What is a Construction RFI?

What is a Request for Information (RFI) and how is it managed?

In commercial construction, the use of a Request for Information ( RFI ) is a tremendous tool for formally asking questions, seeking additional information or requesting clarification. The RFI is usually a vehicle initiated by the contractor and issued to the architect, engineer or owner. Contractor, in this case, is the general contractor or subcontractors that have been hired to perform specific work on the project. The RFI is a perfect, formal piece of paper or email, that identifies an issue as well as the time period that the question was asked and eventually answered.

Although the use of the RFI is in most cases a commercial construction industry standard, the use of the same type of process would create a more formal atmosphere within the residential construction industry. I have repeatedly heard from residential homeowners, or owners constructing residential projects, that the phone call or the verbal field question continually goes unanswered. If residential builders could become acquainted to the procedure of formal RFI’s, then the ability to simply not respond would not be as advantageous to the residential builder.

What are the elements that are normally included within the RFI?

  • Project identification / this should include the address of the project and the formal name of the project that is referenced on all contracts, purchase orders and subcontracts.
  • Name of the owner / again this should appear as it does on all the other formal documents of the project.
  • Name of the architect / again as noted on the formal documents.
  • Name of the engineers / site, civil, electrical, mechanical and any other engineering firms that might be included on the projects documents.
  • The date of the initiation of the RFI
  • The question / this should be a concise and accurate description of the question being asked.
  • The date that the RFI was submitted to whoever the RFI addresses.
  • Identification of the responsible party that is addressed by the RFI. (who is going to answer the question? )
  • A space for the response. This would be pertinent if the RFI was created as a paper document or a template that is emailed out to the responsible party.
  • A date for the response
  • Signature line as well as a formal line identifying the author of the response.
  • Copied parties / this is an important line of identification on the RFI. It is essential that the owner, architect, engineers and any other responsible party be copied on the RFI to ensure that they are formally notified of the RFI.

These items of information are the MINIMUM amount of information that should be included on the initial RFI. In some more sophisticated instances, the ability to further question the response with multiple spaces for a “ back and forth “ scenario could be included. However, a word or caution regarding the inclusion of too much information and description on the initial RFI, too much information can create confusion and a delay in the actual responses to the RFI.

The RFI is created and managed for the following reasons.

  • On any construction project, whether it is residential, commercial, industrial, medical, etc. there will be countless questions and discussions that will result in answers, thoughts, additional information and clarifications. The RFI is a document to cleanly and accurately manage all the questions, concerns, additional information, etc.
  • Once the questions and concerns are established formally by an RFI, the recipient of the RFI is more likely to take the question or concerns seriously. There is no question that, once documented, especially with a date specific to the question, the recipient will not feel a more formal responsibility to answer.
  • Unfortunately, and especially in the construction industry, the verbal banter on a project and over the phone, is a non-stop charade of who is blaming who. Verbally the slick contractor will attempt to sidestep legitimate questions, as will the engineers and architects responsible for designing the project. No one likes formal documentation, especially if there is a fault involved.
  • The RFI addresses all of that. The issuance of the RFI should include all the parties responsible for the work and the project. The owner, architect, engineers, as well as any other party that could have a responsibility for the answer should be copied on the RFI.
  • Any question, concern or need for clarification is formally managed and documented by the RFI process. This will give the entity that initiates the RFI, control of the question, without the ability of any of the responsible parties to circumvent the issue.
  • In many instances the RFI exposes a lack of information, a missed coordination, a mistake, or simply lack of the proper information to allow the project to be built. The responsible party will want to “sweep this under the rug “and not formally address the issue. If formally addressed, the identification of the error is exposed and documented.
  • Allows the contractor, subcontractor or whoever issues the RFI to start the process of the Change Order. The Change Order is identified and explained in another webpage on this site.
  • Once the answer to the RFI is submitted and issued through the system, if the answer involves additional work, additional material, or even identifies the need for either acceleration or additional time on the project, the initiator of the RFI has started the formal documentation trail.
  • No party that is responsible for the answer to the RFI wants their name and company affiliated with additional work or additional time; this is an inherent issue in the construction industry. The RFI exposes and documents all of this.

In my opinion the proper use and management of the RFI system should be a standard element of all residential construction. I have witnessed and been involved with numerous issues that were never answered in a timely manner for risk of exposing blame. The RFI system will force the hand of the responsible party to answer the question. What are some traditional RFI’s that seem to reoccur on a constant basis on most projects?

  • Layout and dimensional questions. In many cases, the architect or engineers will fail to close the structure. What this means is that the structures dimensions must add up to the total perimeter with all the proper angles to close the project. If the project is a rectangle, then (2) sides are one dimension and the other (2) sides are another dimension. All (4) interior angles must be 90 degrees to add up to a total of 360 degrees. I have had projects that never added up and never closed due to the fact that the architect failed to coordinate with the structural engineer and the dimensions never agreed with one another. This can, and will cause multiple problems as the project is constructed.
  • Specification issues. Again, unfortunately, in many instances the required products as they are described in the contract documents are either not manufactured anymore, the specification has been updated, or the model number and product simply does not exist. This occurs more than anyone wants to admit, and the delays incurred when the project is a fast track project cannot be tolerated. The lay person may question why a specification could possibly include items that have been either upgraded or do not exist anymore. This would require an editorial answer which I will not include within this website.
  • Suggested alternates. In many instances, the contractor or subcontractor will understand the marketplace as well as the present industry standards, better than the entity specifying the products or the equipment. In this case, the RFI will allow the contractor or subcontractor to suggest an alternate that in their opinion, would better apply to the specific situation than the items formally specified.
  • Long lead issues. On projects that are fast track or simply have a schedule that must be maintained, the use of items or products on the project that require a long lead time period to order or manufacture, may not fit the required schedule of the project. The RFI will allow the contractor or subcontractor to identify this issue and recommend a resolution.
  • Cost saving suggestions. Again the contractors and subcontractors have in many instances, a better understanding of value verses cost. There might be several items or products that have a more economical substitution available. The RFI is a perfect method of suggesting these more economical products or pieces of equipment.
  • Performance standards and history. The contractor and subcontractors perform this work for a living, and in most cases have a better understanding of the functionality of equipment and products. There might be an alternate piece of equipment that never breaks down, or out performs the specified item. This is a perfect vehicle for the contractors to recommend any of their suggestions based upon their use and installation of the product.
  • Simple mistakes. The construction project is a complicated and unique combination of various designs, different individuals’ ideas and varying products and materials. It is up to the contractors to make it all work, and in many cases, the mistakes of the design will only be identified as the project is constructed. The RFI is the perfect vehicle to clearly and accurately identify this mistake and seek an answer.

Of course as with everything in the construction industry, the trail to the inevitable change order is paved with RFI’s, and the architects, engineers and other responsible parties understand this pathway to financial disaster very clearly. It is unfortunate that the industry has developed such a negative attitude toward the change order process, and the varying negative attitudes regarding change orders by owners, architects, engineers, contractors and alike. The change order certainly has the reputation of disaster and falsehood, however in many cases, and I would like to think, in most cases, this is not the case.

There are legitimate reasons that change orders are required on every successful project and this will be further discussed and analyzed on another webpage of this site.

The use of the RFI system will allow a full and formal management of all questions and concerns. In addition it will allow the creation of the eventual Change Order to be formulated by a formal and detailed trail of information, as well as accurate dates. If the contractor or subcontractor is formally responsible in their management of the project, then the extension of the RFI system to the Change Order system is a normal transition, and will formally manage all revisions and changes on the project accurately.

As I have noted, the Change Order discussion is included within another webpage of this site, however, let me briefly introduce the formal concept of extending the RFI system on the project to the Change Order system that will develop.

Once each RFI is identified and answered, the contactor should then issue a Change Order Request to the answering party, if the answer to the RFI results in additional cost and or time on the project. Remember, that an answer to an RFI may not involve additional cost for the product; however the lack of an answer and the need to have issued the RFI may have caused a delay on the project. If this delay extends the project’s time schedule, then, in most cases the contractors should be compensated for this additional time on the project. This concept will also be discussed and further evaluated on another webpage of this site; however, there is cost that has been incurred.

Once the Change Order Request is submitted, and the RFI trail is identified and added to the background of the Change Order Request, the contractor has the start of a very formal and data intensive explanation of the Change Order Request.

This is the RFI format, its development and documentation. I feel that, if this system was incorporated and accepted on all construction projects, the numerous lawsuits, change order discrepancies as well as repeated construction project disagreements could be minimized and accurately documented.

I suggest that this system be utilized when you are planning your next project, I feel that the use of a formal RFI system will remove some of the frustration and cost increases associated with the majority of construction projects.


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