Increasing Quality and Speed: The Critical Role of Streamlined Submittals in Complex Construction Projects

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By Nancy Novak

Every seasoned construction professional is all too familiar with the significant role the submittals process for specifications and materials plays in the success of construction projects – both in terms of the quality of the work done by subcontractors and the speed at which projects are completed. When the submittals process is done well, project deadlines are met, and mistakes are avoided. When it is not done well, productivity is quickly lost, and critical information is left uncommunicated between the GC and subcontractors – potentially leading to quality issues or delays that throw off a project’s entire timeline.

The efficiency and accuracy of the submittals process is particularly important for large complex construction projects, with tight delivery timelines and precise specifications. In my role at Compass Datacenters, every project we work on has all of those qualities. We build mission critical data centers for large technology companies – each having exacting specifications and aggressive construction schedules.  In a single build, there are typically more than 800 submittals required of subcontractors in order to ensure the work is done according to the correct specifications at the proper moment in the construction timeline. How we manage the submittals process is critical to the success of our projects and enables us to consistently achieve our industry-leading delivery timelines from initial groundbreaking to turning them over to the customer.

While our company has earned a reputation for fast-paced builds, we are constantly analyzing our methodology and looking for ways to increase quality and speed. Submittals are one such component of the construction process we’ve identified as an improvement opportunity. We’ve developed an approach for streamlining submittals that we believe is effective not only for our company – and for data centers – but may be a template for how companies across other sectors of construction can streamline their own submittal processes.

Categorize Your Specifications

As a starting point for streamlining these processes, it is critical to bring uniformity to specs through grouping required system components. By organizing the specifications in this way during the planning stages of a project, redundant steps can be identified and eliminated saving considerable time.

Within each category, subcontractors’ submittals are evaluated to determine what kind of review is required. Some require full review, some limited review and others no review at all. Those submittal types with a boilerplate specification consistent from project to project fall into the no review category, as they have been pre-approved. By going through this process of grouping, we have discovered close to half of the submittals necessary for one facility build fall into the pre-approved category. These are parts of the construction process that are consistent from project to project, so there is no need for re-submittal and review with each new build. Flagging these pre-approved submittals and taking them out of the mix early on is a huge time saver.

While this categorization process requires an investment in time on the front end, it is dwarfed by the time a company would otherwise spend waiting on countless unnecessary re-submittals. We have eliminated ambiguity, duplications, conflicts and coordination issues and reduced our specifications by culling the unnecessary sections through streamlining and clarifying the requirements. This process also reduces the need for substitutions due to lead times for standard products.

Utilize Submittal Matrixes

The categorization process above creates the foundation for creating a process for organizing, tracking, and managing submittals from both 50,000-foot and close-up granular views. Categorization structures the submittal and review process enabling it to be steered and managed in a more efficient and linear manner. This is critical because every construction professional knows project details are continually in flux throughout a project.

The ultimate goal of categorization is the development of a prepopulated submittal matrix for all builds. This is a document where all the important information is communicated to the general contractor, such as:

  1. the review process required for the submittal
  2. product/assembly sourcing requirements
  3. substitution parameters, and
  4. due dates

This submittal matrix points out long-lead-time items, giving the contractor the necessary information to schedule submittals properly and make sure all products get into the hands of the architect for a timely review. The matrix distinguishes between core and shell activities or interior fit-up. All of the information included in the matrix will give the general contractor a head-start on the submittal process.

It’s important to note here that the submittal matrix and all the streamlining should also be applied to approvals for materials. Inefficiencies in the submittals process for materials are a common cause for delays with complex construction projects, so if your aim is to comprehensively streamline submittals for a project, you should look at streamlining both approvals for specifications and materials. For example, materials like conduit for equipment yards no longer need to be assembled in a submittal for review and then sent to the architect and engineer and reviewed and returned prior to ordering. This means materials can start being installed on day one.

Implement a Tiered Review Process

The last step in streamlining submittals involves a tiered review processes to eliminate unnecessary “busy work” for owners and contractors. Examining aids in developing a list of review actions for future builds.

  • Boilerplate. These are pre-approved materials standard from one project to the next. These will live in our company’s Submittal Database as approved and not require review.
  • Limited Review. Pre-packaged and approved submittals that require minor revisions, such as a change in color, will be subject to limited review of changed items indicated by the contractor. These don’t require calculation or onsite measurement but are important to review from a coordination standpoint.
  • Full Review. These submittals require full review…in the way that all submittals were previously reviewed. Access flooring is one submittal that is dynamic and would be subject to full review.
  • For Record. This category includes warranties and maintenance data…needing to be in the record but not reviewed. These submittals that are required for each job but don’t change from one to the next.

By bringing uniformity to specifications and materials, differentiating between which submittals need review and defining the review process, we aim to expedite the front-end work on these construction projects and bring them to completion more quickly than ever before. Contractors have voiced their enthusiasm for this new process and have agreed they think this approach will result in significantly fewer roadblocks.


Nancy Novak brings extensive expertise in oversight and responsibility for Profit and Loss. In her current role as Chief Innovation Officer for Compass Datacenters, her focus is cutting edge technology, lean practices, and innovative culture through diversity of thought to add value, improve return on investment, and disrupt the construction industry. Prior to joining Compass Datacenter’s Novak was National Vice President of Operations for Balfour Beatty Construction. At Balfour Beatty, Novak was a key resource in assessing and strengthening the company’s ability to scale knowledge and bring national consistency to strong, existing operating standards. Previously, her 20-year career as an Operations Executive with Hensel Phelps Construction Company gave her the expertise needed to build complex projects efficiently. She is heavily involved in organizations that lead the way for technology advancement in the construction industry, and she is an advocate for women’s leadership. Her passion for advancing women in business occurs through organizations like iMasons, Women for Women International, The National Woman’s Party in Washington DC, Women in Government Relations (WGR), Women Construction Owners and Executives (WCOE), the World Trade Center (WTCI), Fortune Media Most Powerful Women, and Above Glass Ceilings LLC.

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