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The Anatomy of a Request for Information (RFI)

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If a general contractor could add up all the minutes he or she spent waiting on a response to an RFI (Request for Information) throughout their career, they might have found that they could have gone on vacation or even built a few shopping plazas, and they can be costly too. Research has shown that an average project on a typical day could have between 15 to 20 RFIs per $1 million in project value. This means a $5 million project can generate about $100,000 in costs.

RFIs are simply requests for information, yet, there’s nothing simple about them if they’re not handled properly. There are easy ways to successfully manage the RFI process and we’ll tell you how to do just that.

What is an RFI in Construction?

In construction, the purpose of an RFI is to resolve information gaps, eliminate ambiguities, and capture and share specific decisions during the course of the project. A general contractor or subcontractor usually submits an RFI in written form to retrieve information from a design, engineering, or construction professional. The information in an RFI is information that wasn’t included in the scope of the construction contract.

The Construction RFI Process

The primary goal of the RFI process is to eliminate the need for time-consuming and costly corrective action(s) during a project’s life cycle. In Australia, these documents are sometimes referred to as technical queries (TQ).

Typically, RFI questions are asked and resolved during a project’s Bidding process and/or during the project’s course of construction. 

What You Should and Shouldn’t Include in RFIs

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).
  • Constructability issues
  • 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 safety plan or schedule, 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.

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 extensively 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 practices. In the long term, the ramifications for continued misuse of RFIs will create more problems than it will solve.

What is the difference between an RFI, RFP, and RFQ?

“RFX” is a term used to refer to a Request For “Something,” from a proposal, information, a quotation, or something else. It’s often easier to reference an RFX than “an RFP, RFI, or RFQ.”

The three common documents are RFI (Request for Information), RFP (Request for Proposal), and RFQ (Request for Quote). RFI is often issued at the beginning of the process. An RFI is similar in some ways to an RFP, but is usually less rigorous and contains fewer questions. 

RFP (Request For Proposal) is the first step in a procurement process. An organization that wants to issue an RFP assesses its needs and develops a list of criteria, which are then turned into questions. The questions are then compiled into a questionnaire which is sent to a group of vendors that provide the products/services that align with the buyer’s needs. The vendors, which are sometimes called suppliers, respond to the questionnaire and return it to the buyer whereupon the vendors’ answers are scored. Top-scoring vendors are then usually invited to negotiations or to submit specific bids in an RFQ.

RFQ (Request For Quotation) is a solicitation to vendors that is very specific in nature and includes all of the relevant details relating to the products/services that are being procured. An RFQ is often issued after an RFP, but can also be issued on its own for goods and services that are particularly standardized.

Biggest Challenges in the RFI Process

One of the major problems with RFIs is the additional cost burden they can place on a construction job. It might not seem like much initially, but the delays and downtime that arise as a result of an RFI can add up over time. As the American Council of Engineering Companies delineates in its outline of RFIs, these requests include more than five steps, each with their own subcategories, actions, and responses. Furthermore, RFIs can collectively involve a wide range of team members, who can all hold up the process and create even more delays.

To review and respond to each individual RFI, it costs a construction firm an average of $1,080, while the collective cost to the project could set a firm back $859,680.

In an effort to monetize the costs RFIs create for construction firms, Navigent Construction Forum of Navigant Consulting, Inc. reviewed RFI data from 1,362 projects worldwide for a total of 1,083,807 RFIs. The projects ranged in value between $5 million and $5 billion, and each one had an average of 796 RFIs.

The research revealed that RFIs can create significant backlogs, since owners and project managers are required to review and respond to each individual RFI from contractors and subcontractors, noting the cost of each one and the use of the process to make claims against owners. After sampling 1,382 projects, Navigent discovered that to review and respond to each individual RFI, it cost a construction firm an average of $1,080, while the collective cost to the project could set a firm back $859,680. 

In addition, whether due to requests not considered by the design team, questions already answered in the original contract, or because they are focused on means and methods, more than one in ten of the RFIs were listed as “unjustifiable.” Collectively, these unjustified RFIs averaged about $113,400 per project.

Perhaps the most troubling data uncovered in the Navigent research is that nearly one out of every four RFIs receives no replies. Without someone replying and solving the problems associated with an RFI, it can lead to shoddy craftsmanship, improper construction, and even a potentially unsafe structure. With clients becoming more litigious every year, it’s vitally important that construction firms build these structures using the full scope and requirements laid forth by the engineers and architects, otherwise, there’s a very real chance the construction firm can ultimately face a lawsuit over a poorly constructed building.

How to Improve the RFI Process

One of the main causes of RFIs is the lack of communication between architects, engineers, and contractors and other key stakeholders. As each of these groups becomes more technical and isolated, the less overlap and interaction occurs between them. This siloed nature means the builder at the tail end of the process will need to request information from someone further up the design chain, ultimately leading to a loss of time and working hours.

Contractors who implement construction project management software can effectively eliminate these delays by making RFIs available to all relevant parties instantaneously. With its intuitive user interface, anyone on the team––from the executive to the architect to the subcontractors in the field––can easily snap a photo of the problematic area and upload it to the platform’s repository for everyone else to view. Even those individuals who do not have the platform will receive a message alerting them to the issue.

Project managers can then review the RFI in real time and notify the necessary individuals all with a few clicks and swipes from their mobile devices. By ensuring that everyone has real time access to RFIs along with pictures of the request or problematic areas, construction firms reduce the time and manpower associated with this necessary component of the building process, ultimately saving time and money.

Let Innovation Work For You

In a past study, data analysis showed that on an average project of a year or less, you could be serving up to an average of 270 RFIs and if a project lasts a duration of five or more years, that number can increase to upwards of 1400. Utilizing key software solutions will greatly enhance your day-to-day work by speeding up processes.

When questions arise in the field, you need to know how to move forward, especially when that change may affect other trades coming in and completing a job. Using a mobile, drawing-centric, collaborative software for project management like Procore can not only help you submit RFIs, but also track them in real time, speed up response rates and flag or list RFIs in order of importance. 

Utilizing key software solutions will greatly enhance your day-to-day work by speeding up processes.

With the right software solution, RFIs can be sent to everyone who needs to respond (no matter where they are) while in the field and you can attach photos, drawings or schematics that are more detailed, specific to your request. All of which helps the recipient get a better understanding of the RFI and can speed up the decision or response process. Once you receive a response, the right software solution will archive all the activity involved around it, and if needed, help you to initiate a change order and manage the intricate processes that evolve from there. Use technology to take the menial out of the process and allow yourself more time to plan ahead for future issues.

Expect Responses in Realistic Timeframes

First, read the contract thoroughly. Know what qualifies as an RFI and what does not according to the contract you signed. Many RFIs may have been answered within the original contract documents. If you don’t read through the paperwork with a fine tooth comb, you’ll be pulling out hair needlessly. And your RFI won’t be responded to. Yes, it takes time in the beginning to read through seemingly endless paperwork written in legalese, but it will make your job easier in the end.

On a typical project of a year or less, you could be serving up to an average of 270 RFIs and if a project lasts a duration of five or more years, that number can increase to upwards of 1400.

In addition, don’t be caught off guard if you get a response from a request that indicates the recipient has an “allotted” amount of time to respond to your request. Many current contracts are now defining timeframes for response rates based on the recipient. For example, “engineer is given a maximum of seven days to respond to the RFI.” According to the Navigant Construction Forum™ there are varying levels of complexity that determine RFI review and response time. 

Based on feedback from interviewed construction firm staff, design professionals estimate that the average RFI would require about eight hours to receive, log, review and respond. While many requests can be fielded and replied to within an hour, others may take days to research and provide an appropriate response. According to data from the Navigant study, average reply times can range from 6.4 days to 10 days based on region, project size, and duration. 

Average reply times can range from 6.4 days to 10 days based on region, project size, and duration. 

Dependent on the discipline involved in the request, a paint color question would be easier to answer than an engineering question. Understanding those differences, it’s important to think ahead. Submitting an RFI when the condition is critical will more than likely result in delays. However, reviewing foreseeable issues and sending RFIs ahead of time leaves you ample breathing room for getting a response in time for the job related to the question at hand to be completed. If you realize that certain categories are requiring more clarification, then grouping together issues may help speed up RFI response times for difficult aspects of a project.

Lastly, understanding what is “mission critical” and what can be placed on the back burner will go a long way in helping answers get fast-tracked. Be specific in your requests, and level them according to project urgency. Marking your RFIs as “high-priority” can help increase response times, but be sure not to cry wolf too many times. If everything is urgent, then nothing is. Push through those answers you need that may delay project schedules, may threaten the safety of the project or your employees, or may require large changes to the project budget. Whether or not the white color paint should be bright white or eggshell white can wait until the more important questions are answered.

RFI Best Practices

Generally speaking, most businesses or owners will try to set their RFI best practices and expectations prior to beginning a project. These RFI best practices are often determined to be: 

  • Developing an RFI procedure.
  • Defining what will be considered an RFI and what will not be considered one.
  • What documentation will be required alongside an RFI for a response, expected response times and communicating all of the above prior to initiating the construction project.  

While those will help frame expectations, you’ll want to set a few conditions prior to engaging with a business as well. From your standpoint, it would make sense to communicate your expected RFI protocols (if they differ from theirs) and agree on the method or system of submission.

This is where technology can be your friend. Using a mobile-enabled, collaborative software solution can help streamline communications and keep everyone informed in real time (while documenting every activity related to your RFI – basically, covering your behind). If the construction project owner, company or manager are using a software solution like this – be sure to ask for a quick lesson in how to use the system properly. If you are the one introducing the system, make sure the owner, company or project manager understands the need for real-time collaboration to keep the project on time and within budget. Often the project management system or solution you’ll be expected to utilize is outlined in your contracts – so again – read those contracts carefully.

Making the “Request” Straightforward

It’s surprising how often this most basic component goes missing from the RFI; puzzling the recipient, muddying the waters, and creating unnecessary drag in the process. Make the “request” as obvious and unadorned and specific as possible. Each question should be singular and clear—and answerable.

Follow each question with a question mark, as a way of separating issues and focusing on the exact nature of the request. Getting fancy with the questions or trying to intermingle several issues at once in the RFI doesn’t move the ball downfield. Keep it simple. An RFI is a question. Ask it as plainly as possible.

Context Matters

Let’s say it again: Context. It is very easy to accidentally compose a request that draws so much from your own experience of the issue, it defies easy penetration by the recipient. That is a time-eater. Construct the question in such a way that absolutely anyone on or off the project can understand it. Look closely at your request. Does it even mildly presume some prior knowledge on the recipient’s part?  

An issue doesn’t present in isolation on a project, and neither should its corresponding RFI.

A properly contextual RFI should include the exact nature of the misunderstanding, who on the project is impacted, what part of the project process is impacted, where on the build the information is lacking, and a deadline by which a response is needed. An issue doesn’t present in isolation on a project, and neither should its corresponding RFI. Wrap the question lightly in the sort of augmenting detail that brings complete clarity to the RFI.

The Importance of Visuals in an RFI

A picture is worth 1,000 words. This truism is perfectly suited to the RFI. Attaching photos, drawings, video, or even a hastily sketched diagram will go a long way toward eliminating confusion about the exact nature of the information being requested. Visuals have a way of cutting straight to the chase, and when combined with your focused questions will assure the RFI is addressed quickly and accurately.

Suggest a Solution

Suggesting a solution not only frames and highlights the central issue of the RFI, that format will also serve to spur the recipient to an immediate “solution mode;” turning an “I’ll have a look at this later” item into an action item.

If you’re in the position to request an RFI, you likely have the professional expertise and situational awareness to include with your very specific question a couple of possible answers of your own. What’s the point of submitting a proposed answer alongside your own question? This practice serves to bring the question into even sharper relief by contrasting the RFI against a rhetorically proposed solution. It’s like darkening the background of a photo in order to helpfully exaggerate the outlines of the subject. You do not have the answers, clearly, or you wouldn’t be producing an RFI.

Importance of RFI Process Implementation

Yes, we said it. The process of using the RFIs to indicate a company’s or owner’s lack of diligence or liability for additional time and costs may not get you far in court. Construction companies have attempted to use the sheer volume of RFIs as a way of showing faulty plans. However, in Caddell Construction Co., Inc. v. The United States, the court found against Caddell Construction Co., Inc stating that “…a large number of RFIs is not an indication that the plans were defective…” and “…in order for the RFIs to be evidence that the plans were defective, they must cumulatively demonstrate a serious deficiency in the plans.” 

Another court case, Dugan & Meyers Construction Co., Inc. v. Ohio Department of Administrative Services, resulted in Dugan & Meyers losing in appeals because Ohio courts have rejected cumulative impact arguments (the impact of a series of changes on productivity, schedule and cost). While this court case is state specific, it’s still important to understand current thinking behind cumulative impact and RFIs.

In the future, the burden of demonstrating delay and impact beyond the quantity of RFIs submitted will rest on the contractor’s shoulders.

In the future, the burden of demonstrating delay and impact beyond the quantity of RFIs submitted will rest on the contractor’s shoulders. And with mounting court case appeals in favor of the defendants, RFI processes must be more thorough along with detailed documentation and proof of true impact if the contractor wants to litigate over damages.

Remember that RFIs are not submittals, change orders or contracts. While they are important, and you need answers fast, you can safeguard yourself and your sanity by planning ahead and instituting reasonable response rates, engaging in best practices and implementing innovative software solutions. These all equate to less time waiting and more time working.

Don’t just take our word for it, check out Procore’s RFI tool for yourself.

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