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 who touches the submittal process.

Submittals don’t get a lot of love. Subcontractors complain about the time required both to put them together and to revise them. GCs, especially project engineers, talk about the daunting task of processing emails and attachments from 30 different subs, reconciling them with the submittal log, reviewing them, forwarding them, noting approvals, and returning them. Architects and engineers put in plenty of time as well. “You come back from lunch and find a pile of submittals waiting for you…” So, 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 moderately-sized project, they can run into thousands of pages and make War and Peace look like an easy read. But they are absolutely critical. Project Manuals set forth detailed requirements for many aspects of the project including scheduling, payment procedures, shop drawings, product selection, testing, and project documentation. These requirements cannot be found anywhere else. The plans tell your project’s story graphically. The Project Manual expresses it in words. You need to understand the requirements of both to truly appreciate the structure you are about to put together.

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 which they must deliver to the architects, engineers, and consultants on the design team prior to doing the work. The Project Manual sets out both the general requirements (usually in Submittal Procedures, Section 01 33 00) and the specific requirements, found in virtually every section in the Manual. Submittals can include schedules, meeting minutes, product data, shop drawings, test data, and product samples. A large project with dozens of subs may have five hundred or more of them. At the beginning of the project, the GC reviews the Project Manual and creates a Submittal Log, or Register, which lists in detail all the submittals required on the project. The project engineer often does this job. On a big project, it can take quite a while to accomplish. Next, the GC assigns portions of the log to 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 the individual subs on the project.

Action, Informational, and Closeout Submittals

When people think of submittals, they most often think of “Action Submittals.” For example, shop drawings, product data, and samples are frequently Action Submittals. These submittals require a response back to the contractor by the architect or engineer. There are some variations on responses, but the general range is from “Approved” or “Approved with Notes,” to “Revise and Resubmit” or “Rejected.” Some designers use “Reviewed” instead of “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 all parties are satisfied. It definitely requires collaboration: the builders who do submittals and the designers who review them need to work toward a common goal. 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, field quality control reports and meeting minutes are often informational submittals. Another category is “Closeout Submittals”, prepared at the end of the job. These include Operations and Maintenance data as well as extra materials such as the floor, wall and ceiling tiles needed for future repairs. At job end, submittals become part of the permanent project record.

Submittals and Quality Control

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 a nice design, you have detailed specifications, and you’ve selected your general contractor. And, you’re about to shell out major money. How do you know you’re going to get what you paid 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 of Education at Power Summit, an AGC partner and national provider of construction training programs, sums up their value perfectly: “The submittal process is a time honored method of indicating the Contractor’s understanding of the plans and specifications… The importance…cannot be over stated…It is the single best way, for Owners to ensure quality, functionality, and compliance per the plans and specifications. When used properly, it also becomes 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 shake out the issues between designers and builders so they can resolve problems before they happen on the jobsite. Ultimately, they assure owners they are getting what they are paying for. Post construction, submittals provide the operations and maintenance instructions needed to run the facility.

Submittals and the Design Process

Through shop drawings, contractors provide the 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 does all this design and product selection information get into the project? One way — 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.”

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. 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: For most building projects in the U.S., Project Manuals are organized using a standardized format, known as MasterFormat. You should know the MasterFormat divisions. Highways and other infrastructure projects may use other formats, such as those from state transportation agencies.
  • Submittal Procedures: Virtually all Project Manuals contain a submittal procedures section. In MasterFormat, the number is 01 33 00. These lay out how submittals work for the entire project — this is must reading for GC’s and subs alike.
  • General Requirements: Virtually all Project Manuals have an extensive General Requirements section, Division 01 in MasterFormat. 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: 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 sitework to concrete, to interiors, to mechanical and electrical.

Two Key Roles: Quality Control and Design Pipeline In summary, submittals play two key roles in every project:

  • Project QC: Submittals, as Paul Stout points out, are the “time honored method of indicating the Contractor’s understanding of the plans and specifications.” They help shake out problems before they happen on the jobsite, where the cost of correction can be 10x or more of the cost in pre-construction. Looking at the big picture, submittals insure the Project Owners get the structure they signed up for and paid for.
  • Design Pipeline: Submittals, especially for shop drawings, are the way the design work of builders, sometimes called “Last Designers,” gets incorporated into the project. The design is not complete without the builder’s input, as it is reviewed and approved by the architects, engineers, and consultants on the design team.

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!