Digital Builder Ep 64: Can We Really Eliminate RFIs in Construction?

You've likely heard of the Benjamin Franklin quote, "Nothing is certain except death and taxes." Well, in the construction industry, one might add RFIs (Requests for Information) to that list.

Although designed to provide clarity and prevent mistakes, RFIs often lead to delays, downtimes, and extra costs. These seemingly inevitable requests are so common that construction pros accept them as part of the territory. 

But are RFIs truly as unavoidable as we think?

Sid Haksar, Autodesk's Senior Director and Head of Strategy and Industry Partnerships, believes there are viable steps the construction industry can take to put an end to RFIs.

We're thrilled to welcome Sid back to the Digital Builder podcast. In this insightful episode, he digs further into the issue of RFIs and discusses how teams can eliminate (or at least reduce) them.

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On this episode

We discuss:

  • The root causes of RFIs and how we can address them.
  • The costs of having disconnected systems and what we can do to keep teams and processes tightly integrated. 
  • Why RFIs are a construction-wide issue and how we, as an industry, must come together to find a solution. 

RFIs: A necessary evil?

An RFI, says Sid, "stems from misinformation and a lack of clarity, which typically tends to happen on the job site."

Commonly issued by contractors and subcontractors, RFIs are meant to shed light on missing information or ambiguities in the construction agreement. 

It sounds simple enough, but RFIs cause significant delays and costs. Sid points out that it takes around ten days to get a response from an RFI—that's time that could have been spent advancing the project and maintaining momentum.

And in today's construction environment, teams simply can't afford to waste time. 

As Sid puts it, "The labor shortages are not going away. So every minute, hour, and day spent on processing or responding to RFIs is time taken away from actually building and trying to drive efficiency."

Tackling the root cause of RFIs

According to Sid, RFIs are rooted in disconnected information. 

"We talk about construction being highly collaborative, but at the end of the day, people are all operating within their silos and their technologies. More often than not, those systems don't talk to one another."

For example, fragmented systems lead to issues like outdated drawings in the field, which subsequently generate RFIs.

As such, the best way to "deal with" RFIs isn't to streamline the process of issuing them but to address the very issues that cause misalignment or lack of clarity. This requires teams to identify and eliminate problems before they make it to the job site. 

"We can eliminate incidents of RFIs in the field when we push those up into the planning phase. If you can do it there, you can start removing a lot of the wasted effort that happens downstream, which has cost and schedule implications."

He adds, "So for us, it's fundamentally changing how we build. And I think part of that starts upstream in design and planning."

This is why having integrated design and preconstruction practices can be game changers. Construction teams should also strive to build a project before it's built on the job site. That way, potential issues can be anticipated and addressed ahead of time.

"You make or break your profit margins in preconstruction," remarks Sid. "You can really do a lot more to de-risk projects and avoid potential safety incidents. If you're simulating the process, you can identify issues before they actually happen."

Rethinking how we build

Improving your process upstream isn't just about adopting and integrating better tools. One of the keys to eliminating issues earlier lies in rethinking how we design, collaborate, and build. 

According to Sid, he is seeing promising signs of the industry implementing more collaborative approaches. 

"Think about the project delivery methods. The typical project delivery method was design-bid-build. Today, we're seeing a lot more collaboration upstream, so more along the lines of design-build, design-assist, and then obviously integrated project delivery." 

He continues, "Part of this is being driven also by the fact that we've got challenges like labor shortages and material price increases that have caused extreme volatility, which is putting a premium on building it right the first time. And you can only do that if you're all coming together and collaborating."

Sid adds that the industry must cooperate and share project risks to fundamentally transform our building practices.

"GCs need to come together with specialties as well as owners. These three constituents should come together, and part of that means revisiting the risk-sharing paradigm. Today, if everyone is protecting their side, we'll never get the results we want. There has to be an equitable risk-sharing model that comes into play."

"Now, you can say that's wishful thinking. But if we really want to improve, we must start thinking radically differently."

What about prefab?

Our conversation also touches on the topic of prefabrication and whether it can alleviate jobsite issues, project overruns, and delays. 

According to Sid, the answer isn't so clear-cut. 

"Studies have shown that prefabrication definitely reduces schedule and time to construct. But the jury is still out around the cost benefits," he says. 

Sid continues, "You may prefabricate something in a very controlled environment, but then you need to transfer that to the job site, and this task involves logistical costs."

He further points out that firms implementing prefab must ensure that the teams erecting the project and installing components follow the correct protocols. 

Once again, this requires tightly integrated teams, processes, and technologies. 

"If there is a disconnect between the field and the fab shops, that can take away some of the benefits you would get," remarks Sid. 

The good news is that more and more contractors are successfully implementing prefabrication. 

"Some of the bigger MEP contractors have kind of nailed this," Sid says. "If I were to look at it broadly as an industry, I would say, 'We will get there.'"

"We can point to prefab and say, 'Yes, there's a tangible ROI, and if you do it, the results will come.' There's still a lot of process to follow, but there's clearly a silver lining there."

New podcast episode every week 

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. If you're grappling with inefficient processes like RFIs, tune into the full episode to hear more from Sid. 

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Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.