Doing Submittals Right

It's Not Hard If You Follow the Rules

S.S. Saucerman / March 2019

Before retiring last year, I spent the previous quarter century as a senior estimator/project manager for a mid-size commercial general contractor in the Midwest. It was fast-paced, rewarding work, and one of my many responsibilities was to oversee the architectural submittal process that heralded the beginning of a new project we’d just signed under contract. The architectural review process—sometimes called the architectural submittal process (ASP)—is a procedure that exists to ensure the quality, standards and applications spelled out in architectural/engineering documents are the very same standards that find their way into the finished product.
    
If you are a subcontractor or supplier seeking commercial (or large residential) work, it’s important you understand what the process is all about. The ASP is supervised by the A/E firm (acting as an agent for the building client) and acts as a formal confirmation that the prime contractor—often the general contractor or construction manager—and all the subcontractors, suppliers and manufacturers on their building team adhere to and honor the original, anticipated level of quality and value set forth in the original bidding documents.

Why So Serious?
There are many reasons the ASP exists. One has to do with complexity. I think it’s fair to state that the average person doesn’t fully comprehend and appreciate the monumental level of detail and attention that go into constructing—for example, a commercial office building. Along with the hundreds of elements making up the building shell itself (i.e., concrete, steel, masonry, roofing, siding, walls/ceiling finishes, flooring and millwork, including all their subcategories), there are the enormous ancillary components and parts that go into setting the structure on a building lot. Site grading/topography, utilities (including gas, water, power, data), parking lots/lighting requirements, sidewalks/ramps/public access and green zoning requirements/landscaping irrigation systems are just a few of the elements that must be addressed outside of the building construction itself. It is an extremely complex undertaking.
    
Given this, one can make the argument that even the finest A/E firm could never, ever be expected to identify, analyze and convey on paper each and every aspect, feature, detail and nuance of something so extraordinarily intricate and varied. It simply wouldn’t be possible. Even if it were, I’m not sure there are many building clients patient and/or rich enough to commission so Herculean an effort. It simply wouldn’t fly in today’s “time-is-money-get-this-thing-in-the-ground-NOW” world.

Winds of Change
Because of this, there has been a noticeable trend in recent years to have more and more architectural/engineering responsibility fall on the shoulders of the prime contractor, subcontractors and suppliers by labeling areas of their plan packages “Design-Build.” In my experience, these areas were mostly of the civil, mechanical and electrical genre. Forgiving for a moment that the DB label itself is wildly misappropriated, this wouldn’t be so bad if it happened only occasionally. Unfortunately, in my experience, this wasn’t the case. It was far more the norm than exception, and one can also make the argument that this shift in design responsibility has been further enhanced by what appears to be a greater occurrence of (mostly smaller) A/E firms seeking to lower their costs, overhead and company liability by limiting the services they offer. In fact, it grew quite regular for many of the A/E firms with which I worked to supply only the architectural portion (walls, floor plans, sections and little else) of the bid documents, even in public competitive-bid scenarios.
    
This scant information almost always caused ambiguity, confusion and frustration during the bid period, a feeling that often then lingered and colored the construction process as well. Subcontracting/Supply firms bidding the project now found themselves expending their own speculative time, energy and resources in creating a design scenario (often not knowing if the design premise would even be acceptable in the end) and at the same time feeling “not quite comfortable’” with this sudden and new liability suddenly set on their shoulders. At the other end, the prime contractor—the poor shmuck gathering and assimilating all of these “similar but different” sub/supplier quotations—could be found pulling out his hair while attempting to make a rational apples-to-apples determination as to which bid truly presented the best overall value for the bid proposal. It’s a frustrating, exasperating exercise (believe me, I know) and one that causes even the hardiest building advocate to seriously question whether the process as a whole is truly delivering a responsible and quality product to the average building client.
    
Not that it’s all bad. After all, who knows more about the latest trends, technologies, applications and cost-saving alternatives (value-engineering) than the businesses that specialize and perform the work in question? Indeed, I can’t tell you how many times I witness the submittal process turn into a learning experience for the A/E after a previously unknown product or service was unearthed during a submittal review.
    
There is, however (and you’re probably way ahead of me here), an upside and downside to this arrangement. The upside is individual subs and suppliers can now have greater input into the actual construction process, which may result in a less expensive or more expedient avenue previously unavailable to the A/E and client. Of course, this is good for everybody.

And Then Again …
But I’d certainly be remiss if I didn’t also admit that, well, we contractors aren’t saints either. This is another reason the ASP exists. Since time immemorial, there have been those among our contracting ilk who have set out to skirt the system. These nefarious rubes try to slip in a product a little bit cheaper, or forego proven standards in hopes of picking up a few extra rubles. It’s not something we’re proud of, but it’s what we are. In these cases, ASP acts to police and deter these ne’er-do-wells by spotting and rejecting substandard product/work before it finds its way into the finished product.
    
Not that all these situations are malicious. Product specifications can be monumentally and notoriously complex. Misunderstandings do occur. Reputable and knowledgeable tradespeople may simply interpret plans and specifications differently from the designers. There may be legitimate confusion regarding an ANSI spec or a sincere vagueness surrounding an ASTM passage that could lead one to believe his way is genuinely correct. Even then, the ASP is doing its job by calling out and creating the opportunity for the designer and submitter to come together to ensure product/application is right for the job.
    
What do you submit? This varies depending on your trade specialty. In most common cases, when a specification manual is included with the bid package, you’ll find your submittal responsibilities spelled out in the CSI (Construction Specification Institute) division that corresponds with your scope of work. For example, if you’re a wall and ceiling contractor, you will likely find the bulwark of your submittal responsibilities in CSI Divisions 05 (i.e., metal stud framing) and 09 (i.e., gypsum systems; acoustical ceilings). The submittal direction is often included early in the division, even the first few paragraphs, but be sure to read the entire chapter to ensure additional responsibility hasn’t been tacked on. It’s also vitally important to check the “related section” responsibilities and Division 01 – General Requirements for even more possible submittal requirements. Of course, if there’s any question at all or you’re still not clear as to your requirements, call the prime contractor or, if it’s allowed by protocol, the design firm to clarify.

Common Types of Submittal Packages
Architectural submittal packages come in many forms. In my own experience, the four most common are product information and specification packets; shop drawings and schedules; samples (including color samples) and mock-ups.
    
Product Information & Specification Packets. Perhaps the most common submittal package (at least it was for me), this is where the submitter makes up a packet of product information and specifications related to the product being submitted. This often includes relevant manufacturer information, product specifications, sizes/types, governmental testing/approval/stamps, Material Safety Data Sheets/HAZCOM info, spill cleanup procedures, warranty information and more, depending on the item. Think of this as an 8 1/2 x 11–inch type of submittal.
    
Shop Drawings. Sometimes your line of work can call for more exacting and/or customized refinement prior to your product/service being accepted as part of the building project. In this case, shop drawings may be in order. Shop drawings are most often additional drafted material (similar to conventional A/E plans) that provide further information about a product/service that was too complex or proprietary to have been reasonably included in the original plans and specifications put out for bid. Items like roof trusses, structural steel, metal fabrications, hollow-metal doors/hardware and even mechanical and electrical are prime candidates for shop drawings.
    
Of course, you’ve no doubt deduced that shop drawings can be more involved and time-consuming than the gathering of product information. Companies that create shop drawings often employ full-time or part-time draftsmen (or hire outside firms) to cover this responsibility. This, at times, can lead to serious cost, so it grows incumbent on cost estimators to allow for shop drawing/detailing time in their original bid proposals. One other note: Sometimes (depending on the product) you can offset some of this responsibility/cost by enlisting the aid of the product manufacturer. Metal stud framing and pre-engineered metal building manufacturers often offer some level of free shop drawing/drafting service to their customers.
    
Samples (Including Color Samples). Although this may sound like the easiest submittal package of the bunch, it’s also the one that can cause the greatest angst if not addressed on time or in total. This submittal is exactly like it sounds: You acquire and then submit an actual scaled sample of a product earmarked for the building project. Simple, right? Well, no. I simply cannot relate how many times in my professional past this seemingly straightforward exercise morphed into chaos—and sometimes carnage. You see, colors are very important to building clients. As builders, we tend to be more instinctively tuned to the more mechanical attributes of construction. In turn, we sometimes relegate (in our minds, more trivial) things like interior finishes and colors to a sub-tier of lesser attention. I know I did. I can also attest that I paid for this inattentiveness on more than one occasion.
    
One recurring road to ruin always seemed to start with a color sample that, though it seemed large enough to convey the proper color to the client at the time, ended up looking nothing like the smaller sample when spread out over two football fields’ worth of siding surface area. Let me save you some heartache. Small samples, like those key-ring chips that are so common, almost never represent the product in service. The smallest any color sample should be is 12" x 12"—and larger whenever possible. Another thing one learns early in the contracting game is to never ever use a color sample from a printed brochure. Get an actual, physical factory sample on the same material for which it’s to be used. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. Lastly, don’t waste time getting color samples submitted. The worst thing in the world is to walk around believing your product lead-time is plentiful, only to discover in the 11th hour that the non-stock color chosen extended product delivery for four to six weeks.
    
Mock-ups. Occasionally, or if you happen to be in a trade where they’re common, you might be asked to provide a mock-up as part of your submittal package. A mock-up is an actual scaled down or full-size construction of a building detail or section that will be evaluated and approved by the A/E and client prior to it finding its way to the building site. Mock-ups include every feature and detail of the final application and are even meant to show the functionality of the system. Exterior wall assemblies (including masonry, reinforcement, weeps/accessories, rigid insulation, framing, thermal batt insulation and interior finishes) or glass curtainwall systems are common candidates for mock-ups. Of course, as noted earlier, mock-ups can prove quite expensive to produce. It is vitally important to include money in your bid proposal (unless noted otherwise as, for example, a separate cost contingency or allowance) to cover their cost.

The Process
The typical submittal process (for me; yours may vary) began with the prime contractor, most often the GC or CM, sending out purchase orders and/or subcontract agreements to the chosen subcontractors and suppliers (SS) making up the building team for the project. The SS then created their submittal packages and returned them to the prime contractor by a set deadline. All of these packages included an SS stamp (“reviewed” or “‘approved”), date of submittal, signature and the CSI divisions relevant to the submittal. Nowadays, these are submitted electronically and often through a project management portal/website set up by the prime contractor. The prime then reviews, places its own stamp/signature/date on it, and forwards it on to the A/E for final approval. The A/E then reviews the package and either accepts, rejects or requests changes of the package (the prime contractor could have also done the same) and returns it to the prime who in turn forwards it along to the submitting sub or supplier. It’s a strictly ordered process. If all is well, the product/service is released for order or mobilization to the site and is made a formal part of the project scheduling elements. If rejected, the submittal, which will often contain comments from the A/E explaining the reason for denial, is returned to the submitter to be corrected or to begin entirely anew. Now, I don’t think I need to tell you the ramifications of adding another four to six weeks of resubmittal time to an already aggressive building schedule. Believe me, it isn’t pretty.

Final Thoughts
Depending on the project, the A/E and your locale, there will certainly be variations and nuances to the procedures we’ve discussed. I’ve had jobs where I’ve endured projects where a torturous submittal process went on for what seemed to be eons, and I’ve had projects where I was required to submit nothing at all for approval. But though sometimes involved, remember that the process is there for a very good reason. It not only protects the A/E and building client but also you, your subcontractors and suppliers by catching mistakes early while they’re still on paper (and not three stories up on a building site), potentially saving you a costly and embarrassing remedy in the field.
    
In closing, here are a few more housekeeping suggestions for keeping your submittal packages professional and effective. Some of these may seem elementary, but you would not believe how often I received submittals lacking some or all the following:

  • Always include a transmittal letter on your company letterhead with the following minimum information:
    • Your company name and business/mailing address—complete with ZIP code.
    • The project title. (Yes, I did receive submittals with absolutely no job name or reference.)
    • Company phone, fax and email numbers/addresses of all relevant company personnel including bookkeeping and billing.
    • The name, cellphone number and email address of one key contact person for the project. This is important. Someone should always be in charge.
       
  • The CSI (Construction Specification Institute) division(s) for which you are submitting. If submitting multiple divisions, each division should be listed separately and the submittal itself broken down into those divisions.
     
  • Keep in mind that submittals for your work are due as soon as possible after you have been awarded the work. Do not procrastinate. Time is of the essence with all building contracts, and there may even be penalties (in the form of liquidated damages) assessed for failing to adhere to schedule milestones.
     
  • If it’s a resubmittal, note that on the transmittal letter. Resubmittals should carry a new, updated company stamp and signature.
     
  • Do not break your submittal into separate mailings. Doing this makes it extremely difficult to track (or even understand what constitutes) the completeness of your submittal package. Your submittal package should always be sent complete at one time whenever possible.
     
  • Contact the recipient of your package two or three days after submittal to verify the package has been received and is being processed. There is nothing worse than the alarming, “Oh! But I emailed that to you three weeks ago” phone call or email that occurred far too frequently for comfort.
     
  • Any and all deviations from original plans and specifications regarding your submittal package should always be expressly denoted on the front page of your submittal. Remember, you are responsible (unless otherwise previously arranged) for completely adhering to the original bid documents. Also, know that the rejection of your non-compliant submittal package will (most of the time) not be acceptable as grounds for a change order request later.

OK, I think I’ve done all I can. Now get out there and do submittals right!

S.S. Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator and project manager for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years. In addition to construction and writing, Saucerman also taught building construction technology part-time for 11 years at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.