— 16 min read
RFIs: A Contractor’s Guide to Requests for Information
Last Updated Nov 16, 2023
If a general contractor could add up all the minutes they 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.
Table of contents
What is an RFI in construction?
An RFI, or Request for Information, is a business process used in construction to request clarification about documents, drawings, specifications, or other project conditions. RFIs are used to resolve information gaps, eliminate ambiguities, and capture and share specific decisions during the course of the project.
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.
A general contractor or subcontractor usually submits an RFI in written form to retrieve information from a design, engineering, or construction professional. The information requested through an RFI is typically information that wasn’t included (or was unclear) 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 to include in 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
- 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, submittals, 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.
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RFI vs. other types of requests
“RFX” is a term used to refer to a Request For “Something,” whether a proposal, information, a quotation, or something else. It’s often easier to reference an RFX than “an RFP, RFI, or RFQ.”
The three most common documents are RFI (Request for Information), RFP (Request for Proposal), and RFQ (Request for Qualifications or Quote). RFIs are 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.
An 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.
An RFQ most commonly refers to a Request for Qualifications. Owners typically send an RFQ to general contractors to ask for financial, safety, and other information to ensure they meet the qualifications required for bidding. In response, contractors usually provide a Statement of Qualifications that contains all of the necessary information.
An RFQ may also refer to a Request for Quote, though its use is less common in construction. A Request for Quote 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. This type of request may be issued after an RFP, but can also be issued on its own for goods and services that are particularly standardized. Contractors often just call this "asking for pricing."
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, downtime, and costs that result from 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.
In 2013, Navigant Consulting conducted a study on the impact of RFIs in construction, reviewing data from 1,362 projects worldwide with more than 1 million RFIs. The study found that responding to an individual RFI costs construction firms an average of $1,080. The collective cost to the project could set a firm back $859K.
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.
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 reply. 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.
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Best practices to improve the RFI process
One of the main causes of RFIs is the lack of communication between architects, engineers, 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, and increased costs.
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 include:
- Developing an RFI procedure
- Defining what constitutes an RFI (and what doesn't)
- Outlining the documentation required along with an RFI for a response
- Define expected response times
- Communicate the process and requirements to all stakeholders
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.
Make clear requests
It’s surprising how often the most basic elements go missing from the RFI, puzzling the recipient 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.
Add essential context
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?
A proper contextual RFI should include:
- The exact nature of the misunderstanding
- A description of parties impacted
- The part of the project process that is impacted
- Where on the build the information is lacking
- 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.
Use a real-time solution
Contractors who implement software for managing RFIs can effectively eliminate these delays by making them available to all relevant parties instantly. Anyone on the team -- from executives to architects to subcontractors in the field -- can easily snap a photo of the problematic area and upload it to the platform for everyone else to view. Even individuals who do not have the platform can 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.
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.
With the right software solution, RFIs can be sent to everyone who needs to respond -- no matter where they are. Employees in the field can attach photos, drawings, or schematics that are more detailed and specific to the request. More comprehensive information gives the recipient 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
Read the contract thoroughly to understand what qualifies as an RFI and what does not according to the agreement. Many RFIs are already answered within the original contract documents.
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.”
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 the Navigant study, average RFI 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.
Clarifying 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.
Group related requests
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 issues may help speed up RFI response times for difficult aspects of a project.
Include photo documentation
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.
Don't use RFIs as a weapon
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 one case the court ruled 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. 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.
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.
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).
Streamline RFIs to improve outcomes
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.
If the construction project owner, company, or construction manager is using software to track and respond to RFIs, ask for training 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.
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