Part 1 — Learning To Live With This “Necessary Evil”
Arthur O'Leary, FAIA, MRIAI
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To the construction industry, shop drawings seem to be a necessary evil. Contractors find them expensive to produce and architects find them unappealing to review. Both find them time-consuming and costly to administer. We seemingly cannot construct buildings without them; but they have become a perennial source of annoyance and confusion and more importantly, a significant source of professional liability claims against architects.
Undiscovered mistakes in shop drawings will often lead to unexpected or undesired construction results as well as exorbitant economic claims against architects, engineers, and contractors. Some shop drawing anomalies have resulted in costly construction defects, tragic personal injuries, and catastrophic loss of life.
Shop Drawing Procedures in AIA Documents
The contractor is obligated by the contract documents to submit shop drawings, product data, and samples for certain parts of the work. The architect is obligated by the owner-architect agreement to “review and approve or take other appropriate action upon Contractor’s submittals such as Shop Drawings, Product Data and Samples....” (B-141, Subparagraph 2.6.4). This is included among the architect’s Contract Administration Services.
The AIA General Conditions provides definitions for each of the contractor’s submittals:
“Shop Drawings are drawings, diagrams, schedules and other data specially prepared for the Work by the Contractor or a Subcontractor, Sub-subcontractor, manufacturer, supplier or distributor to illustrate some portion of the Work.” (A201, 3.12.1)
“Product Data are illustrations, standard schedules, performance charts, instructions, brochures, diagrams and other information furnished by the Contractor to illustrate materials or equipment for some portion of the Work.” (3.12.2)
“Samples are physical examples which illustrate materials, equipment or workmanship and establish standards by which the Work will be judged.” (3.12.3)
These and similar submittals are not considered contract documents. The only documents that can rise to the stature of contract documents are (1) those that were in existence at the time of the signing of the construction contract and that were incorporated by reference into the contract, and (2) those that are added later as contract modifications and that are signed by the owner and the contractor, such as change orders and construction change directives.
Shop drawings, product data, and samples are submitted for the purpose of illustrating how the contractor proposes to conform to the requirements and design concepts expressed in the construction drawings and specifications. (3.12.4)
Are Shop Drawings Really Needed?
The drawings and specifications prepared by architects and engineers show the general design concept of the project and each of the major components and their relationships to each other. Some of the subcontractors and suppliers must prepare additional drawings, diagrams, schedules, and other data to illustrate the specific way in which their particular company or shop will undertake to furnish, fabricate, assemble, or install their products.
Shop drawings are needed by the fabrication shops for their own use in instructing their own personnel how to carry out the requirements of the contract documents. Fabricators will produce the shop drawings even if they are not asked to submit them for architect’s approval. In many cases, the building could have been built satisfactorily even if the architect had not reviewed the shop drawings.
The principal reason architects and engineers need to review the shop drawings is to ascertain that the contractor understands the architectural and engineering design concepts and to correct any misapprehensions before they are carried out in the shop or field. They review shop drawings of any particular trade or component to determine if the contract drawings and specifications have been properly understood and interpreted by the producers and suppliers.
The shop drawings should prove to the architect’s satisfaction that the work of the contract would be fulfilled. If the shop drawings indicate that the work depicted will not comply with the intent of the contract drawings and specifications, the architect has an opportunity to notify the contractor before the costs of fabrication, purchase, or installation have been incurred.
The costly and wasteful alternative to this procedure would be simply to wait until the work is in place and then examine it and condemn or reject it. It is much more economical to review and correct the shop drawings than to remove and replace erroneous construction. Proper use of the shop drawing review system should prevent costly errors caused by misunderstanding of the contract requirements.
Professional Standard of Care. As long as it remains the practice of a majority of architects in the vicinity to specify the submittal of shop drawings for certain trades, then for architects it is a matter of complying with the professional standard of care. The architect’s position would be difficult to justify if shop drawings had not been required for the usual trades if some party has been injured or suffered economic disadvantage where the checking of shop drawings could have prevented the loss or injury.
Specifying Shop Drawings
There is no standard list of trades that must have their shop drawings reviewed. It is still a matter for the professional judgment and discretion of the individual architect or engineer in each unique situation.
The sensitive trades are those involving structural stability, safety, appearance, function, or building code compliance. However, errors or anomalies in any trade’s shop drawings could involve large sums of money even if these significant elements are absent.
The general understandings as to the definition and purpose of shop drawings and limitations of the architect’s approval appear in the AIA General Conditions. (3.11, 3.12, and 4.2.7)
The architect’s approval of the shop drawings will often be conditioned on the correction of various errors or misinterpretations of the contract documents. In the event that the corrections are extensive the architect will usually completely disapprove them and require correction and resubmission. They are then sent back to the general contractor, approved, conditionally approved, or disapproved.
Unspecified Shop Drawings
If the architect does not specify submission of shop drawings for a specific trade, they usually will not be submitted for review. In fact, most architects will not accept unspecified shop drawings for review. (A201, 3.12.5) To accept them would merely create the duty to review them. This would not only increase the architect’s uncompensated workload but would also unnecessarily increase the possibility of erroneous approval, carrying with it potential liability to anyone who might suffer injury or incur loss.
Specifying Unneeded Shop Drawings
One way of lessening the exposure to risk of error in reviewing shop drawings is to refrain from specifying them in any case where the contract documents are sufficiently explicit to adequately depict the product or assemblage. Unnecessary shop drawings are a wasted effort and expense imposed on the contractor as well as the architect.
Unsubmitted and Unreviewed Shop Drawings
If shop drawings of a certain trade have been specified, but not submitted and therefore not reviewed, the architect could be found negligent if mistakes were carried out in the construction which could have been prevented if the shop drawings had been checked. The architect’s liability position would have been better if submission of the shop drawings had not been specified at all.
Architects should be certain that all specified submittals are actually received from the contractor. It is a good idea to prepare a checklist of all specified submittals at the beginning of the construction period so that each may be checked off as received. The contractor should then be reminded to submit any missing submittals.
This discussion of shop drawings will be continued in the May/June 2003 issue of Design Cost Data.
Various provisions of AIA standard form documents (A201 and B141) have been quoted briefly and should be reviewed in their entirety for their complete language and context to avoid possible misinterpretation.
. . .
For a fuller discussion of Shop Drawings, see Chapter 12 in A Guide to Successful Construction — Effective Contract Administration, by Arthur F. O’Leary,
FAIA, MRIAI, published by BNi Publications. This and other titles by Arthur O’Leary are available at
Arthur O’Leary solicits suggestions from the readers of Design Cost Data for subjects that they would like to see covered in future. O’Leary’s email address is email@example.com. Please write him with any questions, thoughts, or subjects that you would like to see covered related to the practice of architecture or construction law.
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