What is an RFI in Construction: Best Practices for the Subcontractor

RFI Meaning in Construction: Best Practices for the Subcontractor

Is the construction process set up for the success of its stakeholders? When we look at the majority of construction projects, there are unrealistic expectations placed on all stakeholders. Designers and engineers are tasked to design without fully understanding the scope of requirements. General contractors and the skilled trade subcontractors are tasked to estimate and build based on incomplete and inconstructible designs. While owners are issued a list of ever constant changes and costs to approve. At the center of this broken process in the construction industry is the request for information, more commonly referred to as an RFI.

What is an RFI?

An RFI is a request for information that is used in construction to clarify any uncertainties or to fill in any gaps in information that may be found in any specifications, plans, contracts, or other documents.

Who is involved in an RFI?

When there is a question about a document, a general contractor or subcontractor submits an RFI to the person who initially provided the document (client, designer, etc.). The party receiving the RFI submits a response to the contractor with an answer to their question.

RFI Process: When is an RFI needed?

An RFI is needed when information from clients, designers, or other stakeholders is insufficient, brings up questions, or requires clarification.

Reasons to submit an RFI:

  • — Substitution or Modification
  • — Clarification or Additional information
  • — Construction deficiency

Why is an RFI important?

The RFI is an integral part of the construction communication process. No communication, whether it is written or verbal, is flawless in its design and interpretation. In almost any case, questions will arise, information will be left out, and the need for clarification will result.

What happens after an RFI is answered?

  1. The response answered the question that the stakeholder had. In this case, the issue is resolved and the record of the RFI is recorded in the database.
  2. The response did not answer the question that the stakeholder had. A study by legal consulting firm Navigant revealed that in the United States, 25% of RFIs do not receive a response. This is troublesome because every day that an RFI is not answered is a day that the project team cannot move forward. In this case, the stakeholder who submitted the RFI should request a meeting with the stakeholder who received the RFI. A direct face-to-face meeting or telephone call will speed up the RFI process and minimize any delays.Additionally, any confusion can get resolved rather than start a trail of back-and-forth communications. Although a verbal directive and approval may have been received in response to the RFI, the contractor must still document the instruction or approval. This serves as important documentation if any questions or conflicts arise due to the work performed.

Although the RFI is a necessary tool to keep everybody on the same page, it has the potential to be abused by parties seeking to make false claims and create unnecessary paper trails to place blame on other parties for delays and lack of information. The bad faith claims stemming from excessive RFIs have created an unfortunate stigma around a necessary tool created for communication and clarification.

In order to avoid abusing the RFI, here are some tips for the subcontractor when dealing with RFIs:

Thoroughly read the contract

Contracts, if written correctly, contain information that is important to the project and may also include specifications regarding the submittal process of RFIs including the format, when to submit an RFI versus another document, and the timeframe expected to receive a response. By failing to read the contract in its entirety, RFIs will be sent for information already provided, and RFIs will not be submitted according to the specifications laid out in the contract. Both of these things will cause unnecessary costs and time delays that could have been easily avoided.

What is an RFI

Address any RFIs as early as possible

In a traditional design-bid-build project, construction is a very linear process. A design is completed and then delivered to the contractors. This is where the source of contention around RFIs stems in the construction process. The silos in design and construction hinder collaboration, whereas,  a more open collaboration process has the potential to reduce RFIs during construction.

Integrated delivery models in the construction industry such as Design-Build, Integrated Project Delivery, or Integrated Labor Delivery, are gaining support from many owners and contractors. These models encourage the early participation of trade contractors, the constructability experts, to provide input into the design process. This way allows for issues to be addressed during the design phase versus during the construction phase where the issues and changes become more costly.

Use a document-tracking platform

Tracking RFIs is a tedious and manual process for many contractors. Project manager creates the RFI in a word document. Then, he or she logs and tracks the RFIs on an excel spreadsheet. This provides challenges for a company on a holistic level. Approvals and communications are usually conducted through emails. There is a lack of standardization and visibility. Project managers and field teams must call for RFI status or update.

Many construction project management solutions now allow the subcontractor to track the RFI from the moment it is created to the moment the answer is received and store all relevant information in a centralized place where it can be accessed at any time by any user. An RFI platform will also include a standardized RFI form so that all RFIs being submitted are identical and according to the specifications agreed upon which will make it easier for the recipient to read and respond to.

When used properly, the RFI is a useful tool for all parties that facilitates communication. When dealing with RFIs on your next project keep in mind these RFI best practices:

  • — Limit one issue per RFI
  • — Use a standardized form for submitting RFIs
  • — Specify a timeframe in the contract that RFIs must be responded to by
  • — Store all RFIs in a centralized database with all relevant information such as date/time/sender/receiver.
  • — Keep a record of delivery of all RFIs in a centralized database.
  • — When receiving a response to an RFI, adjust the schedule and budget if necessary.
  • — Create and automate a permanent RFI audit trail
  • — Thoroughly read the contract and all documents
  • — Consider the cost of the RFI to all parties involved

Takeaway for subcontractors

When used correctly, RFIs are the communication tool that allows for seamless communication and smooth project productivity. It is up to the subcontractor and general contractors to eliminate the stigma around the RFI by using best practices and only submitting RFIs in good faith.

Be mindful of the costs associated with an RFI for the receiving party

 As a subcontractor, you must not only consider your direct costs but also the costs incurred by relevant stakeholders. Each RFI costs the recipient about $1,000 after administrative and professional costs. This should not deter the subcontractor from submitting necessary RFIs, but the subcontractor should make the effort to only submit RFIs when the answer is not clearly provided in any documents previously provided. By doing so, the subcontractor will be able to create positive working relationships with all parties on a construction project, which can lead to long-term business relationships and positive word of mouth.

Because of the potential cost and time impacts that surface with RFIs, they tend to get a bad reputation. However, RFIs address the essential questions or seek clarification before work beginning. Because if work commences without an RFI, that could cause worse problems like rework and change orders.

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