What Makes a Good Submittal – an Architect’s Point of View

Architects and designers are meticulous when it comes to specifying details in the projects they design — they have to be. And it’s no different when they’re reviewing submittals.

While every project is different, there are some basics that subcontractors and GCs can keep in mind to help ensure that the submittal review process, and the project itself, can run more smoothly and buildings get built as they were intended.

We recently spoke with Tom Chastain, Principal at the architecture and urban design firm, Studio Urbis. Tom’s experience includes the design and construction of complex institutional, commercial, and residential projects as well as the revitalization of neighborhoods in Budapest and urban design work in China. He has taught at MIT, and the University of California Berkeley. In this Q&A, Tom generously shares his experience, insights, and advice.

Q – What is the process you go through during review?
Submittals come through in all different forms, from shop drawings and product cut sheets, to full-size samples. We have a job right now where the roof flashing details are very important, so the roofing contractor is creating a full-size mock-up as part of the submittal.

First, we check to see if the submittal conforms to the construction documents. Is it to spec, is it the right size, is it the right material in the right place? And if not, what is the reason — why an alternative material or process was suggested.

I always look upon submittals as communication. Contractors read our documents and then communicate back to us, in the form of submittals, their understanding of the details and the intent.

Q – What kinds of issues come up during review?
Shop drawings are a good way of having conversations about the work. For instance, a contractor may have a different way of doing something or it’s something that they think can be improved upon. I’m always open to hearing ideas on a job.

Issue arise when there is a lack of attention to what has been designed. Sometimes a subcontractor or the GC assumes we haven’t thought it through.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why this happens. Increasingly in the architecture field, professional fees have dropped and margins are tougher. Design decisions are being left to the shop drawing stage. That makes for a poor buildings process, cost overrides, and other problems. If details haven’t been decided or described prior to the shop drawing, then you can end up in a potentially contentious situation. And it is a trend that’s only going to continue.

We do care about the details and the products specified. So when I get a submittal that isn’t paying attention to what’s been designed, it’s difficult. There can be cost implications if they haven’t bid the project correctly. It can mean that we have walk back, read the spec, and redo what has been submitted.

Q – Can you share an example?
Architects are in a difficult position because our role is at many levels. Our position in the process includes representing the client and their needs and desires, then translating this into a set of documents, and finally ensuring that what is in those documents is what gets built.

There was one instance where the submitted shop drawings on a roof didn’t sufficiently communicate what the subcontractor really intended. I went onsite, they had already completed half the roof and it was incorrect. Clearly, it’s difficult to say ‘take it off’ because it doesn’t follow the detail of what was in the contract. It’s not something that makes my day.

That’s why I always refer to the submittal as communication. It’s an opportunity for the contractor to talk to me, because we want to have that conversation early, not when the material is in place and it has to be removed.

Q – What are the components of a good review?
The main component is the general contractor. If the GC is doing their job correctly, the subcontractors will have all the information they need from the beginning. They are checking, even before the shop drawing has arrived, that the subs have in fact understood the project and are doing the correct application with the right material. If the GC is organized and coordinates all efforts properly, then the project is smooth, on schedule, and there are no surprises.

Q – Any advice for subcontractors during the submittal process?
Subcontractors should completely understand their part in the process and communicate clearly what they are intending in their submittal. If it varies from the spec, they should explain the reason for the change and why their proposal may be a better solution.

Building is a very dynamic industry. I don’t know everything, nor do I presume to know everything. I am always looking for help and tell the GC, if the subs have questions, please have them communicate those to me. I always ask for comments and am happy to get them — it makes the actual building process much better.