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The Anatomy of a Request for Information (RFI)


RFIs (Requests for Information) are increasingly becoming a contentious issue in the design, engineering, and construction world. On the surface, RFIs are a simple form of communication:

An RFI is used to obtain information not contained or inferable in the contract documents. Someone, usually a general contractor or subcontractor, requires information from a design or engineering professional and they submit a Request for Information to retrieve it.

There are two components; administrative and professional. In the end, these two combined averages cost the A/E about $1,000 per RFI.

Often, the contract requires such a notification when errors, conflicts, or omissions are discovered, and the RFI is the tool with extensive use in the industry. So, not only is the RFI a communication which documents a process, it is also a contractual obligation and fundamental process for the successful project delivery.

However, many professionals’ attitude toward the tool has become prickly because RFIs are frequently used as a method to increase profits through claims or to create a paper trail to assert cumulative impact delays, negligent design, or other similar actions. This abuse of a needed, and indeed contractual, process is creating larger problems in the industry.

An RFI should not be perceived as a high-risk document. It is therefore incumbent on a company who wishes repeat work, good relationships, and a professional reputation to manage the process through a deep understanding of best practice. The ramifications for continued misuse will create more problems than it will solve.

RFI Expectations

An important conceptual aspect of the RFI process is the working knowledge that no set of documents are perfect, just as no building or project is perfect. All drawings and related documents are inherently conceptual and no set is “complete”. No architect or engineer expects anything different; and further, there is an expectation that the RFI process is actually part of the design and engineering 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 that the construction phase of a design should be question free.

What Makes Up an RFI?

RFIs can be roughly classified into categories, at least for purposes of illustration. These classifications can be quite valuable to the project team if broad categories are used in documents, as they will enhance communication, focus the process on the intended and desired result, and steer the project team.

•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)

•Constructability issues

•Differing site conditions

This list is not exhaustive, however, it is more important to understand what an RFI is not. Many of the following items are appropriate and necessary, but better transmitted or communicated via other methods.

An RFI is not intended or 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 is 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, contract problems, or 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.

On the subject of 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.

RFI Stats

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. However, an average project on an average day should have between 15 to 20 RFIs per $1 million in project value.

Average values for the cost of an RFI on the A/E team are somewhat easier to measure. There are two components; administrative and professional. In the end, these two combined averages cost the A/E about $1,000 per RFI. Construction companies are very protective of their bottom line, however, often little thought is paid to the bottom line of the entire team. That doesn’t mean you should refrain from submitting an RFI because of cost. However, awareness of this fact can go a long way to building relationships with the A/E team.

As you can see from the numbers above, a $5 million project can generate $100,000 in costs for the A/E team. The A/E team budgets for these costs as part of the process, but they cannot win work with excessive construction administration fees.

As you can see, RFIs provide immense value to a project when used efficiently and correctly. However, when used excessively or incorrectly, they can drastically impact the success of a project. 


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