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Construction RFIs – Asking the Right Questions to Save the Schedule and Protect Profit

Chris Lee
Published Nov 21, 2023

If you’re in the construction management field you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “RFI” – Request for Information. In its simplest form, an RFI is little more than a formalized question that the general contractor or a subcontractor asks the designer. However, RFIs are an extremely important administrative tool in the construction industry that can be used in a variety of ways, including to:

  • Solve constructability issues as they arise in the field
  • Provide value engineering that can save both the builder and the owner costs
  • Serve as evidence to justify schedule extensions and contractor claims
  • Protect the contractor if legal disputes arise from the project.

In this article, we will cover how an RFI is communicated across the various parties of the construction management team, some examples of situations where an RFI is needed, and best practices when generating RFIs to produce the best results for your team.

Key Takeaways


  • An RFI is a formalized question between the contractor and designer on a job.
  • Properly managing RFIs will protect you, as the contractor, against potential disputes and other issues that may arise on a job.

How an RFI fits into the construction management process

Let’s take a step back and think about the process of managing a construction project. The designer (architect or engineer) works for the owner and has been hired to produce drawings and specifications that, together, provide a builder with the visual and written instructions needed to build the project. The owner then hires a builder, using one of many contract delivery methods, and the builder gets started building the work. It sounds like it should be pretty straightforward from here, right?

Well, if that were the case, construction project management would be a far easier line of work and projects would be much less expensive. In reality you, as the contractor, will run into situations, either while reviewing the drawings and specifications, or while building the work in the field, that require further clarification from the owner and design team in order to allow the work to move forward. Some examples include:

  • How to handle differing site conditions discovered during the course of construction (the crews find an unknown asbestos electrical line that needs a hazmat team to remove).
  • Lack of detail given in how certain elements of the project are to be built on the plans.
  • Conflicting information given between the drawings and specifications.
  • Work being requested of the contractor that is not on the contract documents.
  • Constructability ideas and value engineering based on the contractor’s experience of working in similar situations in the past.
  • Conflicts between multiple scopes of work in the field that are not clarified in the drawings or specifications.
  • Weather-related constructability issues that affect the site and the surrounding areas.
  • Specified materials and equipment not fitting or functioning correctly when installed in the field.
  • Multiple subcontractors trying to work in similar locations at similar times in the project schedule.

It’s important to note that the questions formalized in an RFI often impact the time and cost of a project. It’s common for an RFI to result in a contract change order, either between the general contractor and the owner, the GC and a subcontractor, or all three. An RFI, as a memorialized question with a recorded timeline, is an important tool for you to protect yourself, legally and financially, as well as streamline the completion of the project.

The RFI Process

rfi process

To understand how RFIs fit into a project, let’s take a look at the process an RFI follows. Here’s the how it typically plays out:

1. A question arises. – The general contractor, or a subcontractor below them, encounters a situation that requires more information before they can forward with construction. This could be during a review of the original plans or specifications, or it could happen while work is being performed on the job site. That question could originate with anyone on the contractor’s project management team, from a laborer to a project manager.

2. The question is documented. – The question is written out in an RFI template document, usually an MS Word document or Excel spreadsheet. This document is often provided by the owner (if they require a specific format), or you can use your own template. The information usually includes:

    • project information
    • date when the RFI is being submitted
    • contact information of the agent submitting the RFI
    • any applicable drawings or specifications that relate to the question being asked
    • urgency of the question
    • the question itself
    • supporting pictures or other documentation that relates to the question
    • whether or not the question has either cost or schedule impact to the project.

👉🏻 Download our free RFI tracking log template.

3. The question is logged. – If a subcontractor generates the RFI, they will send it to the general contractor. If it’s generated by the general contractor, they will then send it to the owner. Typically when an RFI is generated it is added to a tracking log, where the status of the RFI is maintained and members of the project management team can check in to see if it has been answered or not. The general contractor will almost always maintain an RFI tracking log, and subcontractors will usually track the RFIs that they generate and that relate to their scope of work.

4. The question is sent. – Now that the RFI has been formally documented and has been added to the contractor’s tracking log, it is submitted to the owner. Depending on the owner and the type of project, the owner may have a representative or consultant that handles this for them. Since the owner typically has separate Prime Contracts between the general contractor and designer, they are required to facilitate communications between the two parties. Once the RFI has been sent to the owner or the owner’s representative, a clock starts ticking for when the answer to an RFI is expected back in the hands of the general contractor.

5. A response is given. – Now that the designer has officially received the RFI, they have a defined contractual period in which they are bound to provide an answer. Typically defined within the contract or project manual, RFI response times can vary between 7 and 14 days, but can vary depending on the project. Often, RFI responses are delayed on the part of the designer. The designer being late in their response can have further ramifications, which we will discuss later. When the designer does issue a response, that response is then delivered to the owner or owner’s rep, again following the lines of the Prime Contracts, and is then forwarded back to the general contractor.

6. The response becomes contract. – Once the RFI response has been delivered back to the general contractor the response is essentially a new amendment to the contract. The general contractor will then disseminate the response down to the subcontractors that it relates to. Depending on the nature of the response:

  • The question may have been sufficiently answered by the designer.
  • There might need to be another clarifying RFI generated.
  • The response could warrant a meeting between parties if the issue is time-sensitive and hasn’t been effectively addressed.
  • New documentation can be introduced via the RFI response that overrides existing contractual information including adding additional scope to the project.

What may start out as a simple question can have massive downstream effects on a project and can change the original contract via a change order. Understanding the process of how the RFI travels and recognizing the time-sensitive nature of each step will help facilitate the contractor getting the information they need faster to be able to get back to building the work.

The Pros and Cons of RFIs

Pros

Clarification of Details: RFIs allow contractors to get clarification on specific details of a project that may not be clear in the initial plans or specifications. This helps you understand project requirements accurately and avoid mistakes caused by misinterpretations or assumptions.

Risk Mitigation: By addressing uncertainties or seeking more information through RFIs, contractors can identify and mitigate potential risks. This proactive approach helps avoid costly errors and project delays that could arise from unresolved issues or misunderstandings.

Documentation and Record Keeping: RFIs provide a documented trail of communication between the contractor and other stakeholders (like clients, architects, or engineers). This documentation can be crucial for resolving disputes, confirming change orders, or referencing decisions made during the project.

Improved Planning and Scheduling: Through RFIs, contractors can obtain crucial information that may impact project scheduling and planning. For instance, clarifying delivery timelines for materials or understanding specific site conditions can help in more accurate project scheduling and resource allocation.

Enhanced Collaboration and Communication: RFIs facilitate better communication between all parties involved in a project. They create an environment where open questions are encouraged and addressed, leading to more collaborative problem-solving and efficient project execution.

Cons

Time Delays: The process of issuing, responding to, and resolving RFIs can be time-consuming. Waiting for responses can delay project progress, especially if the RFIs are critical to ongoing work.

Potential Cost Increases: Time delays due to unresolved RFIs can lead to increased labor and equipment costs. Additionally, if an RFI results in a change order, it may increase the overall project cost, affecting budgeting and financial planning for contractors.

Administrative Burden: Managing RFIs requires significant administrative effort, particularly for large projects with numerous queries. This can put a strain on resources, especially for smaller contractors with limited administrative support.

Risk of Miscommunication: While RFIs are meant to clarify uncertainties, they can sometimes lead to miscommunication if not properly drafted or if the responses are ambiguous. Misinterpretations of RFI responses can result in errors or rework, impacting project quality and costs.

Dependency and Reliance on Others: The effectiveness of RFIs often depends on the promptness and clarity of responses from other parties, such as architects, engineers, or clients. Contractors can find themselves in a difficult position if these parties are slow to respond or provide inadequate information.

Tips and Reminders for Generating RFIs

Your choice of words matters in an RFI. – While the question that you are issuing the RFI for may have multiple viable solutions from a design perspective, a smart contractor will word the question in a way that suggests the outcome that best serves them. RFI language should concisely and clearly communicate the technical nature of the issue and ensure there are no information gaps.

👉🏼 Read our guide on writing successful RFIs.

Timing is everything. – Upon identifying the issue in the field, the contractor should prioritize generating the RFI as soon as then can and submitting the document to the owner or owner’s rep to make sure that a timely response can be provided by the designer.

Keep and maintain a good log. – Construction projects often have dozens or more RFIs being tracked at any given time. It’s essential for a project manager to keep an organized and well-maintained tracking log to track the current status of each RFI (open, answered, closed) and know when they can expect open RFIs to be answered.

Stick to one standardized template. – Whether using an in-house RFI template or one provided for use on the project by the owner, maintain consistency in how the information on the RFI template is organized. Having the information consistently documented in the same format makes it easy to locate information when you need it and will ultimately make it easier and faster to process RFIs.

Prioritize RFIs accordingly. – Not every RFI will have the same risk potential to the project’s budget or schedule, so a level of urgency should be communicated in the information on the RFI template. The design team may have only a limited amount of administrative capabilities to respond to RFIs in a timely fashion, and by communicating the level of importance and urgency of the RFI, it can help to expedite a response.

RFIs are Essential to Any Construction Project

RFIs are a foundational element of any construction project and serve to help keep the work moving, answering the questions that may arise during the process. It is important for contractors, both general and specialty, to not only understand how an RFI affects their scope of work and contract requirements, but also the process of how the RFI changes hands between different stakeholders within the project management team. A good understanding of how to tailor an RFI, what information to include, and what solutions to suggest may be the one little factor in a contractor’s control that leads to big benefits for them and the success of the project.

Further Reading: The Foundations of Construction Management for SMBs


Author
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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