Drawings, plans, specs, and contracts are designed to pave the way for a smooth and uneventful construction project. But, as everyone knows, construction rarely goes according to plan, and occasionally, those documents aren’t as straightforward as we’d like. Luckily, another document exists to help gain clarity in those situations: the Request for Information, or RFI. And knowing how to write an RFI properly is the key to their use.
The thing is that a lot of folks in the industry see RFIs as a bad thing — like someone made a mistake or dropped the ball. As a result, they shy away from RFIs. Similar to the issues that plague the invaluable preliminary notice, this means contractors, subs, and suppliers never truly learn how to write an RFI and use it as it’s intended: a communication tool. Let that change today.
What is an RFI?
Before we drive headlong into how to write an RFI, let’s take a quick look at what an RFI is. As you already know, RFI stands for Request For Information, and it’s a document that a contractor, sub, supplier, designer, GC, or owner can send to other parties on the projects for clarification.
Most often, RFIs go up the chain. When a sub has a question about plans, mock-ups, specs, materials, or anything of the sort, they can send an RFI to the GC. If the GC can answer it, they will. If not, they’ll send it up the chain to the designer. If the designer can answer it, they’ll get back to you. If not, the RFI goes to the owner.
But an RFI can easily flow down the chain as well. Owners can request information from the GC, subs, suppliers, or anyone else on the job. The same goes for subcontractors. Subs can send RFIs to sub-subs and sub-suppliers should they have a question that needs formal documentation.
Think of it this way: An RFI is like the queen on a chessboard. It can move forward, sideways, or diagonally. An RFI can do the same; up the chain, down the chain, laterally across contractor tiers and more. It’s simply a tool for communication. But, like any tool, it’s useless if you don’t know how to use it.
How to write an RFI in construction
So, how do you write a good RFI? Is there a standard construction RFI template?
Requests for Information in construction don’t use a universal document. There aren’t any AIA docs or federally-issued templates to follow. There just isn’t a standardized document to go off of for contractors, subs, and suppliers. While we’ve offered our own construction RFI templates to follow, it’s helpful to look at an overview of what you need to include and why.
Some of the following points may seem remedial, but hold on: There are already questions regarding the direction of the project. It makes sense to be as detailed and clear as possible when looking for answers. After all, you need an answer, so make it as easy as possible for the contact to give you one.
Key things to include when writing your RFI
Your name and company name
This seems obvious, but understand that during the beginning phases of a construction project (particularly a large one), GCs and designers can find themselves swimming in RFIs and other documents. They might not remember that your company is the one installing the roofing on units 25 through 30 or that you’re supplying millwork for the executive suites.
Be sure to give your point of contact a concrete name to refer to in order to avoid any confusion. When things are busy, firms will often tackle the simpler tasks first, meaning the clearer and more complete the RFI, the sooner it could receive an answer.
Also, even with clearly written questions, the contact could need more information before they’re comfortable making a decision. Providing your name, email, and contact number allows them to reach back to you directly for any clarity they might require.
The name of the responsible party and their company
Even though RFIs are simply tools for communication, you’ll want to attach as much accountability as possible.
Including your point of contact’s name as well as the company they work for will ensure that the RFI at least hits the right desks. Even if the person you reference isn’t the correct contact, they’ll likely inform you of who the right contact is to avoid taking the blame for an unanswered RFI.
The project name and identifying information
A complete RFI should contain the project name and any identifying information such as addresses or plot numbers. And those addresses need to be accurate, especially if there are unit numbers involved. Large developers could have several projects going under the same name, and leaving specifics off an RFI will certainly slow an answer down.
A unique RFI number
Depending on how many RFIs you send a year, it might not seem necessary to tag each Request For Information with a unique ID number, but you should. Not only will an ID number make sorting through your RFIs much easier, but it will also help the contact keep track of it, adding another layer of accountability.
There are two dates you need to include in every RFI: the date you sent the RFI and the date by which you need an answer. There are several reasons why.
Your contact might respond to paperwork in the order they receive it, and the date helps them determine when that was. But also, dating an RFI provides the beginning of a paper trail. If there are issues caused by unclear information down the road, a contractor or other party might try to blame you. If you date your RFI, you’ll have proof that your firm was trying to get ahead of the issue before it became a problem. Without a date, you might not have a leg to stand on.
Providing a date by which you need an answer helps to keep things on track. Ideally, you’ll be asking for the answer in enough time to make a change and keep the project on track. But remember that asking for an answer immediately makes your company look unorganized or inexperienced, like you mismanaged time or don’t know how to plan a project. Things happen, but try to avoid asking for answers immediately.
Drawing numbers and other supporting docs
RFIs are important, and a well-written RFI would allow the contact to make a quick, informed decision and get back to you. Including the important data to help them make that decision is critical. Provide them with drawing numbers to reference, photos of the site, contract documents, and anything else that might help bring clarity to the situation.
A clear and easily understood question
Thus far, you’ve supplied the contact with your info, the site info, and all the supporting documents they could ever need. Now it’s time to ask the question.
Make sure your question is straightforward and easy to understand. You want your contact to read your question, refer to the documents you supplied, and understand exactly what the issue is. This step is incredibly important, so if you’re not great with the written word, it’s worth reaching out to someone who is. Also, have someone else in the office or on-site read the question to ensure it’s clearly written.
A possible solution
A truly well-written RFI will not only ask a question but also propose a solution. This can hasten the decision-making process while also reassuring the contact that you’re on the ball.
For instance, let’s propose you’re a plumbing contractor and you’re roughing in the plumbing for several houses for a developer. For some reason, the floor plans changed and now you’re unsure of where the sinks are going in the second-floor bathrooms. With the RFI, you suggest a location where you can run the sink piping. When the general contractor receives the RFI, they’ll be able to make a quick decision since they know you already have a solution.
And, just like that, a well-written RFI kept the project on track and preserved your profit margin. All by the power of communication.
RFIs are critical to communication
Learning how to write an RFI is critical, as it can open a vital line of communication between your company and the other companies or parties on a project. With clear answers, owners, designers, contractors, GCs, subs, and suppliers are able to collaborate and work together, leading to better projects and happier customers.
Even more importantly to contractors, RFIs can keep their projects on schedule. Like preliminary notices and mechanics liens, RFIs can help preserve their profit margin and preserve their cash flow.
Since the construction industry is so cash-hungry, something as simple as learning how to write an RFI can play a part in whether your company grows or fails. Don’t let avoiding this simple document hold you back.