AECbytes Feature (December 21, 2007)
Managing Submittals at LMN Architects: Before Newforma Project Center and After
Tim Rice, AIA, and Art Haug, AIA
We at LMN Architects, a 100-person firm in Seattle, first deployed Newforma Project Center software in late 2006. While better email management was one of our primary objectives, we were also very eager to apply Newforma Project Center’s capabilities to construction administration (CA). LMN has always prided itself on the rigor of our CA process, but that thoroughness was extremely labor-intensive from a record-keeping standpoint. It is therefore no accident that the first LMN projects to utilize Newforma Project Center were those in the construction phase. In addition to organizing project email, we have found the Newforma solution to be invaluable for managing the RFI and submittal processes. This article will illustrate how Newforma software has simplified the process of tracking and submittals during that all-important construction phase of a project.
Prior to Newforma Project Center software, there were four components to our solution:
Submittal log in a spreadsheet
Previously LMN utilized a spreadsheet to track each submittal received from a contractor, including when and who it was received from and forwarded to for review, as well as the dates and actions associated with each response. While the spreadsheet itself wasn’t particularly complex, each new submittal and every subsequent movement of that submittal required labor-intensive data entry. These logs typically had more than 20 columns, and 300 to 500 rows were not uncommon. This meant there could easily be 6,000 to 10,000 individual pieces of information which each had to be entered manually. Aside from the tedious effort required, opportunities for an error or an omission abounded. The following is an example of one of the spreadsheets.
Submittal transmittals in Word
Microsoft Office Word templates were used for consultant and contractor submittal transmittal forms. These forms were filled out manually, printed and attached to submittals that were then forwarded to a consultant or returned to the contractor. While important in terms of directing the submittal to the correct party, no good way existed to electronically associate the transmittal with the movement of the submittal.
Submittal file folders
While it would not be accurate to say that the majority of our submittals arrive electronically, this is increasingly the case. Therefore in addition to filing transmittals we periodically need to file digital submittals. Typically this takes the form of a series of subfolders and or files within the project CA folder—a workable solution but far from ideal.
Aside from the fact that submittals may or may not arrive digitally, virtually all of the correspondence relating to a submittal takes place via email. Prior to Newforma, keeping track of this email traffic was difficult at best. To do so, LMN used a project folder on the email server under which sub-folders were created for each submittal or group of submittals. Aside from the difficulty of ensuring that both incoming and outgoing emails were properly filed, there was no connection to the submittal other than the folder name. And finding a specific email item after the fact was frustrating and time-consuming.
In summary, our previous system had at least three shortcomings. First, the clerical administration was extremely labor-intensive and redundant. Second, there was a lack of connectivity between the various digital records associated with a particular submittal. And third, locating and retrieving of important information was only as good as the initial filing. Our CA personnel were drowning under this process.
Logging submittals in Newforma Project Center
As mentioned previously, for the last year we have been managing the entire CA and submittal process with Newforma Project Center software. The rest of this article will illustrate the new process using Newforma.
When a submittal arrives, be it electronic or physical, the first step is to log it in the Newforma Submittals activity center. It involves the following steps:
1. Just as in a Microsoft Office Outlook email, the team member To and From fields provide a list of matching names based on the first few characters typed.
2. The submittal due date is based on a project setting, in this case 14 business days from the received date. Reminders can be set automatically eliminating the need to create entries in Outlook.
3. Itemized submittal contents are entered in the Description of Contents tab.
4. If a submittal requires consultant review, it is generally forwarded immediately upon receipt so the Next action box. In this case Forward for review, is checked by default.
That’s all there is to logging an incoming submittal! No more spreadsheet fields to fill in. Once this Submittal Log form is completed, and because Forward for Review is selected as the next action, another form displays (as shown in the following image) and the submittal can be forwarded to one or more consultants. Prior to Newforma, at this point we would have had to re-enter much of the same information in the transmittal. Now the pertinent information is brought forward from this submittal logging step.
1. The only field in this form that needs to be filled in is the recipient’s name. All other data is populated from the previous log form.
2. The Due back date defaults to a time period that is set for each project but can be overwritten depending on the requirements of the individual submittal. Again reminders can be set to notify the consultant if he has not responded within the allotted time period. This eliminates a lot of bird-dogging via telephone or email.
3. Submittal Description is brought forward from the log eliminating the needless redundancy involved in filing out a Word template.
4. Checking the Print or email option generates the submittal transmittal and allows it to be printed for accompanying a physical submittal, or emailed if the submittal documents are electronic. The transmittal format can be customized on a company-wide or project-by-project basis, but LMN has accepted the Newforma default template with our company logo.
Logging submittal responses
Logging submittal responses from consultants is also much easier than before, particularly when the response comes back via email. Previously we would have to open the spreadsheet, find the submittal record, and manually enter the response data. Now, with Newforma software, when a submittal response arrives via email, it is filed directly with the submittal as a consultant’s response from Outlook using the Newforma Project Center Add-in for Microsoft Office Outlook, as shown below.
When the File as Submittal Reviewer Response task is selected, the Response form shown below pops up. The fact that this can happen directly from Outlook means that it isn’t necessary to navigate to another application, or to use a spreadsheet. Text from the consultant’s email is automatically populated to the Remarks field in the Response form. The only input required is to enter a submittal action from a drop-down list, which can be customized to conform to office nomenclature and or project requirements. At this point, the submittal is typically ready to be returned to the contractor, and the Next Action box is checked with the appropriate action. The response is forwarded to the contractor and the submittal is closed.
If the ease with which a submittal can be processed isn’t benefit enough, the audit trail and reporting capabilities are the icing on the cake. In order to reconstruct the history of a submittal prior to Newforma, we had to refer to the spreadsheet log, electronic files and transmittals on the network, emails which may or may not have made it out of the sender’s mailbox, and more often than not physical submittals. With Newforma, it is possible to search for the submittal by any of its distinguishing characteristics. Once identified, everything about the submittal, except for physical documents or samples, is available in a single location.
Submittal log in Newforma Project Center
The final component of the legacy system which needed to be replicated in the new process was the submittal log. Now, rather than the tedious task of tracking every movement of a submittal and making individual entries into the spreadsheet, we are able to generate a submittal log in a variety of formats directly from the information that Newforma software is already aware of by virtue of the process. Furthermore, we’re able to customize the output of that report to show only past-due submittals, for example, which we weren’t easily able to do previously.
Following is an example of the submittal log as generated in a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet.
Because most submittals LMN receives are hardcopy, Newforma Project Center has been used primarily to track the movement of those physical items. However, we plan to begin encouraging the contractors we work with to move toward a digital submittal process, and as that becomes more common, the Newforma solution’s robust email and file exchange capabilities should be up to the challenge.
Often times, one of the greatest barriers to the adoption of new technology is dovetailing it with existing process and workflows. Because Newforma has designed the software with AEC industry protocols and conventions in mind, it is easy to overlay it on top of virtually any existing process. We certainly found this to be true at LMN.
It is no exaggeration to say that those involved in the construction administration aspect of our projects have embraced Newforma Project Center wholeheartedly and would never even consider returning to the way we did things a year ago. They have been freed from the more tedious chores of the submittal process so that they can concentrate on the technical aspect where their expertise as an architect lies. The benefits flow to them as individuals, to LMN as a whole, and in turn to the project and the owner.
About the Authors
Art Haug, AIA, has more than 32 years of experience in project management and design, technical issues and construction administration, including acting as an owner’s representative. He has played an integral role in the development of LMN Architects construction administration guidelines, and mentors LMN staff with regard to construction administration methodology and construction document development.
LMN Architects Director of Information Technology, Tim Rice, AIA, has 28 years of experience as an architect, the last 20 of which have been spent managing CAD and IT systems. He has provided firm-wide leadership for LMN's BIM initiative and is responsible for implementation and integration of new technologies into all aspects of project delivery.
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