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By Amity Delaney
August 20, 2018
RFIs (Requests for Information) are becoming a contentious topic in the construction industry. At a surface level, RFIs are a simple form of communication used to obtain information not contained or inferable in contract documents. A general contractor or subcontractor usually submits an RFI to retrieve information from a design, engineering, or construction professional. In Australia, these documents are sometimes referred to as technical queries (TQ).
The Components of an RFI
There are two main components of RFIs: administrative and professional.
Contracts often require a notification when errors, conflicts, or omissions are discovered, and an RFI is the tool used excensively in the construction industry. Not only does the RFI document a process, but it is also a contractual obligation and fundamental process for successful delivery of projects.
However, many construction workers’ attitudes toward the tool have become negative since RFIs are frequently used as a method to increase profits through claims. They may be also used to create a paper trail to assert cumulative impact delays, negligent design, or other similar actions. This abuse of a necessary and contractual process is creating larger problems in the industry.
An RFI should not be perceived as a high-risk document. It is obligatory for a construction company that desires repeat work, good relationships, and a professional reputation to manage the process through a deep understanding of best practice. In the long term, the ramifications for continued misuse of RFIs will create more problems than it will solve.
The Expectations of RFIs
An important conceptual aspect of the RFI process is the working knowledge that no set of documents are perfect, just as no construction project is perfect. All drawings and related documents are inherently conceptual and no set is complete. No construction worker expects anything different and further, there is an expectation that the RFI process is actually part of the construction process.
That is not to say there is an excuse for incomplete drawings or information that holds up a project or creates additional costs. Neither should there be the expectation of construction phase remaining question free.
The Makeup of an RFI
RFIs can be roughly classified into several different categories. These classifications can be valuable to the project team if broad categories are used in documents. This way they will enhance communication, focus the process on the intended and desired result, and steer the project team.
These categories are:
Design clarifications (conflicts, incomplete plans, specifications)
Requests for a design change (often due to errors in construction, sequencing problems)
Requests for substitutions (value engineering, material availability, ease of use)
Differing site conditions
This list is not exhaustive, and it is more important to understand what an RFI is not. Many items are appropriate and necessary, but are better transmitted or communicated via other methods.
An RFI is not intended to be used for routine communication, a submittal, a plan (safety, schedule, etc.), a transmittal, or a documentation method. RFIs should never replace verbal communication or be used for commentary or positioning.
On the design side, RFIs should not be used for the incremental issuance of design documents that should have been part of the award (design/build or fast-track design excepted). Dependent on the contract, RFIs may or may not be used for substitutions.
If your contract has a separate process, make certain that paperwork and process are used. If not, use the RFI process and identify the RFI as a ‘Request for Substitution’. Do not use the RFI for approval of means and methods or contract problems; it is also not an outlet to ask inappropriate questions related to product installation typically specified by a manufacturer. Do not consider an RFI as a construction change directive or a change order request.
In regards to contract requirements, make certain that the project general condition requirements are well known by the construction team and follow them. Federal and Governmental contracts are particularly known for contractually fixed processes that vary greatly from owner to owner.
RFIs have been studied from time-to-time, and the average number per project is vastly dependent on the size, complexity, and type of project. A University of Southern Queensland study found that the mean value of an RFI in Australia is $1,179.
Construction companies are very protective of their bottom line. However, little thought is often paid to the bottom line of the entire team. That doesn’t mean you should refrain from submitting an RFI because of the costs. Having the average costs in mind can go a long way to building relationships with construction teams.
Construction teams budget for these average costs as part of the process, but they cannot win work with excessive construction administration fees.
RFIs provide immense value to a project when used efficiently and correctly. On the other hand, when used excessively or incorrectly, they can dramatically impact the success of a project. Developing an RFI template that can be replicated across each construction project can ensure that all key information is conveyed.
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