Best Practices: The Art of the RFI

Nothing will ruin your day faster than getting a call from a builder reporting an issue with trusses you’ve designed.  You hear their frustration as they are faced with a potential delay and additional work to implement a fix.  We all desire to eliminate those calls from our daily business, and one way to do so is to work only on jobs with a perfect set of drawings.  You know, the drawings with dimensions that are 100% correct, have no errors in the listed wall heights, the heel heights are clearly spelled out with the location of the HVAC equipment and lines identified, and every load path is well thought out.

The truth, though, is that there’s really no such thing as a perfect set of drawings, because there will always be some area needing further clarification to ensure the trusses you design won’t have issues.  Although this reality is typically viewed as a source of frustration, it can be an opportunity to provide extra value to your customers by helping them resolve issues before they become a problem in the field.  To do this requires a trained eye to identify issues and the use of an RFI (Request for Information) to work through these issues with the appropriate parties involved.  In this article, we will walk through some best practices of using an RFI to help eliminate those calls.

 When should you use an RFI?

An RFI should be used whenever there is confusion or doubt and more information is needed to accurately complete a project. If the question is asked, “Why do I need to submit an RFI when I can get my information direct?” A simple answer is for the few times when a situation becomes a dispute and multiple parties express opposing accounts of a discussion.

 What format should you use to initiate an RFI?

The general format of the RFI is not as critical as maintaining consistency. The easiest method is to create a format that your entire company can use easily and effectively. This can be as simple as using text editing software or a spreadsheet. If you would like to take it to the next level, there are several construction management software options with built-in tools to make an RFI easier, and even allow tracking through the process.

Write clear and concisely

Be sure to present your RFI in a question format that is clear and concise. It is often better to submit multiple RFIs separately for individual issues rather than to create confusion by combining multiple requests in one submittal. Be specific about the period stakeholders have to answer the RFI before it starts to delay processes. Avoid words or phrases that come across as condescending. Provide clear references to the question through details and images. The easier you make the process the more likely you will get an answer and be able to proceed with your work. Do not hesitate to present possible solutions. As an industry expert, you may have a simple solution that never occurred to anyone else. This type of value will go a long way in building credibility within the community and might even help you win the next job when your reputation as a team player who brings innovative solutions to the table is known.  In some cases, it may be helpful to provide a summary report of all preconstruction RFIs to your customer.

Be sure to include all stakeholders

It is vital to include all individuals that your RFI may affect. Ask that the RFI and its response be communicated to all suppliers and subcontractors that may be affected by the change. For example, if a mechanical unit location has to change due to access issues but no one notifies the HVAC contractor, an entire run of prefabricated ducting or plenums could be incorrect. It is always better to be safe than sorry and sending a few more emails to avoid a potential problem is never a bad idea.

Managing RFIs

One of the most critical elements of an RFI is how submittals and responses are managed. All of the information coming and going needs to be documented and saved.  Often the sheer volume of RFIs can be overwhelming, so be sure and track them using software or hard copies. Most plate and software suppliers provide features to help manage and maintain RFIs in a central location associated to the specific project.

RFI responses that affect pricing

Often, the returned information will affect the original contract price. A best practice is to immediately address any changes that affect pricing with your customer so that there are no surprises down the road. Delaying a response with a price change only communicates that there are no cost changes and everyone proceeds with the project. Job cost changes can be devastating to your business and your design team needs to be cognizant of any changes that can affect the company’s bottom line.

Using an RFI in critical conditions

Finally, the RFI is a tool to bring potential problems to the forefront. As a component manufacturer, once the design task begins, you may uncover conditions that in reality do not really work, or are at the very least, questionable. There may be situations where your experience tells you a certain application for a component may not be the best idea, such as using extreme cantilever conditions or trusses supporting excessive loads where beams could be a better solution. Using the RFI can allow you to express and reference any concerns in a situation that has an unexpected or untenable direction.

We would love to hear your comments or suggestions on best practices for RFIs.

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Shawn Overholtzer

Author: Shawn Overholtzer

Shawn has spent over 30 years in the construction and component industry. He worked at Simpson Strong-Tie in the truss software division. While at Simpson he spent his time in truss software sales, software development, and business management.

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