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6 min read

How to Write Successful Construction RFIs

Chris Lee
Published Dec 1, 2023

A well-scripted RFI can have a massive impact on the success of a construction project, both from a cost and schedule standpoint. While it might seem like they are just simple and straightforward questions on the surface, RFIs have the potential to introduce large design changes, add scope outside of the scope outlined in the original contract, and can dictate means and methods available to you to build the work.

Beyond that, an RFI can serve as protection for you and other contractors, against claims or issues related to the work down the road. The timeline, how they are worded, the information that is included, and the outcome the RFI is written to suggest are subtleties that might seem insignificant, but can lead to detrimental or positive outcomes.

Key Elements of an Effective RFI

There are several foundational elements that every RFI should reflect. You should try and incorporate the following every time you create an RFI.

Make it concise.

It is easy to get lost in the details of a construction project with the immense amount of information that gets generated, and RFIs are no exception to that. There can be a lot of secondary, yet relevant, information that can add context to the question being asked. Ultimately though, you want the end reader (the designer) to understand the issue quickly and be able to issue a prompt response. Often there is a balancing act between having enough information on the RFI to provide proper context and having too much information. Ideally, you want a fast response after submitting an RFI so that the work can continue to proceed, so make sure that you cut out any unnecessary language and superfluous content to help the designer to quickly and fully comprehend the question.

Include different types of information to support the question.

Every person communicates and understands language just a little bit differently, so always make sure to include multiple types of information so that the nature of the questions you’re asking cannot be confused. Include pictures of the item in question (if it was a conflict in the field) or some kind of visual showing the problem and supporting the text of the actual question itself. Markups like callouts and clouded circles can also be useful to add to the visuals and force the person reading the RFI to hone in on the part you want them to look at. Snippets of conflicts between different drawings or details can also be extremely helpful. As a best practice, try and add any visuals as attachment pages with the RFI template as the cover page.

The language should favor the contractor.

When you have to write an RFI, there are likely a lot of things that are not in your control as the contractor. The one thing that is in your control when generating the RFI is the language and how certain outcomes are suggested. Try and write RFIs to suggest the outcome that’s most favorable for your organization. If there is a potential for extra work based on an RFI, try to craft it in such a way that, through the response, the owner verifies that the work to mitigate the issue at the center of the RFI is out-of-scope. Then you can bill for it at a higher rate via a change order or change notice work directive.

Propose a solution.

This relates to the previous point, but if you can, try and propose a solution that, again, is favorable to you. There might be many different options that are viable answers to the question and represent paths forward, but not all of them may be in your best interests. Put your proposed solution in front of the designer and try and bias their response a little.

Be specific about where the issue is.

I liked to start out my RFIs with the drawing number or specification section that applied. If there isn’t a drawing or spec for the question and it’s based on a condition in the field, give a good reference point such as room or floor on a building, survey stationing number, or even latitude and longitude. This will allow the designer to understand the location of the issue and even visit it if they need to further investigate.

The ideal outcome of an RFI is a response that is timely, accurate, and complete from the designer or owner’s representative that provides clear direction forward and resolves your question, which allows the work to proceed without delays or disputes.

👉🏼 Check out our guide on navigating common construction management issues.

What does an ideal RFI response look like?

These are some of the factors you should look for in an ideal RFI response:

Timeliness: You want to get the RFI response as quickly as possible within the allotted time frame for a response within the contract. The sooner you receive a quality response from the designer, the less chance there is for the schedule to be delayed waiting on a response.

Accuracy:  The response should provide clear, unambiguous, and accurate information that directly addresses the contractor’s specific questions or concerns. This is why it is so important to use the right information when you generate the RFI in the first place.

Completeness: Getting a response that fails to address one part of the original RFI can be just as bad as getting a late response back. Often, an additional RFI must be issued to get further clarification or direction if the original response is not complete. Ideally, the response should address all aspects of your inquiry and provide sufficient detail to eliminate any remaining uncertainties.

Resolution: The response should resolve your uncertainty and allow you to proceed with work without further ambiguity or risk of disputes.

Communication: The response should be communicated effectively to you and other relevant stakeholders so everyone is on the same page.

Achieving an ideal RFI outcome requires effective communication and collaboration between you and the project design team or owner’s representative. Prompt responses, clear explanations, and a willingness to address all concerns are essential for ensuring that RFIs contribute to a smooth and efficient construction process.

What goes wrong if you write a poor RFI?

Getting an ideal response back doesn’t always happen. A subpar RFI can be a significant setback and has the potential to cause problems in the future — during the course of construction and beyond. The potential fallout might include:

Delays in the project schedule: An unclear RFI can leave design teams or project financiers in a bind, unsure of the contractor’s exact queries. This confusion can cause delays in communication and responses, potentially derailing the project schedule.

Increased risk of misunderstandings: When an RFI lacks precision, it can lead to misunderstandings between you and project overseers. This ambiguity might cause disputes over project details and responsibilities, complicating the workflow.

Rising costs due to errors: A poorly handled RFI can lead you to make incorrect assumptions, possibly resulting in costly errors or rework. Such mistakes often necessitate change orders, driving up the project’s overall cost.

Potential for liquidated damages: Construction contracts typically include penalties for missed deadlines. If an RFI-related delay occurs, you might face financial repercussions, impacting their bottom line.

Concerns Over Long-Term Quality: Inadequate RFI responses might lead to construction mistakes or subpar workmanship, which may not become evident until later in the project. This can lead to expensive repairs and potentially damage the your reputation.

Liability Issues in Construction Claims: If a poorly crafted RFI contributes to project delays or quality issues, you may face legal challenges from the project owner or other stakeholders. These claims can be complicated and costly to address.

How to write an RFI for construction

Here’s a step-by-step guide of how you can begin to generate great RFIs on your project:

1. Identifying the Need: First, you need to know when to ask the questions. If during review of contract documents, including the drawings, specifications, and addenda, you notice an inconsistency or a conflict, an RFI probably needs to be generated. Likewise, if there is an issue that arises in the field and uncertainty exists after a review of the plans and specs, again, an RFI should probably be generated.

2. Gathering Information: Collect all relevant documents and data before writing the RFI. You can always choose which pieces of documentation and information you include with the RFI, but having all of the relevant information in one place will help give you a complete understanding of the issue and its potential ramifications.

3. Clarity is Key: When drafting the RFI, state the issue clearly and precisely. Reference specific sections of documents or drawings to avoid ambiguity and ensure the response is focused and relevant.

4. Providing Context: Explain why this information is crucial and how its absence impacts the project. This helps the recipient understand the importance and urgency of your request. It also helps the owner and the design team understand the potential impacts to the project if the RFI is not answered sufficiently and promptly.

5. Proposing Solutions: If possible, suggest potential solutions. This approach can speed up the resolution process and showcases your initiative to contribute constructively. If there are multiple paths to resolution, it also places your ideal solution in the spotlight.

6. Attach Supporting Evidence: Include any relevant sketches, photos, visuals, or additional documents that lend clarity to the question. These attachments can be instrumental in conveying your point effectively.

7. Use a Standard Format: If there’s a standard template for RFIs, use it. This ensures consistency and completeness in your communication. Include an RFI number for easy reference and tracking.

👉🏼 Check out our free RFI template that you can use on your projects.

8. Review for Precision: Before sending, review your RFI for conciseness and clarity. A well-crafted RFI demonstrates professionalism and a keen attention to detail. I typically had at least one other person on my team review the RFI and the language therein to make sure that the point I was trying to make was effectively communicated.

9. Send and Track: Dispatch the RFI through the agreed-upon channel, ensuring it reaches the appropriate individual or department. Monitor its status and follow up if necessary, maintaining a tracking log to stay updated on the current status. The tracking log is a great tool to review during meetings with the owner, owner’s rep, or design team and make sure they understand the urgency for responses.

10. Implement Responses: Share received information with relevant team members and incorporate it into the project as needed. Keeping an organized and accessible record of these interactions and decisions is important for project continuity and transparency. If the whole project team is unaware of what the RFI response directs, it can cause confusion and mistakes in the work.

11. Continuous Improvement: Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of your RFI process and seek ways to refine it. Learning from each experience can lead to more efficient project communications and management going forward.

Writing an effective RFI is critical to your success

Writing a good RFI, at the right time, can be crucial for a construction project to successfully move forward and allow the work to continue. Remember that a combination of a precisely worded question, including the appropriate backup documentation that adds context to and clarifies the question, as well as quick timing, will result in an RFI that is quickly received and understood, which will help to facilitate a quality and complete response back.

Chris Lee

Chris combines his experience in tech and construction to build products that actually help SMB contractors improve and streamline their business operations.

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