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How We Build This – The RFI Dilemma

October 08, 2021
By Kyla Bobola

In June 2021, Newforma’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Slater Latour got together in Atlanta with industry professionals Rachel Riopel from design firm HDR, Shannon Lightfoot from McCarthy Builders, and Nathan Wood from the Construction Progress Coalition, to shoot the Construction Channel TV pilot of our new docuseries How We Build This.

In this episode, experts deconstruct the role of people, process, and technology to transform construction project delivery in the digital age. Specifically, the team discussed the shared RFI pains felt across the industry – over a beer! Although these challenges are not brand new, the perspective on RFIs is changing.

Here is a quick recap of the episode…

Why are RFIs So Difficult?

Request for Interpretation, Request for Information… what’s in a name? Any other meaning is still just as annoying, right? The RFI process provides a methodology for the contractor to get clarification on the design intent before they start building. Sometimes the answer to the question already exists in the design documents but may be overlooked by the contractor. But there are also situations that arise where an unexpected condition in the field requires a bit more work to resolve.

Typically, there are a few possible RFI outcomes:

  • Clarification of the design as it is documented.
  • More detail is needed and provided by the design team in a Supplementary Instruction.
  • Issues that impact schedule or budget usually require a Potential Change Order, Construction Change Directive, or Change Order to be generated.

Shared Pain Points Between Designers and Contractors

While there is some disagreement, it’s not always a Hatfield and McCoy situation. Yes, the design team and contractor have differing views on RFIs. While past abuses of RFIs have cast a dark cloud over RFIs, at the end of the day, both teams care about the same thing – getting the job done.

And while RFIs are essential, they are a pain. Why? The team discussed a few reasons…

There Are Just Too Many of Them

Rachel Riopel suggests one possible cause for RFI pain – there are simply too many of them. She explains “If you look at how we deliver work these days, there is lots of data being generated all day, every day. If you look at old – really old – projects, or old buildings they’re designed by drawing with sticks in the sand. That’s not where we are today with document sets. Today’s design documents are volumes.” Volumes of data can generate volumes of questions. As design contracts become more sophisticated, those contractual details are typically what cause the increase in RFIs.

They Take Too Long to Answer

In the construction phase, contractors outnumber the design team. So, there are more people on the contractor team that are asking questions and only a handful of design team members to answer. The design team is simply outnumbered.

From the contractor’s perspective, they need to make sure they have the right information and are not just making assumptions. But contractor’s want answers NOW, and often they feel the design team takes too long to respond. But meaningful questions deserve meaningful answers.

Design teams cannot rush to answer an RFI and risk impacting some other related part of the project. From the design team perspective, RFIs require a great deal of coordination to ensure everything aligns with everything else.

Reducing the Pain

Everyone agrees that although the RFI process is difficult, there are some commonsense solutions to reducing the pain.

Establishing Categories and Priorities

Both teams agree that classifying RFIs, or prioritizing RFIs, will help. For example, Rachel suggests that a question regarding paint color may not need a response as quickly as a structural question that comes in when the contractor is trying to build out in the field. If project teams work together to determine how RFIs will be prioritized and classified so that the priority is clear, it won’t necessarily reduce the amount of RFIs, but it certainly can shorten the response time.

Improving How We Share Data

As if the massive amounts of RFI exchanges do not cause enough pain, in many instances, the design team and contractor are not using the same system to manage project information. When project teams are using two different systems, there is no other way to put it – the RFI process is a nightmare.

Nathan Wood from the Construction Progress Coalition posed the question “do we need a common data environment? If everyone was using the same platform, would it be easier to share information?”

But Shannon Lightfoot believes that his team may need different systems and a set of data that is different from the design team. However, there is some overlap. He explains: “We have to be mindful of each firm’s internal processes. We have certain data we want to maintain. There are certain platforms that are geared for contractors, and certain for design. I’d like to see something more efficient, where we can at least be connected”.

Rachel agrees. “There is data that contractors care about and data that we care about. The contractor doesn’t necessarily need to know what is going on behind the scenes – they just need an answer”.

Although there is a subset of information that is unique to each team, there is also overlap. Rachel and Shannon agree that the Connector strategy which provides an automated way share data that is common is the way to go.

Interoperability and the Role of Technology

Slater Latour from Newforma agrees. He suggests that we stop looking at RFIs are RFIs. They are simply a piece of data. And there are common sets of elements that need to be shared and duplicated across systems. Newforma’s strategy is to connect the data and systems across the ecosystem eliminating that kind of duplicate entry, saving time for everyone.

Nathan suggests that we think about this as “decoupling” our data from our systems. He posed the question “At what point does an RFI as data live on its own (outside of the application) where everyone has their appropriate credentials to it? It’s as much on the industry to define as it is for technology companies to create it.”

So, the trick is to work together to identify the common elements of data that overlap between systems and build the interoperability from there.

At least, that’s Newforma’s philosophy.

For example, Newforma has mapped common data for submittals and RFIs to develop a Connector between Procore and Newforma Project Center. And it’s working. In a recent survey of Newforma customers using the Newforma Workflow Connector for Procore, customers reported the following benefits:

  • Better utilization of billable time spent on administrative tasks.
  • Reduced risk exposure through data management and minimized opportunity for human error.
  • Improved project team relationships.

Calculating Return on Investment

Our survey reveals that customers using the Newforma Workflow Connector for Procore Connector save an average of 12 minutes per RFI transaction.

Savings example:

  • Average number of RFIs for project – 500
  • Billable Rate – $100 / hour

Time saving for the project – 100 hours

Cost savings for the project – $10,000

The Future of RFIs

Slater suggests that we could start by bringing a model-centric view into the initiation of the workflow, along with the context of the model, in order to get at what’s creating the need for the RFI in the first place. Creating industry standards for categorization and reporting of RFI information from a project performance standpoint, through a common translation layer, would provide meaningful information that we could assess project performance so that issues get addressed faster and lower cost.

Nathan sums it up “at the end of the day, we all agree that we need to agree on how to communicate better through technology”.

Click here to view the How We Build This episode in its entirety.