Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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October 9, 2007

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The (Almost) New Age of Submittals, or, “Lemme Fax This to You for Approval”


Coming back from what I’ve been writing about recently to the world of construction and engineering, I find myself amazed at how some contractors seem to believe major construction is not much different from a handyman building a bar in his basement, while others who (should) know better continue to send me unactionable submittals.  I wrote of this issue a bit, back  in February of 2005 in Volume 5, Number 2, which was entitled ‘OK, We Finished All the Pretty Pictures, Why is it so Hard to Get the Thing Built?’


Why indeed?


First, some explanation for those of you who are not in the Building Design and Construction field, and thus might have need of a formal definition of what the word ‘submittal’ means when used in the context of that field.  The rest of you, however, might also want to hang in there with me on this.  I say this because we in the field use terms like ‘shop drawings’ and ‘catalogue cuts’ (or simply ‘cuts’) as synonyms when they’re actually subsets of the all-inclusive term ‘submittal.’


With the reality that a picture is probably worth more than a thousand words (attorneys’ use of a dialect known as ‘legalese’ in attempts to prove the contrary notwithstanding) the package design professionals present to contractors to bid upon, and ultimately build from comprises both graphic and textual components, usually referred to as drawings and specifications.  When projects become truly large and complex (think an automobile manufacturing facility) there may be hundreds upon hundreds of drawings and thousands upon thousands of pages of specifications.


While the largest projects I do may require as many as one or two dozen drawings, my specifications comprise a single drawing sheet filled with text for each building trade (HVAC, Electrical, and Plumbing/Sprinkler) involved.  But from the most complex of projects to the simplest, there is a gulf that has to be bridged between the plan for a thing and the thing itself.


The instrument which builds that bridge is the submittal. Believe it or not, this is even the case for turnkey design-build projects, where a single entity performs both functions.  Specifications will call for a certain number of copies of submittals (by the way, while the term ‘submission’ is sometimes used, the field seems to have gravitated towards ‘submittal,’ perhaps as an attempt to narrow the meaning of the term) for review by members of the Design and Construction teams, prior to the purchase of any materials or the fabrication of any systems or structures.

Design and Construction teams? 


Yeah, well, that happens as often a s I get as many copies of a submittal as are asked for in the specifications, which brings us back to the title of this piece.


When Roebling designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge, his drawings were what one would today call shop drawings because he was also fabricating the materials and components to build it from.  When a Construction team is building from my drawings I’ll get shop drawings of, say, ductwork (‘tin’ drawings) which will reprise my design drawings in a form which shows the factory duct sections which have to be joined in the field to comprise the entire system, and which shows piping, other utilities, and structural elements which have to be got around to allow the installation of the system.

It has to be this way because often obstructions are not discoverable until pre-construction demolition reveals them, or in the case of new work, not able to be accounted for until other trades figure out how to route their stuff.  And this coordination is what the General Contractor is supposed to be checking before the shop drawing ever finds its way to me and the project’s Architect.


Would that it were so.


Not only have I almost never (in over 25 years of solo practice) received submittals with a GC’s review stamp on them before they came to me, but of late, I’ve been receiving faxed or e-mailed submittals, and thereby hangs the intent of this piece.


Now I actually can almost understand that a bidder/contractor may miss something when figuring a job, but not knowing that ’x’ number of copies of submittals are required doesn’t cut it.


Why multiple copies?  Well, the ductwork grille and louver manufacturer needs a copy with my stamp on it to show s/he has complied with specifications s/he may never have seen, the Architect needs one for her/his records to confirm the finishes are acceptable to her/him, the construction super needs one so the folks in the field know what grille should be installed where, I need one for my records to confirm the performance requirements (especially, but not only, if it’s a substitution), and lastly, the owner needs one so s/he knows what s/he actually bought.


We’re already up to five copies.  What if the submittal is for a pump? The plumbing sub submits it (through the GC), but now the electrical sub should also get a copy to account for any special control wiring requirements which may exist.

OK, you say to me if you’re making the submission, why can’t I just fax you a copy for you to make as many copies as you need?


Several reasons, the first of which is that the damned fax is often unreadable, especially in the case of fine print information, which is usually the most important thing on the page.


OK, you say, how about I e-mail you a high resolution .pdf?

Well, why should you think your time is more valuable than mine? Not only do I have to mark up half a dozen or more copies of a submittal, but now I have to make the copies too?


Why, you ask, don’t you just mark up the one  I sent, and then make copies for distribution to all who need it? 

Ah. . . the (almost) new age of submittals.


Why do you suppose red (or green, or mauve, or whatever) ink is used in marking up a submittal?  That’s right! To make it easy to see, and thus distinguish review comments from the rest of the document. 


Until a few years ago, distributing Xerox copies of submittals was asking for trouble, but with the advent of color copying, this becomes a possibility.  This is still a cost in time and material that is shifted to me, however.


Electronic copies and markup software may solve this problem, but there remains one problem which has been ignored for so long, and by so many, I really believe most are not even aware of its existence.


We’re back to where I spoke of hoping in vain for submittals with a GC’s review stamp already on them. 


That’s only part of it.  Actually, I should get them with both a GC’s stamp and an Architect’s stamp already on them.




Yep.  Neither the Architect nor the GC should retain a copy of the submittal package until it has gone “up” the chain to me and come back “down” from me, and the vendor should not get his/her copy until it has come back down from everybody else, so the vendor’s copy has everybody’s comments on it.


Just as the submittal process is my last chance to review what I’ve called for to make sure I’ve avoided making a mistake, the double pass (up and down the chain) gives those with the most to coordinate, and thus the most to lose, yet a third look at the thing before construction dollars start flowing and steel gets cut or concrete gets poured.

Paper is (much) cheaper.

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