Request for information, or colloquially known as a construction RFI. You know they happen, but you probably don’t like them. You don’t like losing time over them and paying for them. But as certain as death and taxes, RFIs are a necessity in the construction industry. Although there are ways to keep RFIs low, many contractors don’t avail themselves of these options, and therefore end up paying through the nose and reducing their bottom line dramatically.
According to a Navigant Construction Forum survey of 1,362 projects, there is an average of 9.9 requests for information for each $1 million of construction worldwide. This translated to an average project cost, once hours for review and response were taken into account, of $859,680 dedicated to RFIs.
RFIs are often misunderstood, and as a result, mishandled. Luckily, the common construction RFI dilemma has a clear solution. If you’d like to keep your RFIs low, it first starts with understanding what an RFI is – as opposed to an RFP, RFQ or RFT. It also requires knowing why a construction RFI is submitted, what goes into responding to them, and why they’re important to the project as a whole. And if you’re looking for a handy RFI template, we got one for you!
The American Council of Engineering Companies of Kansas explains that 'In most Construction Documents, it is inevitable that the agreement, drawings and specifications will not adequately address every single matter'. Therefore, 'There may be gaps, conflicts or subtle ambiguities. The goal of the Request For Information (RFI) is to act as a partnering tool to resolve these gaps, conflicts or subtle ambiguities during the tendering process or early in the construction process to eliminate the need for costly corrective measures'.
The phrase 'request for information' might make this seem like a simple process in which a question is asked and then subsequently answered. Unfortunately, it’s not always this clear cut. As the above definition indicates, an RFI is a formal and sometimes complicated process that requires an immense amount of detail.
Construction RFIs are used by many parties and for many purposes, as Quality in Construction explains. It may be 'a question from the Contractor to the Designer asking for information and clarifications on some drawing' or 'a question from the Contractor to the Client or other stakeholders of the project… in some other cases, it’s the Subcontractor who is asking information from the Main Contractor regarding the subcontracted works'.
Frequently, RFIs are used much earlier in the procurement process by clients gathering information from a variety of companies to see which one might best fit their needs.
RFI, RFP, RFQ and RFT, with so many 'Rs' it can get difficult to remember which is which and how they are different. In order to understand the difference between these four basic requests, let’s take a look at the definitions of the other three procurement terms. Negotiation Experts defines them the following ways:
Note, each of these terms may be made as either a precursor to a construction RFI (when the RFI is part of a project) or as a subsequent step (when the RFI is in the initial phase of a client hiring a company).
While requests for information may feel burdensome when they come through – or when you have to submit them yourself – they are critical for providing clarification and allowing the project to move forward in a timely and accurate fashion. Without the ability and platform to ask questions when necessary, projects may either come to a halt or be completed with below standard quality.
An RFI may be used for any reason during the initial information-gathering phase of a construction project, before quoting has even commenced, and right up to the final phases of construction, in which contractors and subcontractors may need final queries answered regarding materials, building specifications and more. In addition to other questions not answered by the existing documents, RFIs may be commonly used to clarify the following:
As part of its formal process, an RFI is usually submitted by a form. However, since requests for information are such a standard part of any construction process, each architect, designer, contractor and subcontractor may have their own particular method of submitting one. Over time, this can become extremely confusing and costly, as all stakeholders struggle to track all the different methods of request – and, according to some statistics, fail to receive a response 22% of the time.
Instead of throwing your hard hat down in frustration, using a template for the RFI process provides consistency and improves the process on the whole. Looking for a template for construction RFIs? Download our free template here:
But a better approach is to use standardised technology that enables every stakeholder to request information in a timely fashion, within a specific time period. The right technology can help ensure all questions actually get answered and the project operates more efficiently as a whole.
When it comes to construction RFIs, change your mindset. Instead of seeing RFIs as a necessary evil to just put up with, view them as an opportunity for streamlining and improving the design, engineering and construction processes. When you need technical answers to a knotty question, you need mobile technology that can accommodate efficient, accurate and user-friendly RFIs and kill the drama before it can even begin. Here are 10 ways to improve the RFI process in construction
Grim reports aside, there are reliable ways to speed up the request for information process and make them more efficient and tolerable to all.
If you want to receive a timely response, be careful about when you submit. While this may seem obvious, RFIs are often rushed and poor quality as a result. Understand exactly when an RFI needs to be submitted and put it through as soon as possible. Again, according to Navigant Construction Forum, 'the average performance within the sample data is an average first reply time of 6.4 days'. If you’re looking for additional follow up, consider that the industry average is 'a median reply time of 9.7 days'.
Clearly, the earlier you submit, the better chance it won’t impact the total schedule, making the project run smoother overall.
Many times, RFIs are responded to inaccurately because the problem is not clearly defined or too many issues are covered. It’s best to keep RFIs to one clear problem to receive a complete and timely response. That also means it’s essential to keep your writing clear; a poorly worded RFI is likely to result in a badly worded response. Minimising technical terms and jargon also helps to improve RFIs.
After the problem has been made clear, you might have a solution or two in mind. Instead of waiting for responders to propose a solution, offer a few of your ideas. Providing options will make the process go faster. Now the engineer, owner or architect only has to validate a solution, as opposed to coming up with one on their own.
To improve RFIs and avoid getting a response that is inadequate or incomplete, be clear about what actually entails a complete response in your RFI. Provide a list of the information needed to adequately answer the questions for moving forward in your initial request.
A central repository of project and contract information goes hand in hand with proper documentation standards to empower team members to handle RFIs rapidly, whether they’re on the sending or receiving side of the exchange. At the very least, this database should store crucial information about the request, like the send date and the sender’s and recipient’s information. Maintaining a centralised source of contract information is essential for updating the plan’s schedule and budget on the fly, as change requests, RFIs and other exchanges occur weekly during the project.
How many different ways and mediums have you submitted and received RFIs? Having no standard template and form for RFIs is a significant disadvantage; you need a better way.
Check first with the contractor about which standard format they use or prefer. Meeting their expectation and adapting to their processes will improve your chances of getting an answer. Also, ensure to track your RFI formally rather than sending through whichever email, paper or other channel happens to be closest at the time.
One incredibly efficient way to formalise and standardise the process is by using cloud-based software. Certain software will allow you to set up templates and clearly defined workflows to easily submit RFIs and track them throughout the whole process, providing more visibility for all parties involved. This will also allow you to track and see all RFIs – answered and outstanding – in one view.
Another valuable way to improve RFIs is to create a formal process for escalation. For instance, what should happen when an RFI is not responded to in time? Establish the process beforehand to keep things moving.
Context can be everything. If you want to improve RFIs at your company, make sure you add additional details to documents to clarify the question, even if it’s a very small one. Utilise software systems will let you hyperlink relevant documents and photos in the RFI so it’s easily viewed and evaluated once given to the receiver.
How to Fast-Track RFIs when responding
Waiting on RFIs isn’t the only situation that can cause delays and expenses. Holding them up on your end is just as bad, no matter your reasons. If you want to stop RFI costs from getting bigger than your building, it’s time to fast-track them when responding as well.
Many times RFIs get delayed because an engineer, architect or owner does not want to carry out the work. Instead of slowing and delaying the process, decline instead. Just remember to keep things professional, do it politely and provide valid reasoning. The worst thing you can do is not respond at all, so be mature and deal with the situation quickly.
To avoid getting pinged again, make sure you read through the details of a construction RFI carefully before responding. Do not leave questions unanswered, and make sure you provide clarity on every aspect you are being asked about. 'Most of' an answer is not a valid answer to an RFI.
While this is a step you should take at the very start of a project, thinking carefully about the project delivery method will help you reduce the amount of RFIs if you find them to be unbearable. Delivery methods such as design-build and integrated project delivery (IPD) encourage collaboration and communication to the point that the need for RFIs is significantly reduced.
RFIs are likely costing your company and projects. You need a plan of action to expedite and optimise this essential construction workflow. Implement the above strategies to improve RFIs in construction today.