ConstructionPro Week, Volume: Construction Advisor Today - Issue: 105 - 04/28/2011

Designer Abuse of the Submittal Process

Shop drawings and other submittals are intended to establish that the contractor’s performance will conform to the design elements of the contract. Those elements are presumed to be objective. And the designer should be objective as well in evaluating conformance to the contract. The submittal of samples or shop drawings should not be viewed as an opportunity to redesign the project or use the trial-and-error method to develop nuances in the design. Yet this is exactly what happened on one recent project.


The contract called for buildings to be faced with precast concrete panels. The color of the panels had to match the color of a sample piece of material provided by the project architect. A lengthy process of submittal, rejection, resubmittal and rejection followed. Nothing seemed to suit the architect. Submittals were rejected based on subjective factors unrelated to the material sample provided by the architect.

It was later determined that the contractor’s initial submittal had conformed to the color of the material provided by the architect. The entire process, which was ruled a constructive change in the contract, resulted from the architect’s “artistic bent,” his “uncertain, evolving idea of the color he wanted to see.”


Have you been involved in situations where a designer has misused the submittal process? Have you experienced submittal rejections which were not based on objective contract requirements but appeared to be an effort to fine tune or flesh out the design? As always, I welcome your comments.


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I have not seen the system misused this way, nor misused it myself. What I typically see, almost universally, is poorly drafted and erroneous shop drawings submitted unsigned by the contractor, proposals for cheaper subtitutions for finish materials, and requests for changes to details justified only by the contractor's inexperience or unfamiliarity with the drawings - or their undue influence with the owner.

Conversely contractors sometimes utilize the submittal process to change the design in their favor. What they feel is an equal product or material might in fact not be.


I have been through the process with an architect that used submittal rejection as a means to redesign a trim detail and then forced us to provide multiple mock ups using different materials so they could make a decision how they wanted the building to look. Also specified material that did not exist. You are at their mercy and often they have no idea how the parts go together!


I have not heard of a similar situation. This seems to be fear mongering poorly written architect vrs contractor article. Just heap this on the pile. I have heard of contractors that abuse the material substitution process and abuse clients with change orders. Could you please write about this. Mouth breathing contractors have no idea why architects make the decisions they do and often paint these decisions to be trivial. Architects have years diplomas and licenses that authorize their autonomy, self proclaimed contractors are not qualified to judge. Go back to swinging your hammer and shut up.


Jeez, Brucie, you kinda loaded this one up, didn't you? For one thing, who "determined" that the original submittal conformed to the contract requirements? and what were the "subjective factors" cited by the Architect for rejection? I agree that there are plenty of jackasses in my business (I am an Architect)who design by shop drawing, and thereby misuse shop drawings, and there are even more contractors who do. That said, you haven't clearly stated the case either way, and it is impossible to really understand what happened based on your sketchy description.
Now, in reality, what happens in shop drawings is that good shops actually help the design team understand in greater detail what they are getting. Good shops are usually more detailed than the design drawings themselves. and when the contract is altered by shop drawing, you get (i just know you've heard of this) Change Orders! This seems to me to be how normally these things occur, I am surprised you are making an issue of it.
Looking forward to your next kerfuffle.


This idiot author/ editor really has a chip on his shoulder. He is either picking a fight or clearly has no idea how the process is supposed to proceed, for the client's best interest. Perhaps that is the problem, contractors are in it only to make a buck and want to fight anyone who will stand up for the client's best interests. Fortunately most contractors are lucky to have a high school diploma let alone a college degree and have massive insecurity complexes about it. All they want to do is fight and the client is the one who loses in the end.


Seriouly look at the picture of the dimwit who wrote this article, seriously shut up and go back to swinging your hammer.

In our case (signage), we are almost always dealing with drawings and specifications that do not match each other, specifications that are garbled nonsense pasted together from various sources by an intern or draftsperson, and non-code compliance of either the designs or specifications or both. (ADA and state accessibility codes). Since scaling is non-existent, text often will not fit onto sizes shown. Drawings pasted from many different sources mean that sign design elements would not match (i.e., some radius corners, some square corners, etc.)


Therefore, we must always try to sort through all this and present drawings that are 1) code compliant, 2) possible to actually fabricate -- that is, large enough to fit the text, small enough to fit the legal placement of the sign --, 3) demonstrate some cohesion of style, when possible.

Usually, the drawings will be accepted, although sometimes we get changes that are possible to make, or sometimes we get changes that are impossible or illegal, and we have to go through a long process of argument. For important issues, we do try to send RFIs before submitting drawings, but we will often be met with no response, or the contractor will not understand the nuances, and rewrite the RFIs so they don't say what the real problem is, and we get a non-responsive answer.

However, we often get stamps back that indicate a complete lack of responsibility on either the contractor's or the designer's part, although the drawings are approved, or approved with changes. An inspector may then choose to ignore the drawings (and the inspectors are normally pretty clueless about the codes and guidelines for signs!).

We have also been victims of what you did describe. We will send in drawings that adhere as closely as possible to the contract drawings, and then have them rejected on the grounds that they do not meet design intent. It turns out that there is a new design for campus-wide signage, or the architect wishes us to match existing signage, and none of this was presented with the contract. We are held responsible for re-doing many drawings, and may even have to re-do production files for braille translations when they decide, after the fact, to renumber everything. When we put in a change order, it is turned down!

Although we are specified for many public projects throughout the state and are well known in the field, we are seriously thinking of withdrawing from public works projects altogether.

We've been involved with several projects where the Designer and/or Consulting Engineer has abused the submittal review process by:


1) taking an lengthy period of time to review submittals (i.e. 30+ days).

2) outright rejecting the submittal based upon trivial issues (i.e. signplate verbage, documentation formatting, color, etc.) and requiring a resubmittal, usually without direction as to what would be 'accepted'.

3) taking another lengthy period to review the resubmittal (30+ days.

4) then again rejecting it for similar "bring me a different rock" arguments.

5) waiting for the resubmittal

6) taking another 30+ days to review and finally approve the third submittal.

7) Then using the 100+ day submittal review delay to create a 'concurrent delay' and mitigate legitimate owner-caused delays (such as differing site conditions, design errors, etc).

I was a contractor and now VP of design and construction for a national developer and have seen both sides of this coin. Yes there are some architects that abuse the process. They see themselves as artists afterall. But an owner doesn't want to pay for changes designed on shop drawings. By the same token, contractors do try to simplify, substitute and save money wherever possible. certainly, poor shop drawings, lousy samples or none at all seems to be more the norm these days. So I would advocate that both sides need improvement.


Hey Michael Bass, you need to get off of your high horse. All contractors are not uneducated dolts. Many hold degrees and licenses in architecture, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. The reality is that our system of commercial construction requires contracts to be bid and awarded on plans and specs that sometime (not always) are defective and/or ommissive. Unless material or equipment is specified on a proprietary basis, then a contractor, during the bid process, usually makes a selection based on an "or equal basis" which at the time of the bid is an objective choice. The subjective decisions are often made by the supplier or manufacturer who submits the price. Unless that product patently fails to meet the spec or intent of same, the contractor should fight for the approval or a change order if it can be objectively viewed as an "or equal" product. It's when objective proof is passed over for subjective interpretation that the process fails or is abused. If there is any evidentary proof of anything in these posts, it's your gunslinger approach and obvious prejudice.


All these concerns are minimized with the design-build process especially with an integrated design and construction firm. All team members have the same objectives - satisfy the customer and earn a fair profit for your efforts.


I hate to break it to you, but several of us "hammer-swinging mouth breathing contractors" have bachelor degrees in construction and business. Additionally, there are even some of us who have MBA's, masters degrees in construction management, and quite a few professional certifications behind our names as well.


My comment may seem remedial to many of you that are already involved in the construction industry, but I get tired of hearing contractors tout design-build as the grand solution to all construction problems.


There are different forms of design-build and each has different pros and cons. The most typical seems to be contractor led. It has been our expereince that in contractor led design-build, 85% of all contractors using this method like it because it allows them to place the architect in a subservient position to their own interests, not the interests of the owner.

We use both design-build and design-bid-build. With the bid method we have found that if an architect prepares quality construction documents and treats the contractor fairly, we are able to minimize change orders and work with the contractor to acheive the best value for the building owner. Over the past 5 years, our record on bid projects is that we have had no design related change orders on 4 out of 5 projects.

This wasn't because we are perfect on 4 out of 5 projects, but is instead because any changes or issues were too minor to justify a change order and could be handled by working with the contractor.

I'm a very old Architect who has been doing this for 45 years and I'm glad to see that nothing has changed in that time. I agree and disagree with everything that has been said herein. It really comes down to respect and if both sides respect each other, there is no problem. Yes, sometimes an Architect finds during the shop drawing submittals that he has made a mistake, but if he admits to it and asks for the price to change it and keeps it above board there should be no problem. I myself have paid for those types of changes. Yes, Contractors sometimes do try to substitute a lesser product, most times it's because an over zealous salesperson has them convinced that their product not only does handstands, but is half the price as that specified. This is where an Architect has to know the quality of what he specified. In some cases, it is not as big a deal to the owner who is looking for some cost savings. In the long run, very seldom do these things ever come to an impasse. Like I said R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


For near 12 years I was working as design engineer, but after wile I decided to become dumb Low Voltage Contractor (Fire, Security, CCTV, Card Access, Building Integrated System etc) for the last 19 years. 
As contractor I experience on daily bases that there is only one on 50 projects where design are 100% correctly and the general and detail specifications are matching the drawings of each trade and they are fully cross referenced with all details indicated on all tread drawings. 
It is obvious that everybody is trying to reduce their cost starting from the design stage. An Architect gets the project from owner and he want as much money for himself so he hires engineers for as little as possible. The each engineering company has different engineers and as HVAC, Plumbing, Sprinkler, Electrical, Lighting, Sound, Fire Alarm, Security etc. Unfortunately all of them trying to do the best what they can in their filed, but what is happening most of the time that the review process and full coordination between individual designers is most of the time is incomplete or simply sloppy.
General Specification is so generic that everything is included in it even if do not exist on this project or trip to the moon. When the detail specification is created most of the time is standard specification for the type of system provided and depends on the trade engineer detail knowledge if he had time to modify it correctly or not and coordinate with other trade drawings and specifications. Most of engineers just make generic cross reference with all other trade drawings and detail specification without showing them on individual drawings: 
a. For Example Sprinkler engineer shown OS&Y vales, fire pump, waterflow switches on his Sprinkler System. Electrical drawings show power to all these appliances and equipment. But the Fire Alarm drawings do not show location and number of supervisory devices at all because the engineer just put the note to coordinate with Sprinkler drawings. This is not the job of contractor to review entire set of all drawings to figure out on what drawings was put which piece of equipment. Proper engineering required to show for each trade all equipment and interfaces required from contractor on the specific trade drawings.
b. Next HVAC Engineer layout the duct work, damper type of dampers, duct detectors, etc, but these devices which need to be control by the fire alarm system are not shown on fire alarm drawings. The detail specification required installation of purge or smoke exhaust system, but there is nothing in detail specification of fire alarm system how to do it and that it should be done by contractor bidding fire alarm system or how it shall be installed by use of separate dedicated purge system and interconnected with it. 
I could list hundreds of mistakes but that is not the point the point is that if you do not do 100% correct drawings they will be always this situation that engineer or architect will try to cover his or her mistakes during the contractor submittal process and they abuse this process practically all the times based on general or detail specification from other trades, or based on generic cross reference statements.
We have to start from good architectural and engineering performance as professionals and produce 100% complete drawings and specification leaving no place for interpretation by the contractors. 
This is skill & art at the same time and cost money to do 100% correct job. No building owner wants to hire skill right people and pay adequately to their performance. So the problem starts from top and keep falling on general contractors, tread contractors, vendors etc. If we all will keep going this way very soon our architectural, engineering skill and pride of performing professionally will be totally degraded. 
Where is a professionalism and pride of Architects and Engineers? 
I believe that is gone with the wind.
Contractor has his pride as well and in majority wants to do right job, but he has to have right design from the beginning. In conclusion start from top then you can demand and expect the same from the lower trades.


I oversee amd manage building construction projects for a government agency and I have seen abuse of the submittal process as well as RFI and every other communication process between the contractor and the deasign team on both sides. Everything goes back and forth thru me and it is often difficult to catch the number changes that occur in these processes.


In my part of the world the design professionals are getting walked on by owners. Design budgets are wittled down and cut to the bone. The resulting design is never 100% conplete. And then the owner expects the GC to build the project from 90% drawings. The submittal process is not a substitute for quality design.


I was a construction laborer then a foreman carpenter working on public projects for over 5 years before earning a Masters degree in architecture. Sadly, I have more respect for the ones packing a toolbelt than I have for most of my own profession. The displaced anger spewed by Mr."Largemouth" typifies the ignorance,arrogance and lack of basic construction knowlege exibited by a great majority of my profession. Why do you think there is now a market for Construction Managers and alternate project delivery methods? I wager the "finned one" is in this category and his hefty shoulder chip is largely self-inflicted. Take a look in the mirror.


I am not aware of this as a significant problem.


In the instance cited, the "color" of a precast panel is not a simple matter since it involves the interaction of several material components and the way they appear on the exterior surface of the building. I would think that it's specifically the architect's role and expertise to interpret color conformance - and this would extend to many other factors in the shop drawing review process.

This is an ideal example to cite, though, because if you understand the material involved, it illustrates that decisionmaking is not the cut-and-dried process that is suggested. Who decided that the first sample produced was ok? Was there a benefit to that party derived from making this finding?

Architects are far from perfect in reinforcing their authority through the medium of specification, samples, etc. - and they often lack the economic clout to use litigation as a tool in expressing themselves. But from the architect's point of view, it takes a lot of gumption to keep saying "no" to improper submittals in a construction environment burdened by litigation used as a tool by others.

This situation recently for a project for which I am the architect-engineer PM and for which the design architect (and I), the CM and precast sub had a common goal of meeting the design intent and client's desires. We as the A-E agreed to conduct an out-of-scope site visit to the precast yard to "get it right" in terms of both final color selection and maintain the construction schedule. We had the mutual R-E-S-P-E-C-T in place and the Owner/Client agreed to our modest additional fee for us to do what is necessary. In this case both CM and A-E parties acknowledged that we both serve the Owner/client at the end of the day and we were able to take care of business without sacrificing the business interests of either party. It can be done if all commit to a common goal at the beginning and don't play the Owner/Client against our own individual interests.


I agree with the observation that the submittal process is also sometimes misused by contractors seeking a redesign to their benefit through the use of "equal" products.
My brief synopsis of the case may not have adequately described the egregious nature of the situation. The contract contained an objective standard for the color of the precast panels. The contractor's initial submittal met that standard. Yet the architect rejected the submittal and required numerous resubmttals as he contemplated changes to the color. The court found this unacceptable. With apologies to any thin-skinned architects out there, I agree with the court.


Out of curiosity, being both an RA and a GC here in Chicago, how many of you, acting in the capacity of GC set aside additional fees to directly pay the Architect for the massive lack of both detail and lack of thorough plan cross-checking and adequate cross-discipline (MEP/S/FP)?


This is not a rhetorical question - I could not be more serious. here's why:

In my 25+ years of Commercial experience, not once have I seen a set of plans as thorough, complete, properly coordinated and cross-checked as they should be.

Why not? Money. In order to get a decent fee, an Architect can only do so much. By setting aside an addition 1.5% to 4% on a given job, we take the Architect into more of an 'after the fact' D/B relationship and are actually able to compensate them for the extra time.

Money in business is like sex in a relationship - when it's not there or of poor quality, the partner loses interest. Forgive the base analogy, but it's more true than most would care to admit.

Pay more, hold to a higher, pre-agreed standard and you'd be amazed at how much respect brings out the best in people.


Pierce, we Architects cannot possibly provide enough drawings and specifications to do as you ask. That's why the standard construction contract covers implied work, inconsistencies in the CD's, work shown on drawings but not specified and vice-versa, and the Architect as arbator of quality.


And during the bidding process, when the contractor is supposed to be familiarizing himself with the work (instead of tearing sets apart to send out to subs to save money, who then cannot bid the work in context correctly), there are several weeks for the bidders to bring up issues to the Architect that proclude a clear understanding of the contract.

I look back 40 years and see school projects with a dozen drawings and mighty thin specs. Sometimes the specs were on a sheet within the drawing set!

We prepared a drawing set recently having several hundred sheets and five bound spec books for one $40 Million school. Despite that amount of detail, the contractor proceeded to build walls and floors from the structural plans, never cracking the architectural sheets that showed full wall sections showing missed details that took weeks to generate. As far as my company is concerned, there is such a thing as too much information.

We recently laid off a dozen people, and upon reviewing the office top to bottom found that as our fee went up from the skyrocketing construction costs, almost every additional dollar earned went into additional drawing sheets to improve documentation! The result is that when construction prices dropped we could not sustain a profit, and are looking at paring down our work to meet the fee structure. So from a sustainable business point of view, be looking for even thinner sets of drawings from some of us.

Let me just put in a few words for the Owners - you all abuse the process and we end up paying for it. Read your contracts and just do your job right.


a designer once visited our office every other week in order to go over nuanced details of a project that WE were having to redesign to achieve the functionality that the project demanded. She was completely over her head and would sit down with the owner's rep and approve a series of specific details. Due to the schedule, we would then fabricate the next portion of the project (architectural woodwork)that had just been "agreed" to and submit to her within a week to ten days copies of the final shop drawings which were supposedly "pre-approved". She rejected every set and we eventually told her to pound sand. The GC went out of business and we never got all our money, plus the countless hours of covering her inadequacies. Later we found that she also had surreptitious intentions as she had a fiance in the same business and we had apparently knocked him out of the job. We actually "made money", but we didn't collect it.


One type of recurring problem with design is lack of incorporated tolerances for ADA final placed construction. Typically there is no buffer tolerance included to compensate for materials and workmanship. Yet there are buffers (or safety factors) for almost all other designs to make up for workmanship and materials. Designing a ramp at 1:12 and not allowing for standard construction dooms the contractor to failure and demolishing and rebuilding the ramp or walkway maybe even several times. Ditto for lack of good ADA quality control specifications. Most contractors do not know to check the plan and spec to see what they have signed up for. All ramps and walking surfaces are affected by ADA. Designs should incorporate the following: to meet 1:12 (8.3%), design should be at 1:14 (7%), to meet less than 1:20 (5%) the design should be at 4%, to meet less than 1:48 (2.1%) the design should be at 1.5%. Contractors need to use some flatness techniques but these usually make the work go faster since less time is spent finishing the surfaces.





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