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Why RFIs are a Vital Communication Tool in Construction

Request for Information To those working in construction, it’s no secret that Requests for Information (RFIs) are an integral part of the construction administration process for large projects.

They’re also unavoidable. Contract documents will always raise questions and concerns. Errors and omissions will pop up during construction operations. Contractors will always need a prompt, efficient means of receiving direction from the client and their design team.

What are RFIs?

RFIs are a formal means of communication between construction project management team members. Typically used to seek clarity or additional information regarding the project’s documents, RFIs may also be used to bring up deficiencies or omissions, or request substitutions for specified materials during construction.

Most RFIs pertain to a specific part of the contract documents, and are addressed to the party who drafted the document in question, usually the architect.
The inquirer is usually the project’s general contractors (GC), who gathers the information from their subcontractors who come across mistakes or ambiguities in the documents.

RFIs during bidding

In the traditional design-bid-build (DBB) construction project delivery method, projects start to involve the building contractor at the bidding stage. At that time, RFIs become the official query method via which contractors may address any gaps or anomalies they find in the drawings and specifications.

Tasked with calculating the material, labor, and equipment needed to complete the job, the bidders rely on drawings to determine quantities. The specifications that accompany the drawings help the contractors establish the physical attributes of the building components, which are needed to arrive at the correct price. Should either the plans or specification lack clarity, the bidders may submit their query through an RFI.

Following submission, the relevant party reviews the RFI and issues a response. As there is more than one contractor bidding on a project, RFI responses get promulgated among all the bidders, usually by way of a Bid Addendum. This keeps a level playing field, and gives all contractors access to the same information.

Projects employing the Design-Build (DB) and Integrated Project Delivery IPD methods see a slightly different RFI procedure, with queries going to the owner’s basis-of-design consultant rather than the architect or engineer of record. Instead of drawings and specifications, RFIs would typically address the owner’s performance specifications, design intent and illustrative design drawings.

Regardless of the delivery method, design queries have less impact on a project’s cost, duration, and quality when they are resolved before construction. To this end, RFIs raised during the bidding stage tend to be more effective than those submitted after crews get to work.

RFIs during operations

During construction, RFIs remain the official communications channel to clarify design detailing and intent between the contractor and the design team, and/or the client. Contractors continue to use RFIs in similar situations as during bidding; namely, to pinpoint design flaws, seek clarification about ambiguities, and in some cases to propose substitutions and/or modifications.

The latter may not always be raised as an RFI. Some contracts are worded such that substitutions must be initiated through a separate procedure, allowing more control and greater scrutiny of the proposed alternative. Similarly, proposed changes that affect the project’s budget, schedule, and/or scope should never be snuck in through an RFI, but rather be introduced as a Change Order.

Tips for efficient use of RFIs

Each RFI that gets submitted incurs expenses for the project in terms of time for both the contractor and designers. Those raised during construction may also delay work if they are not responded to expediently. In either scenario, processing RFIs diverts precious resources from other aspects of the project. With these implications in mind, all project stakeholders should strive to reduce the quantity of RFIs being raised, and streamline the process for those that cannot be averted.

Firstly, all parties normally involved in the RFI process should discuss and agree on the protocol for RFI submittal and responses. The format of the query, as well as deadlines for submission and responses should all be established. There should be a one-to-one relationship between the inquirer and the responder, usually the project managers for both the general contractor and the architecture office. The project team should also decide whether substitution requests should be made through RFIs or via a separate channel.

Because RFIs take time to process, contractors and subcontractors should consider the costs and the ensuing time delays before resorting to the tool. To prevent unnecessary use of time, RFIs should only be raised when necessary. Consequently, the party preparing an RFI must try their best to understand the pertinent documents before submitting the query. Human error is unavoidable at times, and the information may be present in an unexpected place, or worded in unfamiliar manner. It may be much simpler to ask the architect a question at a job meeting, or simply on a phone call. If necessary, the RFI response can be documented in a confirming RFI, which takes less time.

Further, only one issue should be raised per RFI. This limitation will help avoid confusion, as different issues may need inputs from different professionals. Also, the practice will help the inquirer and the responder track their RFIs.

Finally, the consultant should review RFIs and reply to them in a timely manner. Speedy answers are particularly vital during operations, when each day spent waiting for an RFI response can affect the critical path of the project.

RFIs are a powerful construction project management tool. When used efficiently, they prevent rework, change orders, and miscommunication.
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