What is an RFI in construction? What you need to know

What is an RFI in construction? What you need to know

 

Construction projects are complex affairs with many moving parts and stakeholders. Given this, it’s not uncommon for there to be uncertainties regarding various aspects of a construction project. Construction RFIs exist to address these uncertainties and help stakeholders receive the information they need to complete the job successfully.

Keep reading to learn more about construction RFIs and how they work.

What does RFI mean in construction?

First, what is an RFI in construction?

An RFI is a request for information. It typically takes the form of a document passed between parties seeking information and those capable of providing a response. RFIs are necessary for a variety of scenarios, the most common of which involve a party (i.e. a subcontractor):

  • requesting clarification

  • highlighting a potential issue with the project

  • proposing a change

A construction RFI is not to be confused with an RFQ (request for quotation) or RFP (request for proposal), both of which constitute an invitation to participate in contract negotiations.

Key components of a construction RFI

Given that construction RFIs are typically meant to clarify things, it’s important they be structured in a way that avoids additional confusion. Here are some standard elements most construction RFIs include:

  • project details, including the name, address, and any other identifying information

  • the addresser’s details, including company name and contact

  • the addressee’s details, including company name and contact

  • the RFI number, which will typically start at zero for the project and increase by one with each new request

  • a title and a brief description

  • a detailed description of the RFI

  • space for the respondent to address the concern

  • the date the RFI was submitted and the deadline for a response

  • a description of any attached documents

By standardizing the RFI using these fields, companies can increase the likelihood of a concise response. This is the magic of an RFI. In the hectic whirlwind that often envelops construction projects, structured forms of communication keep things flowing smoothly and reduce bottlenecks.

An RFI doesn’t have to be long, by the way. In fact, many construction RFI templates stay within a two-page length.


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Types of RFIs in construction

Now that you know what an RFI in construction is, let’s take a closer look at the common applications for this document, as identified in a 2012 paper from the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management.

These RFIs do not necessarily differ in structure or template. However, they often differ in terms of how they are indexed and who receives them. It may not make sense to send a design RFI to the staff handling feasibility issues, for example, which is where the value lies in specifying different applications.

General issues

This type of RFI addresses concerns not covered by any of the other applications. As such, it has a fairly broad reach, covering everything from warranties to miscellaneous documents and more.

Design

In this application, RFIs are used to help coordinate the project’s design and any documents associated with it.

Feasibility

This type of RFI is used to address concerns with a project’s feasibility. Such requests are often issued following red flags identified during a feasibility study.

Coordination

An RFI is used in this application to raise questions concerning project scheduling and safety.

Resource scheduling

When construction resource management professionals identify the need to adjust the project’s timeline, they’ll use this type of construction RFI.

It’s much easier to identify – and communicate – such a need when using construction resource management software that very clearly lays out resource allocations and their dependencies.

Change in specifications

When the need for a change to the project’s specifications is identified, this type of RFI comes in handy. This can also include a proposed change to the materials used for the project.

Scope deletion

This RFI application is used when one party deems something in the original scope unnecessary and would like to propose removing it from the project.

Value engineering

When a party would like to inquire about or propose strategies for making the project more cost-efficient (which is known as value engineering), this is the type of RFI they’ll typically use.

Incomplete specifications

When a specification appears incomplete, contractors often submit this type of RFI in search of the missing information.

Typical construction RFI process

Here’s how the RFI process typically works in construction.

Step 1: The party seeking information submits an RFI

In most cases, the party seeking information will submit the RFI directly to the party which initially provided the document or correspondence that requires clarification. For example, a general contractor might submit an RFI to a design team seeking clarification on a submission.

In another example, the general contractor might submit an RFI to the client seeking clarification on specifications or communicating concerns on behalf of subcontractors.

Step 2: The receiving party issues a response

At this stage in the construction RFI process, the receiving party will evaluate the request and prepare a response it deems appropriate. Ideally, they’ll send this response prior to the deadline. Missing the deadline may delay the project substantially if the RFI concerns something crucial.

Step 3: The issuing party evaluates the response

If the response satisfactorily addresses the RFI, the case is considered closed and a record of the resolution is maintained. However, if the response did not address the concern, follow-up correspondence may be required.

Why construction RFIs go unanswered

According to research by the Navigant Construction Forum, 21.9% of all RFIs in the industry never receive a response. This is not always the result of negligence, however.

There are many factors receiving parties consider when deciding whether an RFI requires a response. Here are some of the reasons parties often decide to leave a request unanswered.

Cost

According to Navigant’s research, the average construction RFI costs an estimated $1,080 to review and respond to. This process also takes a median of 9.7 days.

You can probably imagine how quickly this cost would add up on a large project. Responding to unnecessary RFIs would be incredibly inefficient, which is why parties are often so selective.

The request would be answered by reviewing other documents

This is one of the ways in which recipients determine whether an RFI is unnecessary. If the question could be answered by reviewing other project documents carefully, a response would be a waste of time.

The RFI was improperly addressed

Remember those RFI applications we discussed earlier? Well, if a request was improperly categorized, it may simply never reach the intended recipient. For example, if you prepare a scope deletion RFI and send it to a department that doesn’t handle such concerns at all, a response is unlikely.

Information was missing from the RFI

Here’s another reason RFIs often go unanswered. If key information, such as the timeframe, is missing, the request may get lost among those that have been created properly.

The RFI submission did not follow the correct procedures

It’s not uncommon for contractors and clients to have specific protocols in place for handling RFIs. Requests that don’t follow these protocols will likely end up being ignored. After all, there are reasons protocols exist; without them, work may become very inefficient.

Tips for handling the RFI process effectively

In light of how many RFIs go unanswered, all construction companies can benefit greatly by following some simple guidelines.

Keep the number of questions per RFI to a minimum

Don’t stuff your RFI with questions. Doing so can make preparing a response incredibly inefficient, which reduces the likelihood of you receiving clarification.

Ideally, you’ll want to pose no more than one main question in the RFI. If you include additional questions, they should all relate directly to this initial concern.

Submit the RFI as early as possible

Remember that it takes an average of 9.7 days to prepare an RFI response. In other words, don’t wait until Monday to submit a request for which a response by Friday is imperative.

Ideally, you want to submit RFIs relatively early in the process, before substantial work on the project has begun. Of course, developments over the course of the project may necessitate additional RFIs but any essential questions about the project scope should be addressed as soon as you’ve reviewed the documentation.

Follow any protocols that have been laid out

Follow whatever RFI submission protocols the recipient has laid out. Don’t forget that large general contractors and clients may be regularly subject to hundreds of RFIs. If even a handful of requesters view themselves as the exception to protocols, it can become incredibly overwhelming.

Be specific about the impacts of the issue identified in the RFI

Every RFI should include a breakdown of the risks posed by inaction, specifically mentioning the potential impacts on the project’s cost and schedule. Otherwise, the recipient may simply assume the issue isn’t important and leave the request unanswered as a result.

If the RFI is time-sensitive, mention that

Another way to ensure a prompt response to your RFI is to specify when the issue requires urgent attention. Don’t assume the recipient will know this automatically. Remember, they may be receiving numerous RFIs on a regular basis.

On some projects, stakeholders agree on a method for prioritizing RFIs. This standardized approach can be a great strategy for handling RFIs.

Keep in mind that RFIs have a somewhat negative reputation

Given how expensive and labor-intensive the process of evaluating and responding to an RFI can be, many companies unsurprisingly dislike them. They’re still very necessary but keep this in mind before submitting RFIs unnecessarily.

Don’t be afraid to follow up on an unanswered RFI

When you’ve followed the correct protocols yet still did not receive a response to our RFI, it’s standard practice to follow up with the recipient. A phone call or email to the right person can go a long way towards moving your RFI through the pipeline.

Think carefully about submitting additional RFIs containing the same exact request as this can clog the pipeline.


In this article, we discussed the RFI construction term at great length. You should now know what an RFI is and how to handle it effectively.

To summarize, the term RFI in construction refers to a request for information. Stakeholders on a project routinely use RFIs as a means of obtaining clarification and highlighting issues that need to be addressed.

While more than 20% of RFIs go unanswered, parties can considerably increase their likelihood of getting a response by following protocols, being specific, and submitting requests early.

For more construction management tips, visit our blog.


Lauren Lake

Lauren Lake is the COO and co-founder at Bridgit. She holds a degree in Civil Structural Engineering and is well-versed in construction workforce management and resource planning processes. Lauren has been named to the Forbes Manufacturing & Industry 30 Under 30 and Best Of Canada Forbes Under 30 Innovators lists. Lauren has presented at industry events and conferences, including BuiltWorlds, Canadian Construction Association, Procore Groundbreak, and more.

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