What Is a Construction RFI and Why it is Important

by Alexander Fraser

Construction engineers must produce designs that meet the customer’s needs. 

So, design engineering needs to be well thought out to satisfy the new or existing building conditions. 

It can be challenging for engineers to catch everything when they produce their design drawings. As a result, you might discover some design flaws with the plans. 

These plans are then sent out to contractors to bid on the projects. As the contractor, if you can identify the flaw during the bid, that is the best time to address it. 

You do this by submitting a construction RFI (request for information).

If the owner is lucky, these flaws will be discovered during the bidding phase. If not, it will be found during the project and will require a change order to complete the additional work. 

The RFI is a valuable tool when it comes to construction project management. 

It will take some time to fully understand how to write an RFI, but this is a valuable skill to develop. 

Being able to clearly describe the issue is critical to addressing issues quickly. 

What is a Construction RFI?  

A request for information (RFI) is a document used in construction to clarify issues in the contract documents. You protect yourself by identifying discrepancies in the plans and specs and performing the work correctly. This tool is critical so the contractors involved clearly understand the design intent and how to complete the job.  

Depending on how poor the design is, you may end up with multiple RFIs for a project. 

On one of the smaller projects I have, I am close to 10 RFIs submitted. 

Every week, we find a new issue that needs to be addressed. 

But the RFI allows you to document all the problems that you find. Once you send it to the engineer for review, they might come back with revised drawings. 

New drawings mean a change in the scope of work. Your next step will be drafting a change order. 

What is the RFI Meaning in Construction? 

I’ve already covered some reasons why the construction RFI is a valuable tool. 

For one, it documents the issues and allows your construction company to claim money owed. This is in the form of a change order. 

Some additional reasons why RFIs are essential are as follows: 

  • Clarification of Project Requirements: Clarifying design flaws or discrepancies in the contract plans and specifications.
  • Improve Communication: RFIs allow for formal communication between owners, contractors, and architects to document and address issues.
  • Reduce Schedule Delays: RFIs reduce chances for delays in the project schedule when the issues are identified early. 
  • Prevent Rework: Reduce chances of rework by clarifying the design intent, so there are no questions when the construction phase starts. 
  • Improved Project Documentation: It is a great way to document the issues as they arise on the job site and the decisions made. 

Applications for an RFI in Construction

When it comes to the construction RFI, you should clearly understand why we generate one. 

Ultimately it comes down to the question; do you have all the information needed to complete the project?

Also, with the information you have, will you have a properly functioning product once the work is done?

If not, then you will need to gather additional information to complete the job. Here’s a list of some items you’ll be requesting information on.

Clarifying Project Specifications and Requirements

Equipment Specs That Can’t be Met

As your career progresses, you will notice that specifications are often recycled. 

From my experience, engineers will cut and paste snippets from specs, creating issues. 

There have been times when I asked a vendor to find specified equipment that doesn’t exist. The engineer has put together a spec for a piece of equipment that no one can find. 

The image below is from a mechanical spec for a specific motor. I sent this spec to my vendor, whose response was, “this doesn’t exist!”

There is not a TEFC inverter Motor that has a resilient base. You can only order it with a rigid base!

My next step was to get a construction RFI out to ask for clarification. 

Once they could provide some clarity, I was able to get the proper equipment selection. 

Discrepancies in the Specifications

When you discover a discrepancy in the design specifications, it will often be because there are conflicting sections. 

For example, you may have a general section for your trade. The mechanical contracting industry typically has a general section and specific sub-sections for equipment and sub-trades. 

Your general requirements might require a specific type of coating for your equipment. 

But when you go down to the section for “Chillers,” the coating requirement is different. 

To be safe, you should notify the engineer about this with a construction RFI and determine what they want. 

Resolving Trade Conflicts and Discrepancies in the Contract Plans

A trade conflict or discrepancy usually occurs because of miscommunication or lack of communication. 

This lack of communication occurs between the engineers and architects. 

The Result of a Lack of Communication

On project I’ve worked on, the GC needed to install a new drop ceiling. 

Looking at the section from the architectural ceiling plans below, you can see a ceiling elevation of 9’6”. 

architectural reflected ceiling plan RFI in construction construction RFI

Yet the mechanical engineer (ME) needed to select equipment that would satisfy the building condition. 

The ME selected his equipment and reduced the ceiling elevation to 8’6”. This was also displayed in the mechanical sheets’ elevation drawings. 

This can be seen in the image below.

Mechanical drawings elevation view RFI in construction

This went unnoticed until we submitted an RFI asking to provide further clarification. The architect returned to tell us that we need to maintain a 9’ ceiling elevation at minimum. 

Due to our equipment sizing, this was impossible, and they needed to compromise. 

We made the GC, owner, and architect aware of the issue by submitting the RFI. It’s also documented that everyone has reviewed the construction RFI at some point. 

Issues with Low Voltage Control Panels

The electrical engineer commonly forgets about power to low-voltage control panels. 

Thankfully, these panels usually require 120v to operate. Still, the power needs to be pulled from somewhere. 

The design team or electrician will need to determine where the power should come from. 

The electrician may also ask for a change order to run additional wire. 

Clarification on Design or Construction Detail

Engineers are not perfect. They make mistakes and miss things at times. 

As the contractor, you’re responsible for making the system work. This means you need to understand the system and how to make it function. 

If you find that the engineer has a flaw in their design, you can identify it with a construction RFI. In that RFI, you should provide a suggestion on to correct the issue. 

You can help speed up the process by providing a suggestion. 

Participants Involved in the Construction RFI Process

Before we dive into the participants, I think we should cover the process of the RFI. 

Typically it goes something like this. 

Issue discovered > submit to engineer for review > response provided > change order or issue resolved.

You can use the workflow in the image below for a more detailed breakdown. 

RFI workflow the process of a construction RFI what is a RFI in construction construction RFI

Let’s further discuss the participants and their role in the RFI process. 

  1. Contractor: Discovers the issue in the plans or specifications. The contractor needs to create the RFI and submit this for review.
    1. Subcontractors: They work under general contractors but are entitled to submit their own RFIs. It is the responsibility of the owner to make sure they send the RFI through the appropriate channels. 
  2. Architect/Engineer: Reviews the construction RFI to provide corrective action or clarification on the issue. Their response can trigger a change order for the contractor if they find problems with the design drawings. 
  3. Project Owner: The owner has the final say based on the response from the engineer. Owners typically rely on engineers to provide options to make decisions.
    1. Owner’s Representative: A consultant, like a construction manager, will work with the owner on their project. They represent the owner and will protect them from incurring any unnecessary cost. If a change order occurs from an RFI, they will do what they can to reduce the price for their client. 

How to Write a Construction RFI

Now that we know about the construction RFI let’s cover the steps you need to take to create one. 

If you need an RFI template, you can use the link below. 

This is a google sheets link, so anyone can use it.

Initiating the Construction RFI 

So, you’ve received the contract plans and specs. 

Take the time to review the entire set, not just your specific trade. 

By reviewing the entire drawing, you can identify the issues between trades. 

Let’s say you find a discrepancy in the mechanical and electrical plans. 

Time to write up an RFI!

For this example, I am using a real issue I had dealt with. 

In the mechanical plans, the equipment schedule called for 208v FCUs. 

what is an RFI construction equipment schedule discrepancy

Meanwhile, the electrical plans require the existing 120v circuit to be used. 

what is an RFI construction electrical plans discrepancy

Right away, if these voltages don’t match up, you’re not going to have working equipment. So, I sent in an RFI to the owner.

Below is an example of the RFI that I had provided to the owner. Recognize how it is worded and try to replicate this in your RFIs.

example rfi what is an RFI in construction what is a construction RFI

Writing Up a Construction RFI

When you start the RFI, you will need to include some basic information at the top of the page. 

Then you can begin writing about the problem. 

First, identify precisely what part of the plans or spec you’re referencing. 

If you are writing about a spec, mention the paragraph number of the subsection. For drawings, mention the drawing sheet and the detail if applicable.  

The next step is to write down the issue. 

Remember this, you want to keep your writing in the RFI as concise as possible. Avoid writing 5+ sentence paragraphs to avoid confusion. 

Keep it brief and stay on topic. Long winded RFIs will result in confusion and the RFI being sent back, asking for further clarification. 

After you have written down the problem, you can begin to offer solutions. 

I suggest providing at least two solutions for the engineer and owner to choose from. The engineer might not select the options, but that’s fine. 

You’re providing options to help speed up the construction process. 

When you write in the options, you should also mention if there is a cost or time impact associated with the work. 

cost impact will cost the contractor more money for work out of scope. 

time impact is the additional time required to complete some out-of-scope work. 

It’s important to note the impact because it helps the owner’s decision-making process. When they’re presented with two options, they want to know the cost associated with the work. 

Submitting the Construction RFI for Review

Time to submit the RFI that you’ve just created.

As the general contractor, you will submit the RFI to the owner, construction management, or engineer/architect. 

If you’re working for a subcontractor, you’ll provide the RFI to the GC, and they will forward it to the correct person. 

RFI Review Period

You will be in the review period now that you have submitted the RFI. 

The standard review period is 14 calendar days. 

Occasionally, I would reduce this to 7 calendar days to push for the information requested. It’s reasonable to allow a one week response time. 

If necessary, you can ask for an expedited review. For example, if the issue you found will result in a schedule delay, you’ll want a response immediately. 

Notify the engineer or GC about the priority of the RFI when you submit it. 

You shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t receive a response within the allotted time. People get busy, and the RFI might get stuck in review. 

Follow up regularly after the review period has finished. Make this one of your best practices. 

Importance of the Review Period

The standard review period is in place to benefit the contractor. 

If the review period goes beyond the 14 calendar days. This is a valid reason to ask for a time extension to the project. 

Of course, this is only if you’re at risk of missing the contract completion date. 

I have used delayed responses to RFIs and submittals to ask for time extensions. 

Response and Resolution of the RFI 

The engineer has finally sent the RFI back to the contractor to determine the next steps. 

Depending on the response, the engineer may change the project scope. 

A scope change will require a change order to complete. The contractor will need to generate their price to send to the owner and engineer. 

They will review the price and determine if it is acceptable. 

If you’re sending a change to an owner’s rep, just be aware they will dissect every part of your proposal.

The owner’s rep will ask for a breakdown of your price to justify the cost of the work to the owner. 

Other times you can get a response that does not result in a change order. This will be documented and stored within your project folder. 

Documentation and Record Keeping for RFIs

You need to file the RFI once the response has been made. 

Consider setting up a folder structure for your RFIs. Create a separate folder for each RFI to hold the working documents. 

Here’s a list of some other subfolders that you should have. 

  • RFI Log: Store a spreadsheet that tracks all the RFIs for the project. 
  • RFI Submitted: Any RFIs sent in for review should be stored here. 
  • RFI Responses: When the engineer/architect provides a response, place those files here. 

You’ve just completed the RFI process!

Conclusion

There has not been a single project I’ve done without an RFI. 

Take the time to learn how to write the RFI so you can clear up issues quickly. You don’t want the problem sitting too long, and you delay the project. 

While it doesn’t cost money if the delays are on the owner, revenue is still missed. 

Both the team project manager and project engineer (PE) will be responsible for submitting the RFI. Everyone should know about the RFI regardless of their role in the construction industry. 

Before you go, consider checking out my article on “What is a Project Engineer.” This will give you more insight into their additional responsibilities for a construction project. 

Eventually a project engineer will need to run a project, and the RFI will become an essential tool for them. 

Thank you for reading. 

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