Wouldn’t it be nice if the 53 subcontractors building a high rise, as an example, were on the same page and understood precisely what needs to be done when looking at the design and construction blueprints? That rarely happens. Managing the scores of documents in a construction project is a chore for everyone involved. Not every detail or aspect of a project is crystal clear, which is why RFIs or requests for information in construction exist.
What is an RFI in Construction?
A request for information or RFI is a formal process in construction used to clarify plans, drawings, and agreements when gaps exist in documents that cannot be easily interpreted from the original plans.
WHAT ARE RFIS COMMONLY USED FOR?
RFIs are typically initiated by contractors and subcontractors who need to better understand a project’s details, such as specific materials or scope, before or during construction. RFIs are also used when a subcontractor or architect wants to propose a substitution or an alteration or when someone has identified a problem.
WHY ARE CONSTRUCTION RFIS IMPORTANT?
RFIs provide a formal, documented process for exchanging information. This process keeps everyone on the same page and aware of changes, clarifications, or material substitutions.
Hundreds of conversations happen before a crew starts working on a project and many hundreds more after construction begins. If these exchanges aren’t documented, people outside an initial conversation don’t know what has taken place or changed.
Formal documentation in the form of RFIs prevents mistakes, communication gaps, and allows the project to move forward in a timely and accurate manner. They can also eliminate duplicate work and eliminate potential lawsuits.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RFI, RFP, RFQ, AND RFT?
There are several ways to ask for items in the construction industry. Some may seem redundant because they all start with RF, which stands for ‘Request For’; however they all serve important purposes. The following outlines the differences between the terms and their meanings in construction:
RFI: As stated above, a ‘request for information’ or RFI is a formal process in construction used to clarify plans, drawings, and agreements when gaps exist in documents, gaps that cannot be easily interpreted from the original plans.
RFP: A ‘request for a proposal’ or RFP is a comprehensive and detailed announcement created by a firm looking for help building the project that invites architects, designers, and construction firms to bid on the project. The RFP is a document spelling out in its entirety exactly what the initiating company wants to build and encompasses the entire project proposed.
RFQ: A ‘request for quotations’ or RFQ is a request for pricing, a quote for materials, or a certain aspect of a construction project. For example, a general contractor may want to gather quotes for all the plumbing in a project. The building owner is simply gathering information to compare pricing a service or materials.
RFT: A ‘request for tender’ or RFT is a request for pricing from a vendor that may have responded to an RFP but did not include a cost breakdown by service, materials and other areas. RFTs are for estimates of pricing and do not require other information that goes beyond pricing such as schedule, execution plan and other details found in the larger RFP.
TYPES OF RFIS IN CONSTRUCTION
Common types of RFI requests include:
- Construction Coordination: Covers requests to coordinate procedures, schedules, and safety items
- Timing and Phasing: Used when the builder needs to change the sequence of construction activities when faced with supply chain issues or labor constraints
- Design Change: Used to revise the design to fix a construction mistake
- Change in Method or Process: Used when the contractor wants to change a specified building or installation method
- Scope Deletion: Used to remove work from the project
- Incomplete Specifications: Used to surface errors or omissions in construction plans and specifications
- Site Conditions: Used when discrepancies arise between the description of site conditions in the construction documents and the actual site conditions
- Utility Conflict: Used when utility lines are in the way and not accurately reflected in the construction plans as originally envisioned
- General Issues: This catch-all category covers other issues such as those related to inspections, certifications, warranties, and penalties, for example
Typical construction RFI process
RFIs in construction happen during the design and the build phases. They include very specific information like the date of the RFI, recipients, the information being requested, why it is being requested and dates and deadlines for replies.
An RFI typically arrives in the form of a piece of paper or an email sent to the owner or on larger projects, the project manager. Many track RFIs in an Excel log using their own numbering system. Unfortunately, the originating request carries a different identifying number, which makes synching with others confusing at best, often resulting in delayed resolution.
In addition to logging RFI information on a spreadsheet, project managers or owners have to track communication on the request, which typically takes place over emails or phone calls. When faced with numerous RFIs in construction, you can see how the process balloons as one tries to merge data across the two applications and how problems can arise when one side or the other doesn’t respond in a timely manner.
While some RFIs can be handled within an hour, design professionals cited in the Navigant Construction Forum™ research paper suggested that many RFIs may take several days of review, and “the typical RFI probably consumes an average of 8 hours to receive, log, review and respond. This time includes both the administrative process of receiving, categorizing, logging in and out, etc., as well as the technical review and response time.”
On average, surveys have suggested that construction projects will have between 50 and 100 or more RFIs over the duration of the project. Larger projects have many more.
The time and cost discussed in the Navigant research paper suggests that the cost of a single RFI is $1,080, which means a project with, say, 50 RFIs would cost $54,000, and the process of retiring all of them could take a total of 50 days if processed one day at a time.
As you can see, when approvals are slow, back and forth emails used to communicate are buried, and some emails are missed, the RFI process can significantly contribute to cost overruns and longer than expected completion dates.
Information in RFIs can provide insight into a crew’s productivity, ensuring that the project is moving forward at the pace desired, and that tasks have not been added to someone’s to-do list without their knowledge.
But this information and insights are hard to extract when your processes are manual and buried paper or spreadsheets. Analyzing the information is typically a low priority. When the status of the RFI request is hard to track, the results are often project delays, escalating costs, and frustration among the entire crew.
How to (Better) Manage RFIs in Construction
Increasingly, project managers and owners are using construction management software to digitally manage and automate the RFI process, which removes many of the headaches involved.
Construction management software streamlines, centralizes and documents the RFI construction process, making the information available in real time. In a project management system like e-Builder Enterprise, RFI’s are easy to view and manage.
RFI requests are a built-in part of the construction document management process and are often a templated choice of various documents needed in construction. The requestor simply fills out a standard form that details what the person is looking for, as well as the contact information of the people involved. Once created, an RFI request becomes an automated workflow driven forward with needed information prompts and approvals that are tracked as information is exchanged.
The RFI form designates the parties involved so that the request goes directly to the stakeholder immediately and automatically, which removes the need for a separate email communications chain.
Any project manager or executive could run a report at any time to determine the number of open RFI processes and see the status of each one in real time. The RFI data can inform different construction reports or be included in dashboards included in the construction management system.
Because the information flows in real-time, project managers and owners have immediate visibility into schedule and cost impacts, which allows owners to make informed, proactive decisions – not weeks later when receiving manual paperwork.
Tips for Producing Effective Construction RFIs
The sheer number of RFIs and the amount of time it takes to resolve or disseminate information to close them clearly impacts a construction schedule and completion, as the Navigant Construction study found.
Construction owners and general contractors can take a number of preventative steps to lessen the amount of RFIs. In addition, subcontractors and other construction professionals can also do their part to make the process smoother and faster.
The following are 7 tips to produce more effective, and less, construction RFIs.
- Project owners should include a standard RFI form and language in their contracts that spell out how the RFI process should work on their particular project.
- Navigant Construction suggested adding clarifying contract language into the general conditions of the contract documents using common definitions to distinguish between “drawing clarification,” “request for information,” “request for substitution” and other terms to prevent misunderstandings and delays in the RFI process.
- Everyone should follow the same naming and numbering conventions per project, which could also be set forth in the general contract. Remember, larger organizations have tons of ongoing projects at a given time and common numbering and naming conventions help keep RFIs organized.
- Optimally, the owner should provide an advanced digital construction management system that everyone can access, which helps keep everyone on the same page and from duplicating RFI requests. A digital platform has automatic processes that move the RFI along and routed when updated so the process is not slowed or waiting for a person to move it along through email for example.
- When making an RFI request, include specific language around a single issue. Do not ask for a laundry list of different items, which slows down the response time and also buries critical information that may need to be shared.
- Always include a deadline for a response to not only move responses along, but so you can track and follow up. These processes may be handled automatically by a construction management platform with RFIs built in.
- Remember to include any drawings, documents or markups and link them to your RFI, and give them the same RFI number as your request which saves time and eliminates confusion.
- When an RFI response is returned, review it for accuracy and completeness and clarify any impact on the project schedule and budget before closing it.
Automate the RFI in Construction Workflow
Making sure RFIs are managed efficiently minimizes delays and cost overruns. Closely monitoring RFIs can also reduce the risk of potential fraud. Unfortunately, some contractors have used the construction RFI process to create claims alleging impact damages. Having a real-time digital system allows owners and project managers to closely track specific categories or contractors across many projects and RFI types.
Construction management systems also provide a standard form and process that could be incorporated into an owner’s contract within its General Conditions to formalize the RFI process and timing for reviews and responses, which can reduce the overall number of RFIs in a project.