Submittal on architect's desk

Submittals are a critical part of any construction project that help everyone stay on the same page. This guide will walk through the submittals process and share examples to help contractors understand exactly what to expect.

What are submittals?

Submittals are documents, drawings, samples, or mock-ups submitted by the contractor to the architect or owner to verify that the work and equipment provided on the job match the documents included in the construction contract.

The submittals required on each job are called out in the project specifications by the architect and engineers. Submittals generally break down into four categories: Product and materials data, shop drawings, samples, and mock-ups.

Product data & materials data

Product data and materials data provide information about the products being purchased for use in the work — paint, drywall, carpet, roofing, sealants, masonry — everything. They should match the products specified in their formulation, performance and warranty.

Note that there are three types of product and materials specs, which means there are three corresponding types of submittals in response: Prescriptive specifications, performance specifications, and proprietary specifications.

  • Prescriptive Specifications give detailed how-to instructions on how to use and install the product
  • Performance Specifications describe the qualities of the material, regardless of manufacturer
  • Proprietary Specifications describe a make and model by a specific manufacturer.

Typically, Proprietary Specs are used in public bid work to promote competition among suppliers. But it’s also important to note that there are usually only three manufacturers allowed for any item and approval for others must be received by the A&E before submittals are made. Product submittals for items produced by a non-approved supplier will be rejected

Shop drawings

As the name implies, shop drawings are highly detailed drawings prepared by fabricators showing verified, exact field dimensions, joinery, materials, thicknesses, etc.

Shop drawings [SourceCC 3.0]

The architect will review those drawings, in coordination with any applicable engineering consultants, to make sure that the configurations are in keeping with the Contract Documents.

They can include structural and reinforcing steel, cabinetry, storefronts, windows, roofing assemblies and nearly any other important part of the work.

Samples

Samples are mostly required for surface materials — masonry, carpet, countertops, fixtures — that need to be examined for finish, density, and color. This gives the designer a chance to review for both performance and esthetic requirements.

Granite, for instance, varies from one quarry to another, and even from two places within the same quarry. Each piece might have a different look that needs to be coordinated with other finishes.

Mock-ups

A mock-up is a small portion of an assembly, built on site, that demonstrates how the larger portion will be built.

Mock-up of building exterior [SourceCC 4.0]

For example, the specs might require a mock-up of a small part of a masonry wall to check for the thickness of the air space, weep holes, the length of the brick ties and the uniformity — or lack of — required in the brick blend.

Mock-ups are far less common than the other types of submittals, but have saved many a project from going wrong.

Understanding the submittals process

The submittals process is a simple check-and-balance to make sure that information in the contract documents is being communicated accurately throughout the team, from the architect through the various subs and suppliers and back, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Illustration of the submittals process in construction

It’s like repeating a phone number to make sure you heard it right, or measuring twice to cut once. The potential trouble saved is enormous, but the process can be tedious.

A submittal begins with the supplier or fabricator, then moves to the installer, then the subcontractor, then the general contractor, then the architect or engineer.

At each stop, the submittal is reviewed for conformance to the contract documents and can be either Rejected, Approved, or Approved with Revisions.

If the submittal is rejected, the process starts over again from scratch. If a submittal is approved with revisions, the preparer typically doesn’t need to start over completely. Rather they can proceed as shown, or begin the work while making changes indicated on the returned submittal.

When everyone has reviewed it and the submittal is approved, it passes back to the contractor and the work may proceed.

The submittals process for each project should be provided in the construction contract documents.

Common mistakes in the submittals process

Two heads are better than one, as they say. The more eyeballs you have examining the work before it’s installed, the less likely it becomes that there will be a critical mistake.

Many submittals cover the most critical parts of the work — roofing installations, structural steel connections, sealants — and prevent disasters by verifying that the intent of the drawings is understood and will be carried out.

Sometimes mistakes in the drawings are caught in this process before they are executed in the field, saving everybody time and expense. And the submittals schedule is always a good indicator of whether the job is proceeding in a timely fashion.

However, the submittals process isn’t fool-proof. Here are some common mistakes that contractors should watch out for.

Differing field dimensions

One of the main requirements of submittals, particularly shop drawings is that they take into account the actual field conditions and dimensions. Invariably, site conditions are often slightly different than the planned dimensions.

If these field conditions aren’t verified, materials of the wrong size and quantity can arrive on site costing time and money. 

Delays

When things go wrong on a project, the issue is often about time. If a project comes in behind schedule, the delay affects payments and suddenly everyone is looking for cover.

One of the first things that gets scrutinized is the submittals process. A submittal that sat on anyone’s desk longer than it should have directs blame for delays to that person. Obviously, nobody wants to be that person.

Poor transmittals

A transmittal is a document sent as a sort of cover sheet when providing submittals. It lists the items you are providing and identifies the actions you are requesting from the recipient. Transmittals are an essential part of a good communication process.

Failing to provide a transmittal, or leaving out important information, can cause problems down the road. If you send a product data sheet, the GC may not know what they are for, or whether approval is still pending. Sending a transmittal along with submittals helps keep everyone on the same page, and provides a document trail that can be invaluable in the event of a dispute.

The copy/paste dilemma

Creating and reviewing submittals is a tedious process that takes time. So it’s often a task assigned to a junior staff member who is more likely to miss the subtleties of the work. And then there’s the drawing process itself, which, in the digital age, is a particular danger.

Let’s say I’m an architect (because I am) and I’m using a particular make and model of window, the X Series Casement from WindowCorp. I want to show a section through the window to detail its installation.

For efficiency’s sake (and to ensure I get a warranty), I download a prepared drawing of that window right from the manufacturer’s website and plop it into my drawing. Then I make the necessary adjustments to the assembly to accommodate that particular window in that particular wall.

Next, I spec the window, then make sure I ask for a submittal (in this case, a shop drawing) in the specs. During construction, the manufacturer, fulfilling the requirement for shop drawings, supplies the exact same drawing file I downloaded.

It gets sent to the supplier, then the sub, then to the General and then to the architect and, being the same drawing of the same window, will likely be approved by all. However, the ease of passing that pre-made drawing around has made everyone slightly less vigilant. So the little adjustments I made to the window and the wall assembly to make them work together can easily get missed.

In my example, I didn’t really draw the construction drawing and the ‘shop’ didn’t really draw the shop drawing – we both cut and pasted. So, we may not be as familiar with the particulars as we should be.

But we will all stamp the shop drawing as “approved” and the windows will be ordered and delivered and un-crated, installed and paid for. And if they’re in any way wrong, the fighting starts.

Submittals help keep projects and payments moving

Submittals are designed to prove agreement, which is no small thing on a construction site. They keep everyone informed and hold everyone accountable. Before a portion of the work commences, each entity is required to apply a stamp to prove that they have reviewed the design, understand it, and agree to it.

Naturally, there are alway attempts to distance oneself from this responsibility. Architects and contractors will sometimes word their submittal stamps as “accepted” instead of “approved.”

Contracts will spell out that the review of submittals is a ‘courtesy’ that in no way absolves the other party of his obligation to adhere to the documents. General contractors can try to do the same to subs.

But at the end of the day, everyone has been involved and the success and failure is shared by all. And by understanding the process and taking it seriously, everyone can help keep the work — and the payments — moving.

As with all construction documents, contractors and suppliers should keep a detailed record of the submittals process for use in the event of a dispute or challenge to their work.