to do is pull that all the way up. So as soon as a piece of equipment or technology is online, we're looking at the data. We can validate it right then. So we're talking about often months before you would actually be in some final testing or validation phase of the project. Yeah.

And so that's important because that's when all the, the right people are there, the start-up technicians there who actually knows the thing. And you know, the, the BAS contractor has more people on site and they're working in that area and, you know, there's, you're not dealing with like demobilization and things that happen at the tail end.

Of a construction project. You've got the people. So you're telling me that this is ready or it's at least online. I can very quickly tell you [00:53:00] it's got these problems, you know? Oh yeah. Like 46 out of 52 are good, but these six, you know, none of them have hot water or they all have bad temperature, discharge sensors, or whatever, you know, like all that going to happen when you're building these custom buildings.

And it's about speed to information to get back into that workflow so that the contract subcontractor teams can take that information. So if I'm the mechanical contractor in charge of making sure all those VAV boxes have hot water or whatever, I can see, I can get that information like, oh, a whole zone is.

You've got a problem with your pipe, you know, distribution pipe, gut. We've gotta go fix that now. And we get that much, much earlier in the process. It starts to inform your test and balance process and all your pre functional checkouts. So by the time you get to the pointy pointy in, it's working and you can focus on tuning and optimization the final tweaks [00:54:00] at that phase versus, you know, like so much stuff is broken.

We can't even see what's happening, which is not atypical. And a testing phase of most buildings,

Elliot Alvarez: I would say to be candid though, we're still seeing slow or adoption bias and what the trades of this approach. You know, we've been doing this for a couple of years and you know, with our data, we always have a mindset of like, we'll hand out a log-ins like candy.

Like everyone has that. That's the whole point of it. It's like, You know, go, everyone should have access to her. And you know, there, like Jim said, there's, there's really a big advantages for like BAS contractors to do point to point, like a little more efficient or tab contractors to like, have it pre validate something before I go deploy everybody to this, this corner of the building, let's just validate the stock.

We're trying to drive that as best we can, but we haven't been seen the [00:55:00] contractors really take the reins of that quite yet. I mean, I think that we're hopeful that that will continue to evolve in that way. But I think there's just, you know, like for on bear on that part of the adoption curve,

Jim Meacham: Yeah.

Well,

James Dice: what I heard from you guys is do, like, it took several years to disrupt and change the commissioning process. This is a bigger scope than that. Right? So changing all these other processes as well.

Jim Meacham: Actually it happened faster. I think the construction industry will adopt this approach faster than the commissioning industry.

I mean, let's be Frank, like most commissioning agents are not using data still. I mean, I've been giving presentations on every commissioning agents should be using data analytics and commissioning since 2013. And they're still the vast majority who don't and they're starting to be to in certain cases.

I don't know. I think it's maybe just cause it's hard. People don't like change. I'm not sure. I it's completely [00:56:00] unsatisfying to me to do it the other way. So it's hard to even remember. But the construction industry. The alignment on value and risk with data analytics is very direct. So the smart contractors that we work with, which we've worked with some great contractors who, when we be getting done and even coming from the owner side and we'll push into this role from the underside, cause like trust.

You're going to want this. And by the end of the project, they're saying I'll never do a project without data analytics

James Dice: what's coming to mind is like, so you guys haven't heard this episode yet, but there's an episode coming out by the time this one gets published on kind of uniting the OPR with. The handover process, like basically performance-based construction essentially is what they were talking about.

I don't know if they use that exact word,

Jim Meacham: but

Elliot Alvarez: it should have been on the same podcast. That's that's exactly what we're going [00:57:00] for here. Yeah. Yeah.

James Dice: So what's coming to mind, to me is like, there's an OPR at the beginning and now you're holding the contractor to accountable for, are you hitting these numbers right now?

Right? Is that kinda what you're talking about? I'm saying for those of you on audio, I'm seeing like huge head shakes

Elliot Alvarez: up here. I think that, that, I mean, you nailed it there. We have seen huge like alignment and efficiency in like what the project should be focused on by, by daylighting key performance indicators often driven from the OPR.

But that are our. Yeah, performance indicators of that building. Right. I think coming back to like, you know, the, the description of what commissioning was a half-hour ago, it's like, you know, it's an indication of like, is the building, right? Is it doing what it should be doing? And like, if you can kind of displayed that [00:58:00] all the way throughout the construction process, then it allows the owner to really feel confident in the building they're giving, which is like a huge benefit from the contractor side, which is why I think Jim indicates that like spark contractors are going to get onboard with this quickly, because it's just way, like they're going to be delivering a better, well, better vetted projects to the clients.

But I think the real value is. You can point your team at the biggest problems, much more efficiently, rather than waiting for them to come up. And so there's huge efficiencies and just risk mitigation in, in kind of like tracking that. So like in, in our projects, you know, we've got KPIs for Kind of like, pressure pressure of all the operating rooms in this building, we can validate like, are you within what you should be for how [00:59:00] much percent of the time it's so easy for the GC and for the owner as that project is nearing completion to be like, yep, we're nailing it.

And we're nailing it. We're nailing it. Wait something happened here or all of a sudden this suite of OARRS went down here. Yeah. We need to go fix that like ASAP or find out like, oh, we were doing fire alarm testing. Okay. Not a big deal, but like, if you don't know why, then you can go and solve that problem quickly.

And that's it. It's just like such a much more transparent way to drive towards a clear finish line and turn it over with like no ambiguity about, is it working?

Jim Meacham: Yeah. It's the key is that quantified past. Right. So you do that in all these functional performance sets and the commissioning engine, but it's like little like line items that make the fit, you know, make the fan is fail upon or [01:00:00] whatever, and make it switch over like fan.

And it's a very line by line. So this is the way to look at a, an, a whole air handling system and say, I expected it to use this many Watts per CFM, or I expect the economizer to work this way, or have this type of supplier temperature control within this found that was defined by the OPR, right. Or energy metrics, you know, BTU's per square foot.

Like whatever you want to do, you can make it a pass, fail criteria. That's continuous now. Yeah. So you can mix that together with FTD, which is more root costs. Right. You can mix that with functional testing, which is more like checkout. One time and you have your KPIs too. So it's more continuous and that's super powerful.

That mix of things, you kind of need all of them, but the dashboard of the KPIs is what you can look at any time and say, where am I [01:01:00] at right now? And what's it going to take to get across the finish line and make this building really work? Like we said, it would, or we, that we bought that it would, I love this thinking

James Dice: because it's no longer, like how can we slip analytics into this project and make the commissioning process more efficient?

It's like, How does analytics impact every stakeholder that's impact that's working on this project and how can we kind of put it in their terms? Right. And that's what I feel like we need more of in the industry. So I think that's a good place to kind of wrap up. I'd love to ask you guys kind of what let's look forward a little bit, as we conclude this episode, what are you kind of looking forward to as kind of the next phase in the industry

Jim Meacham: right now?

Yeah, I'll start I'll steal Elliot's thunder. our, our 2022 focus is pretty clear performance based project delivery [01:02:00] is what we really want to lean into. So that's this fusing of these multimodal. Of using the commissioning process, using the construction delivery process, using FDD and, and, and using performance based criteria to achieve meaningful performance is a huge, I think the industry is still way behind, like I said, even using analytics.

So we're trying to push into this whole new phase of performance-based. And I, I just think it's what our observation is. The impact of that mindset on projects has been massive for all the stakeholders to your point. It's not now, it's not just the owner, but the construction team and you know, the operators and the capital programs, people, you know, EV the sustainability people, they're all getting what they want, but that performance based delivery approach.

And, you know, I think it's [01:03:00] incredibly useful.

James Dice: I'm excited about that. How about you

Elliot Alvarez: Elliot? Yeah, I mean, Jim did a pretty good job of stealing my thunder. But I think that maybe I'll go maybe farther beyond that near term. Cause I do think we have seen like every client that we've kind of brought this to sort of like, oh yeah, we want that tomorrow.

Like that part I think is a pretty easy to comprehend for them. But what I think was is maybe a bit more theoretical, but super interesting and kind of gets back to the core of like, what Altura is about is like really like driving performance in buildings is, is like, if we feel so confident in the construction phase that we're going to nail this project delivery, then can we extend.

The kind of like involvement of that construction team into the operations phase and really start to like [01:04:00] smooth out what is what is historically a very large bump between the construction and the operations teams? Like how do we start to merge, like the information and the. The delivery of that performance into something that the operations team can really kind of like leverage and just build off of, or maybe there's like new delivery models of how, how you are, how you're delivering and maintaining that, those, those assets.

Right. And so it's not just, we're going to turn it over to the operations team. It's set up. I'm also on the hook to operate this building for a longterm and those historically have existed. But I think that, like, it's interesting to understand what a transparent data layer can do to, to that industry.

That kind of makes it a little bit less scary to sign up for. I'm gonna buy the, buy a building and its operation from somebody. Like if I had more data on it, clients might be more willing to do that.

Jim Meacham: Yeah,

James Dice: totally. It's not just hand over to the [01:05:00] first operator it's handover when it gets bought the next time and the next time as well.

Fascinating. Well, fellows, this has been fun. Thanks so much for everything you do and kind of the leadership you provide in the industry.

Jim Meacham: It's awesome. Yeah. Thank you. It's always a pleasure. And looking forward to mark.

James Dice: All right friends, thanks for listening to this episode of the Nexus Podcast. For more episodes like this and to get the weekly Nexus Newsletter, which by the way, readers have said is the best way to stay up to date on the future of the smart building industry, please subscribe at nexuslabs.online. You can find the show notes for this conversation there as well. Have a great day.