June 22, 1998
Volume 50, No. 34
Smith ensures new buildings represent money well spent
Emory's new construction and commissioning standards will make sure the structure of its new buildings and landscape conform to a uniform set of guidelines and principles. Robin Smith was brought on board to ensure that the interiors of Emory's buildings function as well as their exteriors are beautiful.
Smith, who holds the title "building commissioning coordinator" in Facilities Management, came to Emory a little over a year and one-half ago to develop policies and procedures for the smooth functioning of newly constructed building systems. That process is called "commissioning" and one definition is "a systematic process of assuring that a building performs in accordance with the design intent and the owner's operational needs." Commissioning provides extensive tests and procedures that allow performance of systems to be verified before the building is occupied.
Pointing to the thick, blue binder sitting on his desk, whose chapters on commissioning took most of his first year to complete, Smith gave a more concise explanation. "Basically, it means that a building does what it's supposed to do, and it does it before the users move in," he said. A shelf of about 20 binders and books behind his desk indicates the amount of work that went into his year-long research and writing effort. By his own account, Smith contacted more than a dozen universities, as well as numerous governmental agencies and private businesses before beginning to document Emory's requirements regarding construction.
"One of the harsh realities of the construction world is that buildings rarely ever work as expected," Smith said. Commissioning prevents the disappointment that comes after spending millions of dollars on construction and finding that the buildings fail to meet expectations of the end user. "Many things can go wrong with new buildings, not just at Emory, but everywhere," Smith said. "The biggest single problem is building systems," he said. Since we live in the South, these problems are generally centered around temperature and humidity control. Often these systems simply do not do what users want or expect. Users also want to know buildings are safe when emergencies arise. That's why fire safety systems, elevators, generators and proper lab ventilation are a commissioning priority.
The commissioning process begins before construction design. Clients, such as Emory, inform architects of its expectations, how it expects buildings to perform and serve its needs. Here, Smith has spelled these things out-documenting the processes for the work of designers and contractors at every step in the process and making sure Emory's money is well-spent. The commissioning process requires extensive communication between these design professionals and the people who will occupy the buildings. Commissioning costs about 1 percent of the final construction tab, but it's well worth the expense, Smith said. "It could cost 10 times as much to fix problems later than it does to prevent them, and commissioning costs generally pay back in the first few months of a building's life."
A relatively new idea to the construction industry, commissioning is an outgrowth of quality assurance programs adopted by other industries-health care in particular. The entire Facilities Management organization has undertaken such a quality program recently, as three large posters in Smith's office attest. "A good word for commissioning is discovery," Smith said. "The commissioning process forces the discovery of flaws in the design and construction process while the people who created the flaws are still on board and before Emory's users occupy the building." As a customer, Emory deserves no less, he believes. "We pay a lot of money [for construction] and we deserve good results," Smith said. The normal construction process, fragmented as it is, just does not have that discipline.
While Smith is excited about his work of the past year ("I loved the writing of those policies and procedures. It was exciting to put something together for Emory that we didn't have and really needed."), he's looking forward to present challenges as Interim Manager of Facilities Management's Zone B. It's a position that draws on Smith's varied experience in a three decade-long career that has included construction project management, health care environmental safety director, and as a developer of residential subdivisions, commercial buildings and apartments. It will also help Smith utilize a recently completed masters degree (MSRE) at Georgia State University. This degree focuses on facility management-the management of real assets for owners.
Smith is not the only perpetual achiever in his family. His wife of 37 years is currently a third-year law student. He hopes she will concentrate on real estate law so they can work together on projects "in his spare time."
Meanwhile, his free time between now and the end of the year will be spent crafting a violin for his 9-year-old granddaughter. He promised her that if she would learn to play, he would build an instrument for her 10th birthday, Jan. 31. As is his style, Smith has researched violin-making exhaustively. "Now, I don't play music, but there are mechanical engineering methods to determine tone quality using vibration pattern testing equipment-I can do that," Smith said. When he's finished, Robin Smith won't have written the book on violin-making, but he is certain to have brought the same curiousity, enthusiasm and dedication he's brought to his work at Emory.