Collaboration and communication are key.

This article summarizes the process by which two vivarium facilities for a world-leading institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts were verified by the commissioning agent to be functioning properly as part of an ongoing effort to maintain accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC). The verification process took place while each vivarium was fully occupied and experiments were ongoing.

Kicking off the Process
Unique challenges and numerous obstacles required significant coordination among vivarium staff and researchers. A coordination meeting was held before any work commenced in order to achieve a high level of planning and coordination for each vivarium; the primary goal of which was to meet the requirements for animal welfare prescribed by AAALAC in order to receive full accreditation. These requirements included:

  • Proper air changes per hour in any room that may contain animals.
  • Proper directional airflow between rooms to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Proper control of each room’s temperature and relative humidity.
  • Special environmental requirements (increased air change rates, special temperature or humidity setpoints, etc.).

Additionally, Building Automation System (BAS) graphics were required to accurately display environmental parameters that vivarium staff and building managers could easily access at any point in time. The coordination meeting also established the current use of each room; some of the rooms had been renovated and had changed space-use from the original design. An up-to-date floor plan of the vivarium was used to create a directional airflow map, invaluable during the verification process as the current directional airflow requirements had changed in some areas.

Another important piece of information that came from the meeting was discussion and mutual understanding of the traffic patterns in force for each vivarium. Understanding the order in which the rooms could be entered was imperative for the commissioning agent to prevent unnecessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) changes during the work, streamlining the process and minimizing impact on vivarium operations. Ongoing experiments would also affect the order in which the work could be accomplished. Much of the verification work was accomplished in a non-intrusive manner and was done while experiments were in progress. However, in some cases, additional arrangements with researchers were necessary for the verification work to be completed.

A final topic of discussion during the coordination meeting involved identifying current or recurring issues that are known to the vivarium staff. These recurring issues can be a source of frustration because they may have made multiple requests to have the same issue addressed, and should be a special focus for the commissioning agent. Providing solutions to these known and recurring issues helps develop credibility and trust.

Verification of isolator sensor accuracy

The Next Step: Orientation
After the coordination meeting, vivarium staff led a tour and orientation of the vivarium. During this tour the proper PPE requirements were demonstrated as well as a review of the posted traffic patterns. Another important activity that took place during this tour was the introduction of the commissioning agent to the remaining vivarium staff and researchers. This provided a chance to briefly describe the work that was going to take place while regular vivarium activities continued. The introduction by the vivarium management staff is an important step that builds a relationship and comfort level between two parties potentially working together side-by-side for the next several weeks or months.

Ventilation system connections for animal housing require verification

Initiating the Verifications
The information gathered from the coordination meeting, the vivarium tour, as well as any other applicable design documentation was used to formulate a site-specific zone data sheet. This table listed the vivarium rooms and had place-holders to input the environmental parameters for each room including both BAS values as well as actually verified values:

  • Supply and exhaust airflow measured by a calibrated flow hood.
  • Directional airflow across each door measured using a differential-pressure micromanometer.
  • Each room’s relative humidity and temperature measured with calibrated instruments.
  • Each room’s air-change rate based on the dimensions of each room and room volume.

Measured and calculated values were recorded in the zone data sheet. The same parameters were recorded from the BAS graphics. A comparison of BAS and actual measured values is one of the most significant tools in the verification process. This is true because the Building Automation System is the primary reporting source for continuous performance reporting and analysis.

Since this work occured while regular vivarium activities were ongoing, there were times when access presented difficulties to collecting the necessary data. Most of the access issues were encountered in holding rooms that had several cage racks housing animals. Due to the sensitive research work that was being performed in these rooms, it was requested that a vivarium staff member accompany the commissioning agent to assist in gaining the access necessary to take the measurements.

Evaluating and Reporting Performance
A list of deficiencies was created if any of the parameters from the measured values or the BAS values were not within the acceptable ranges prescribed by the Laboratory Animal Services (LAS) organization and AAALAC. Several categories of deficiencies were encountered. The deficiency list was brought to the vivarium staff, and a plan to address the issues was developed:

Mechanical equipment:

  • Some air valves were not operating correctly and needed to have general maintenance performed.
  • Some airflow directional indicators (ADIs) were not accurately displaying the room’s directional airflow and needed to be adjusted.


  • Many rooms had incorrect directional airflow due to room use change or equipment failure.
  • Some rooms did not have high enough air-change rates, and some were higher than required.

BAS graphics:

  • The vast majority of the BAS graphics issues had to do with displaying incorrect air change rates resulting from either incorrect room volumes or the use of the wrong room airflow (exhaust or supply) being used in the air change rate calculation.
  • There were also some room renovations that had taken place since the original design that had not been updated on the BAS graphics.

The commissioning agent worked directly with the parties resolving the issues encountered in each vivarium. This helped eliminate any confusion and insured the issue was defined and resolved correctly the first time it was addressed. This approach proved especially successful when attempting to achieve the correct directional airflow and air-change rates in the rooms. After each adjustment to the airflow by the Controls Contractor, the commissioning agent immediately measured the directional airflow and calculated the new air-change rate until the desired results were achieved. Another example of this successful collaboration was seen when updating the BAS graphics to accurately calculate the air change rates for each room. By working directly alongside the parties addressing the issue, the commissioning agent eliminated the need for multiple visits to resolve the problem.

Once the deficiencies were successfully addressed, the zone data sheet was updated with current measured environmental values. The final measurements and calculations were compared to LAS and AAALAC requirements to confirm accreditation parameters were being met. The BAS graphics were also compared to the actual measured values to insure it was accurately displaying what was happening in the rooms. A final report, which included a complete AAALAC room environmental sheet and a list of deficiencies as well as resolutions of the deficiencies, was delivered to the vivarium staff.

A Collaborative Approach to Success
Although the work was technical in nature and required specific engineering expertise, it was very clear that collaborative, trusting relationships were a necessity in order to successfully verify the operation of the vivarium and address any deficiencies without disrupting the regular activities of the researchers and staff. The commissioning agent is at the center of all of these relationships, leading the effort. This requires a “soft skill set” to complement the technical skill set. These attributes are not typically high on the list of requirements of technical and engineering consultants, including empathy, active listening, and relationship management skills.

Although the problems are technical in nature, the technical solutions are often quite simple. Actually implementing the solutions is a communications, leadership, and management-based challenge. Understanding this context at the beginning of the project is critical to streamlining this process. The vivarium staff should be confident that the commissioning agent is acting in their best interests and readily support the work in any way necessary. The commissioning agent establishes this confidence by understanding what needs to be done, clearly explaining how it will be accomplished, and fulfilling goals in a professional manner. The researchers should see the commissioning agent as enhancing their research, not disrupting it. This is accomplished by showing the utmost courtesy as well as explaining to them that the work being done ensures they have the best environment to do their research. The contractor addressing the deficiencies should view the commissioning agent as a competent guide to fixing a problem rather than a partially-engaged “watch dog” agent of the owner. The commissioning agent should provide clear directives and be available to work alongside the contractor so issues are correctly resolved the first time. These trusting, collaborative relationships can be built and maintained through open communication with all parties, and a focus on the goal—a vivarium that is operating safely for both people and animals.

Doug Kumph, PE, is Director of Operations and Timothy Shukri, MSME, EIT is a Commissioning Engineer for Cornerstone Commissioning, Inc. Doug and Tim have teamed on many existing laboratory and vivarium buildings for Cornerstone and thrive in the role of verifying facility performance. Cornerstone Commissioning, Inc., 11 Cold Spring Drive, Boxford, MA 01921; (978)887-8177.;;