What Are Construction Submittals, and What is the Point of Doing Them?

Essential Concepts and Five Key Elements to Help You Understand Them.  

A note: While we wrote this article mainly for young project engineers starting out in the industry, we’ve included information that could be useful for anyone involved in the submittal process.

Submittals matter. As a Quality Control tool, they ensure Owners get the structure they signed up for. As a pipeline for design, they bring builders’ shop drawings and product selections into the project. And, as a facility management resource, they can serve as a key reference throughout the life of the structure.

Despite their value, submittals don’t get a lot of love. Subcontractors talk about the time it takes to put them together and then to revise them. General contractors, especially project engineers, can go on at length about processing documents from 30 different subs, reconciling them with the submittal log, reviewing them, forwarding them, noting approvals, and returning them. And then doing it again. And this exercise takes place during construction and then again at closeout time.

Architects and engineers also have issues with submittals. They complain about voluminous documents, sometimes 500 pages or more, and back and forth iterations with GCs and subs. So, you might ask, what is the point of all this paperwork spread throughout the project?

The Starting Point: Plans and Specs

Construction runs on “plans and specs.” The plans are, of course, the comprehensive set of working drawings provided, on paper and electronically, by the architects, engineers and consultants on the design team.

The design team also creates a Project Manual, frequently referred to as the “spec book.” Even on a project of a moderate size, they can run into thousands of pages – the construction version of War and Peace. But they play a critical role. Project Manuals set out detailed requirements for many aspects of the job, including scheduling, payment procedures, shop drawings, product selection, testing, documentation, and closeouts. These requirements cannot be found anywhere else.

The plans tell your project’s story graphically. The Project Manual expresses it in words. You will want to understand both to appreciate the structure you are about to build.

Project spec book Table of Contents with sections containing required construction submittal items highlighted.
Project Manual Table of Contents (TOC) excerpt for a building project. Annotations show sections the general contractor’s project engineer has marked for extra attention – they contain required submittal items.

What are Submittals?

Construction contracts require both the general contractor (“GC”) and subcontractors (“subs”) to do submittals, documents and physical samples they must deliver to the architects, engineers, and consultants on the design team before doing the work. The Project Manual sets out both general requirements for submittals (usually in Submittal Procedures, Section 01 30 00) and specific requirements, found in virtually every section in the Manual.

Submittal items include schedules, meeting minutes, product data, shop drawings, test data, product samples, warranties, and operations and maintenance (O&M) data. A large project, with dozens of subs, may have 500 or more individual submittals.

At the beginning of the project, the GC’s project team will review the Project Manual and create a Submittal Log. (Sometimes it’s called the Submittal Register.) The Log will list in detail all the submittals required on the project. The project engineer often performs this task. On a big project, it can take quite a while to accomplish.

As a next step, the GC assigns portions of the log to the responsible parties. Some submittals, such as the project schedule or the waste management plan, the GC assigns to itself. The vast majority are assigned to individual subs representing the various trades on the project.

Action Submittals, Informational Submittals, and Closeouts

When people think of submittals, they are typically thinking of “Action Submittals.” Shop drawings, product data, and samples are almost always action submittals. These submittals require review by one or more members of the design team – architects, engineers, or consultants. Responses from the design team vary, but the general range is from “Approved” or “Approved with Notes,” to “Revise and Resubmit,” “Rejected,” or “Not Reviewed.” Some designers use the term “Reviewed,” rather than “Approved.”

Requirements for construction submittals highlighted within section 01 30 00 of a project spec book.
An excerpt from Section 01 30 00 of a Project Manual, the “Submittal Procedures” section. Note how this design team has set up approval states for Action Submittals. Note also that “Approved” means “the Contractor may proceed with the work.”

Each action submittal goes back and forth until the design team marks the full submittal package “No Exceptions Taken” or “Furnish as Corrected.” All this requires collaboration – work cannot start on a given part of the project until its submittals are reviewed and approved. When submittals are incomplete, submitted late, or not approved in a timely fashion, they can hold up the job.

Projects also include a significant number of “Informational Submittals.” These are very much a part of the project, but they generally do not require a response from the design team. Qualification data, test reports, quality control reports and meeting minutes are often informational submittals.

“Closeout Submittals” make up their own special category. These include warranties, Operations and Maintenance (O&M) data, final test reports, occupancy and other agency approvals, and extra materials, such as the floor, wall, and ceiling tiles needed for future repairs. Preparing closeout submittals can take considerable time, but the structure is not complete, and the final payments don’t arrive, until they are done.

Submittals and Quality Control (QC)

To appreciate the value of submittals, you’ll want to put yourself in the shoes of the project owner. You’re buying an office building, or a medical clinic, or a highway bridge. You have the right design, you have detailed specifications, and you’ve selected your general contractor. You’re also about to shell out major money and assume a new set of liabilities. How do you know you’re going to get what you signed up for?

That’s where submittals come in. During construction, they play a key role in the industry Quality Control (QC) process. Paul Stout, founder and director at Power Summit, an Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) partner and a national provider of construction training programs, sums up their value perfectly: Submittals are “the single best way for Owners to ensure quality, functionality, and compliance per the plans and specifications. When used properly, they also become an early warning system for discrepancies, ambiguities, design issues, and antiquated requirements.”

Stout goes on to say: “Project teams should always be searching for ways in which to streamline this process, enabling the design team to clarify or correct known issues in the shortest amount of time.”

In short, during construction, submittals can help shake out the issues between designers and builders so they can resolve problems before they occur on the jobsite. Ultimately, they assure owners they are getting what they are paying for.

Submittals and Design

Through shop drawings, contractors provide designs for concrete reinforcing, waterproofing systems, roofing configurations, interior and exterior fixtures and finishes, mechanical, electrical, and utility systems, and many other key components of a structure. And, in virtually all trades and MasterFormat divisions, contractors make final product selections based on the specifications.

Submittal.com form for creating and sending construction submittals. Cast-in-place concrete product data submittals shown.
An excerpt from a product data submittal prepared for cast in place concrete. Note the header information and the detailed, line-by-line presentation of “Item Specified” and “Item Submitted.”

How is all this design and product selection information incorporated into the project? Through submittals. Submittals are the vehicle through which contractors express their role not only as builders, but as designers as well.

This is hardly the place for a long discussion about Lean Construction, Integrated Project Delivery, or Building Information Modeling. But each of these disciplines recognizes and emphasizes the contractor’s role in the final design of the structure. Some literature actually refers to contractors as the “Last Designer.”

Submittals and Facility Management

At the job’s end, submittals become part of the permanent project record. Done well, they can become an important resource for facility managers. When it comes time to repair or replace an HVAC fan, for example, the approved submittal will not only show the make and model number of what was installed, but also maintenance instructions, installation details, and original warranty. In the best of all worlds, the final approved submittals are indexed and set up to make retrieval of this information easy.

Five Key Elements to Understanding Submittals

Here are five concepts to help you understand more about submittals and the submittal process:

  • The Project Manual: As noted above, the Project Manual tells your project’s story in words. The place to begin is the Table of Contents – excerpts from one are included at the end of this article. The Table of Contents will help you see what you’ll find in the Project Manual, and help you distinguish it from what you’ll find in the drawings.
  • MasterFormat, UFGS, and DOT Formats: For most building projects in the United States, Project Manuals are organized using MasterFormat. It’s worth getting familiar with the MasterFormat divisions. Federal projects use the United Facility Guide Specifications (UFGS). They are similar to MasterFormat but use a slightly different numbering style. Highways and other infrastructure projects will use formats from state DOT’s.
  • Submittal Procedures: Virtually all Project Manuals contain a submittal procedures section. In MasterFormat, the number is 01 30 00. These lay out how submittals work for the entire project – this is required reading for GCs and subs alike.
  • General Requirements: Virtually all Project Manuals have an extensive General Requirements section, MasterFormat Division 01. This section, primarily the realm of the GC, lays out processes for payments, substitutions, project management, scheduling, submittals, testing, temporary facilities, and closeouts. It’s a big part of your project’s story.
  • Specific Requirements – Specs and Schedules: Divisions 02 to 48 of the Project Manuals (not all divisions are in all books) lay out the requirements that apply to your subs on the project – from site work to concrete, to interiors, to mechanical and electrical. Submittal items also show up in the plans, especially on fixture schedules for hardware, plumbing, HVAC, and lighting.

Key Roles: Quality Control, Design Pipeline, and Facility Management Reference In summary, submittals play three valuable roles in every project:

  • Project QC: Submittals help shake out problems before they happen on the jobsite, where the cost of correction can run up to 10 times or more than in pre-construction. Looking at the big picture, submittals ensure that the Project Owners end up with a structure that has been executed as promised.”
  • Design Pipeline: Submittals, especially for shop drawings and product data, are the way the design work of builders, sometimes called “Last Designers,” get incorporated into the project.
  • Facility Management Reference: What kind of light fixtures are in the second-floor hallway? What’s the part number for the patient room door locks? How do I update the software for the fire alarm system? The answers to these and many other questions should be at your fingertips, in the approved submittals in the final project record.

Submittals are worth doing, and worth doing well. They make up a big part of your project’s story and your project’s history. At Submittal.com, we’re here to help you get them done – quickly, accurately, and effectively.

References To learn more about the submittal process, we recommend the following people and resources:

And, we would like to acknowledge the help of many architects, engineers, GCs, subcontractors, and distributor sales reps who have contributed to our understanding over the years. Thank you!