Tag Archives: Questions

Asking the right questions

Incomplete information is an intrinsic part of the estimators craft.  Decisions on how to handle the risk created by this uncertainty can make or break your  chances of winning a job.  Lacking perfect information, we can still make better decisions by improving our understanding of the problem.  I’ve written before about the Request For Information (RFI) process and how to go about getting plan and specification questions answered.  In this article I’m hoping to expand the scope of our inquiry beyond the questions landing on an Architect’s desk.

Asking the right questions

We try not to question what goes on at the Architects desk…

Who does what?

General Contractors (GC’s) solicit subcontractor (sub) proposals for portions of the project scope according to local traditions, and individual company preferences.  Sometimes there are unfamiliar or unusual products that could plausibly align with multiple trades.  These products are often part of an aesthetically significant element of the overall design.  This means that the oddball thing, needs to be installed with care.  As a GC estimator, this situation presents more questions than answers.  If a product could be installed by several different trades, it probably affects those trades as well.  So even if an affected trade doesn’t furnish or install the item in question, they’ll need to accommodate it in some way.  This trade overlap typically creates a lot of bid-day confusion as everyone is free to interpret the work differently.

Find the rep

Conscientious estimators might start phoning all the subs they can think to ask about the oddball item.  After the inevitable delays, phone-tag, and contradictory information, they might arrive at a consensus.  A better approach is to look up the manufacturer of the item and identify any local resources.  Finding a local representative (rep) for the product is a vital lead because they are often involved in the Architects design process to such an extent that they know exactly what you need.  The material rep can tell you who they’ll quote to and what trades they typically install their products.  Some material reps will freely quote to a GC, while others will only quote to trade-specific subcontractors.  In some cases the material rep will provide a list of  recommended installers.  Once you know who the material rep will work with, you can confidently direct your subs accordingly.  Take care to provide the contact information for the reps’ quote department since that’s who they actually need to reach.  Firms that don’t normally deal with competitive bidding can be bureaucratic and slow about preparing quotes.  Protect your deadline by getting the wheels in motion early on.

Be advised that out-of-state design teams will often work with their own local reps.  I’ve encountered such projects where my area didn’t have an assigned sales representative!   Writing an RFI to the design team asking for their sales rep’s contact information may be the only way to sort things out.

Mushrooms

Be advised that items that appear on Architectural sheets but also apply to an engineering consultant’s work like Civil, Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, or Plumbing should be checked to ensure they’re properly defined on the engineered sheets as well.  Some Architects treat their engineering consultants like mushrooms; kept in the dark, and buried in fertilizer!

Incredibly expensive and hard-to-get items that are dear to the Architect’s heart are often carefully notated just once in an obscure place on the plans.  It’s absolutely the GC estimators job to seek out these “one note traps” and see to it that the affected subs are notified of the sneaky scope items.

Asking the right questions

Be advised that catching a problem may present it’s own challenges…

When does the project start?

The timing of a project can have a huge influence on the bid-day price.  Seasonal rushes or material shortages can raise prices for work that would have cost much less if it started a few weeks later.  During especially busy times, a project opportunity may fail to attract much competition simply because the timing conflicts with previous obligations.

On the surface, it may seem like this information is provided in the Request For Proposal (RFP).  While it’s true that the RFP will typically include an estimated start date for the project, it’s a rare client that actually starts when they say they will.  Of all the information that’s provided to an estimator, the anticipated start date is invariably the least accurate.  In order to improve on this uncertainty, we need to understand what’s driving it.

Architects are often under great pressure to finalize a set of drawings that have been in development for a long time.  Clients rarely understand the magnitude of work required to translate a design scheme into a workable construction set.

Some clients are under pressure to solidify their financing which can depend heavily on providing evidence of competitive pricing, i.e. bidding.  If their loans fall through with one bank, the client will need to repeat the process with another bank which consumes additional time.

It’s important to understand that even though the client and their Architect are under pressure to get the plans out to bid, both parties understand that they’ll have additional time to correct problems before construction. Neither party is entirely sure how long it will take to correct the problems.

Rafter: A group of turkeys

It’s been my experience that clients tend to pair with like-minded design teams.  If the design team managed their time effectively and delivered complete plans by their deadline, the client that hired them will typically have their financial house in order as well.  Conversely, if there are dozens of Addenda overhauling huge aspects of the plan between the RFP and the deadline, the chances are good that the client won’t have funding to build by their anticipated start date.

Savvy estimators should go to the job walk and listen attentively to the Architect and the client.  These people have sunk a lot of time into the project, and they may be easily persuaded to talk about the various challenges they surmounted in the process.  Conversations that start with inquiry about an aesthetic challenge often ramble into how prior design schemes exceeded the clients budget and what they did to correct it.  Estimators should be listening for indicators of how timelines, budgets, and delivery dates align between client and Architect.   You should be especially concerned about any heroic project overhauls that were completed just before the RFP was issued.  Rushing leads to errors whether it was caused by an indecisive client, or an under-performing design team.

Asking the right questions

Last minute heroics; When substandard work picks up speed.

There’s an underlying lack of sincerity behind any group of professionals who are rushing to get the plans out to bid, rather than delivering plans fit to begin construction.   Shoddy plans for projects that “start immediately” are common among clients who don’t have the money to build.

Incomplete information

Estimators are always looking to find an angle to land the job.  Incomplete plans are part of the challenge, which is why estimators are obliged to write a Request For Information (RFI) to get an on-the-record question and answer from the design team.  It’s imperative to understand that the way you ask the question will influence the answer you receive.   Design teams may perceive questions relating to incomplete plans as an indictment of their work.  Engineering consultants are especially given to avoiding accountability via paragraphs of incomprehensible verbiage.  These answers easily create more problems than solutions.

If the issue is obviously resolved into only a few options, the question should be phrased to communicate that the intent is largely clear, and that you think they want to do X, Y, or Z.  Whenever possible, phrase the question to elicit a clear yes or no response.  Estimators can capitalize on this practice by offering insights into why one choice may be superior to another.  Design teams may be unaware of when one option is substantially more expensive than another.

Why is it so expensive?

Estimators will encounter a lot of opportunities to wonder why something is so expensive.  You might think it’s a simple question that people would be willing to answer, but it often leads to miscommunication.  To understand the complexity of this situation, we  need a bit of context.  First off, estimators know that absolutely every number they provide will be remembered and potentially used against them even if it’s a rough approximation.

Sometimes estimators get focused on efforts to root out the overpriced item(s) to get the costs down without considering whether the remaining work is worthwhile to the bidder.  Small scopes of work are often disproportionately expensive because they still require mobilization, management, and operational overhead.

Even when the overpriced item is fairly obvious, there can be concealed relationships that simultaneously drive up the price, and block transparency.  Material reps may be working hand in glove with the design team to prevent competition and enhance profitability. Even if a sub wanted to help a GC to offer a less expensive product, they’d risk supply-chain retaliation on their other work.

Asking the right question

“Baxter expected retaliation, but the waiting was the worst part “

Corruption plays a role wherever there’s a lack of competition, transparency, and accountability.  Honest estimators should carefully consider how they sound lest their inquiries be misinterpreted as an invitation to bid shopping.

The key to getting an honest answer is transparent reciprocity.  For example, let’s say all the millwork proposals are much higher than anticipated on bid day.  The bids have been reviewed and you’re confident that all the bidders have included the correct scope of work.  You know who’s low and by what amount.  Now you want to know what’s driving the price increase for all the millwork bidders.

If you called the apparent low bidder and asked “Can you tell me why your bid is $X amount more than expected?”. The sub may assume that you believe they’ve made a mistake that made them high.  They might also  misinterpret the inquiry as a solicitation for bid shopping.

Transparency

In contrast, if you had said “I’ve reviewed your bid and everything looks spot on, but my estimate was quite a bit off.  Did you notice anything unusual that’s driving the cost of your work?”

By telling the bidder that their proposal appears correct, you’re establishing that they’ve provided a valid price for the scope of work.   Transparency builds trust.

By asking what’s driving the cost, you are addressing causes, not symptoms.  This is important because a high price may be driven by project factors beyond a simple list of parts or assemblies.

Continuing with our example, let’s say the sub explains that this project requires almost twice the amount of laminate compared to a typical project.

Reciprocity

Now that you’re aware of what’s driving the cost, you’d naturally want to see what could be done about it.  This is where reciprocity comes in because you’re asking them for help beyond the original agreement.  Estimates are “free” because the invitation to bid (ITB) promises to fairly award a contract to the lowest complete bidder, and to provide bid results to all others.  Bidders provide free bids in exchange for either a contract award, or information on how to win the next time.

Asking for free consultation work isn’t part of the original deal, so you’ve got to propose a new deal.  This is best achieved by promising to keep their solutions confidential and exclusive.

For example: “If you have any ideas on how we could reduce the costs to win the job, we would keep them confidential with the expectation that we would be dealing exclusively with you on this scope of work.”

Confident they can trust you, the sub explains that the reason for the price hike is due a casework dimension that’s a 1/4″ larger than the middle of one full sheet of laminate. By making the casework 1/4″ smaller in one dimension, a single sheet of laminate would cover twice as much casework, reducing the amount required for the job by half.

Now let’s take a moment to consider how different the answers might have been if we’d demanded a breakout of the expensive items.  The millworker might simply provide a line item cost for the offending laminate.  The GC might have misinterpreted the information to mean that this project used especially expensive laminate.  The GC would then request pricing using a cheaper laminate, only to find it didn’t make much difference to the price.

The millwork sub has to be cautious about what they’re saying because they don’t know how the information will be used, and they certainly don’t want the GC to help their competitors by sharing good ideas.   Plus, the GC’s fixation on simple material swapping ignores the greater leadership role necessary to bring good ideas to fruition.  Convincing a design team to reduce a casework dimension by a 1/4″ to save some money on millwork may be an arduous process.  Lots of thought goes into a design, even if it’s not immediately apparent.  It’s only when the challenges are revealed that you really appreciate how difficult it can be.  Expensive millwork might have been the cheapest solution to a complex problem.

Experienced estimators learn that it’s a rare situation where a value engineering (VE) idea is fully implemented by a design team.  This means that the final project savings will be less than whatever you thought on bid day.  Here again, the savvy estimator will share this insight with their sub when discussing how to present the idea most effectively.  It’s often better to under-promise, and over-deliver when it comes to ideas that require design-team involvement.

Asking the right questions

“Design teams are notoriously difficult to impress”

When will a decision be made?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a contractor ask the client or architect when they’ll make a final decision on contract award.  It’s a natural question because an unresolved bid leaves you unable to fully commit your resources to other opportunities.   Clients may not fully appreciate how many of your bids are affected as they take weeks to consider the proposals from a handful of bidders.  As mentioned above, an awful lot of clients are finalizing their funding with banking officials who don’t care a whit about the hundreds (if not thousands)  of companies that are waiting for a decision to come down.

Clients may not realize that each GC that bid to them received  subcontractor bids from several  companies for each trade.  A typical commercial construction bid may attract several hundred subcontractor proposals for each GC that’s bidding.  There will be some subs who bid to more than one GC, but it’s entirely possible for a single bid opportunity to involve thousands of firms in a local market.  Even if there was only two GC’s bidding to the client, the vast majority of the subcontractors will walk away empty-handed.  It’s bad enough losing a bid, but passing up other opportunities to honor your commitment to the client can be a costly choice.  The longer the delay, the more opportunities will be lost.

Timetable

Every proposal should have an expiration date to protect the companies interests.  Clients will often stipulate how many days the proposal must be viable in the RFP.  For example, government projects may require an extensive approval process involving boards that only meet on a monthly basis.  This process can be extensive, so oftentimes the client will conduct an “open bid reading”, where the accepted proposals are opened and read aloud to anyone in attendance.  The “apparent low” bidder is noted, and the apparent high bidders are largely free to consider the opportunity lost.

Baring a client’s stipulation, most firms allow a maximum of thirty days before their proposal expires because the vendors, suppliers, distributors, and material representatives will only honor their quotes for thirty days.

Thirty days may not sound like much, but consider that it’s 1/12th or 8.3% of a year.  Many markets have seasonal rushes which define most of the revenue for the entire year.  The bidding for over 90% of a firm’s  annual revenue may occur in the span of 90 days.  This means that dithering clients can create a disastrous situation where they finally tell you that you lost, right after they’ve cost you every opportunity to win replacement work!

Commitment and reciprocity

The key to getting faster response from a client is to ask for a decision based on commitment and reciprocity.  Clients want their project to be successful and they’re particularly concerned about hiring a contractor who is committed to the job.  Explaining to the client that you have committed resources to make their project successful, leads them to understand why they owe you reciprocity in terms of a decision.  If you’re not “in the hunt” (low bidder)  the client can easily let you (and your bidders) get on to other opportunities.  If you’re their low bidder, you may be re-assured of where the process is headed.  Clients may be so hung up on the formality of their contract that they forget that most of the bidders just need to know they lost.

As with almost everything in management, time that’s passed, is opportunity lost.  If you’re not timely and serious about getting answers from a dithering client, there’s little chance of the project becoming successful.  Making the right decision on bid day can determine whether you win or you lose.  The next time you’re looking to answer a common problem, make sure you’re asking the right question.

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 


Request For Information

We estimate the cost to build a design because neither the design, nor the construction are perfectly controlled. Most buildings end up with notable differences from the bid-day plans. Since the bid-day amount is the basis of contractual award, these differences take the form of change orders. The only thing clients dislike more than change orders, are delays. As estimators, we have the ability to set a project on the right course by calling the design-teams attention to likely problems.

Before we get too far into that process, it’s important to understand the perspectives of all the key players. Effective communication comes down to how you ask a question, rather than what you’re asking about.

Request For Information

“While it may have been a good question, the response left the stronger impression”

The Client thinks you know the cost of everything all the time

Since estimates are “free”, clients tend to think of estimating as an auction where each bidder knows the projects’ value from the beginning. Clients may assume that a few days with the plans and maybe an hour walking the site is all a contractor would ever need to build a job perfectly. General Contractors (GCs) are guilty of creating this impression when they’re trying to get on the clients bid list. Like any sales job, there must be a balance between what’s promised and what can be delivered.

The Architect believes their intent is obvious, and it’s your responsibility to know what to do.

By the time a set of plans has been put out to bid, the Architect has spent a tremendous amount of time developing the design. The minute differences in paint shades may have more emotional value to the Architect than the way something’s bolted together. While Architects may spend months or years developing a set of plans, the majority of their time may have been sunk in helping their client to pick between different schemes. This means that the nuts and bolts of the final design are put together in a compressed timeline.   Clients can and do make substantive changes at the last moment, causing predictable grief for the Architect. Nobody’s going to say this before the bid, but the Architect relies on the GCs estimators to make reasonable assumptions about missing information. If your Project Manager (PM) tries to submit a change order for something the Architect feels is obviously necessary to fulfill their design intent, they’ll claim that means and methods are the GC’s responsibility. For example, it’s not ordinarily the Architects job to define the length of screw necessary to attach a substrate to a structural element.

Once the answer is known, everyone will think the solution was obvious from the beginning

Estimators face a completely different set of challenges. Bids must be competitive, thorough, defensible, and profitable. A proposal distills all of the scope of work to a few variables like cost, and duration. This has the effect of making every proposal appear uniform, while concealing the impact of unanswered questions.  Many estimators have won a bid by incorrectly interpreting the Architect’s intent.

Request For Information

Architect: “No, no, I wanted all three like the middle one!”

  Be advised that many Architects include a General Conditions specification that stipulates that whenever the contractor is faced with multiple requirements, they should always defer to the most costly option. This gotcha specification works in obvious conflict with competitive market pricing. After the bid, it’s always obvious that they wanted something expensive. Before the bid, they don’t have time to answer your question.

Fast answers to easy problems

Estimators may have a few days with the plans before the Request For Information (RFI) deadline. Architects have RFI deadlines to provide themselves with sufficient time to properly respond to bidder questions before the bid deadline. On many commercial projects, it’s very common for the RFI deadline to be a week ahead of the bid deadline. Be advised that most Architects see absolutely no problem in answering all the RFI questions the day before or the day of the bid deadline. GC estimators won’t have time to generate easy to read directives for their subs. It’s a race to make last-minute changes before the deadline.

This leads to the first imperative of RFI writing; getting fast answers. It’s pretty tough to improve on a “yes or no” response in terms of rapid communication. By extension, this means that RFI’s should be written to elicit a yes or no response. The key here, is to understand that multi-step or multifaceted questions lead to confusion and delays.

Let’s say that the finish floor plan shows a room that’s missing any call-outs for wall finishes, trim, or flooring. With rare exception, specific paint colors won’t affect the price for bidding purposes. Asking if the walls should be painted may elicit a simple “yes”. In contrast, a request for the desired finishes of all the walls in room XYZ could lead to a situation where they don’t answer because the Architect is still debating between paint colors. Bid day passes and you never got to know if the room will be painted or not.

Addressing one issue per RFI allows the Architect to answer the easy questions right away. If they’re still debating about paint but not carpet, they won’t answer an RFI asking for both the paint and carpet. From an estimating standpoint, getting half the missing information might be worth its weight in gold.

Every design is a work-in-process

It seems painfully obvious that estimators questions are going to be focused on getting the job priced. If two options cost the same, we don’t need to know which one in order to bid the job. Design teams know that their published decisions are fulcrums for accountability. Estimators must keep in mind that design teams and clients may have little knowledge of how their aesthetic decisions affect the budget. An open-ended requirement in the plans is seen as a “placeholder” for a future decision. The problem for GC’s is that it’s a contractually binding requirement to an unknown. From the client and design teams perspective, the missing information is “no big deal” because they presume the estimator knows what everything costs all the time.

Request For Information

They get cranky when you point out the holes in their design”

Applying this insight, estimators are well-advised to do a little research on what’s at stake before they draft their RFIs. If a fixture specification failed to define the finish, the estimator should inquire as to what impact the available choices will have on pricing. If there are prices for the “good, better, and best” options, draft the RFI with those options listed. It’s possible that the design team is debating between colors at the same price point. Getting the design team to define the price point, solves the estimators problem. Questions that won’t affect your bid should be noted for future hand-off to the Project Manager since it’s not worth the administrative effort until you’re under contract.

Get a complex problem on one page, and a proposed solution on another

It can be particularly difficult to get a yes or no answer to a complex problem pertaining to spatial relations. Architects use a variety of perspectives to depict the project scope. It may require constant flipping between a plan view, a cross-section, and an elevation drawing to visualize the problem you’re trying to address. The RFI needs to be less work for the Architect and for everyone who must understand their response. One very low-tech way to address this problem is to literally photocopy the plan areas in question. Re-size and cut out the copies until they fit on a single 8.5″x11″ sheet. White-out every note, callout, or icon that doesn’t pertain to the question. Make a copy of this sheet. Use one for the question, and the other for a proposed solution. Label them accordingly. Bubble the areas in question to call attention to only what you’re asking about.

The RFI should simplify the problem and refer the reader to the first sheet, before suggesting a solution referred to on the second sheet. Simply asking “Is the proposed solution acceptable?” This leaves you with an RFI that could get a quick “yes” while providing your subs with a simplified two-page diagram of the issue and it’s resolution. Be advised, creating a simple diagram of a complex solution can be a very arduous task. Try it yourself and you’ll have newfound respect for Architects.

Many architects will follow-up later with an addendum or an ASI which incorporates their RFI direction into the plans.

Respect the designers intent.

Architects spend a great deal of time refining their aesthetic vision of the project. While competitive estimators are motivated to find cheaper options to land the job, Architects fulfill their duty to protect the design’s integrity. This often places them at odds with budget conscious clients and their contractors.   It’s therefore good form to treat their designs intent with respect. In the simplest of cases, an RFI might open with an explanation of the issue, followed by “we believe the design intent is: (your suggestion)…” wrapped up with “Is that correct?”

The tone of the question implies that you’re on their side and that you see their solution but you want to check with them first. Estimators should studiously avoid phrasing that communicates: “hey these plans are wrong, here’s a cheap shortcut.”

Request For Information

“Good information, but… wrong application”

Some thoughts on suggestions 

RFIs are the only way that a GC Estimator can communicate on the record with the design team. On the surface, it seems like an RFI could only be used to ask questions. In fact, the majority of the time, the GC will have a distinct preference for how any given problem is solved. Including a suggestion in your RFI is how you can try to steer the solution to your benefit. If there are multiple potential solutions, you should never assume that the Architect or the client will know which suggestion is the most cost-effective one.

I’ve encountered situations where moving a wall 3″ in a single direction saved thousands of dollars compared to any other option. Including that information in my RFI proved instrumental in getting a prompt reply. Architects who aren’t sure which choice will be the most cost-effective may request alternate prices on the bid. Alternates exponentially increase the estimators workload without offering much potential for reward. RFI’s that lead to more questions than answers are bad for business so share what you know to facilitate solid decision-making.

GC estimators are looking for better, cheaper, and faster solutions. The natural opposite of all of these things are sole-sourced specialty products and their vendors. Sole-sourced items tend to have long lead times and high prices compared to similar products. Architects have very little concern for lead times or difficulty in managing prima-donna vendors. That’s the GC’s problem. As surely as night follows day, specialty products tend to create unusual problems for the build team. Bringing this back to RFI’s, the estimator will often find it necessary to resolve issues pertaining to, or caused by, specialty products.

Defensive designers will delay decisions

Architects tend to believe that high prices come with high quality (except for change orders), so design teams tend to be quick to shoot-down any efforts to replace over-priced products with substitutes. If you’re competitively bidding a project, the cost of an expensive assembly is only a problem when there’s a reasonable chance your competition will miss it. Estimators who ask for solutions geared towards retaining the annoying, expensive, and long-lead product will get quicker replies from the Architect than those which oblige the Architect to defend their design decisions.

The one-note trap

The more expensive, hard to get, or outright difficult the product is to work with, the more likely it is that the Architect will require it with a solitary note located where absolutely nobody would look for it. Estimators who catch the note risk losing the bid by including the high-priced item that their competitors will overlook. Architects spend lots of time picking out something that’s dear to their design, so it’s very suspicious that they’d take chances on its inclusion through minimalist notation. This may be a trap intended to make the GC pay for signature design touches that the client can’t afford.

Request For Information

Daylight is the best disinfectant

Whenever these traps are encountered, estimators should draft RFI’s identifying precisely where the note appears, why it appears to be an error (i.e. because it looks like it doesn’t belong) and asking the design team to confirm that the sole-sourced thing has no allowable alternates. When it’s appropriate, ask the design team to list the approved vendors of the specialty product, because chances are excellent that they worked with one of them directly.

Architects can’t afford to ignore that RFI, and by answering it publicly, the bidders are all on equal footing to compete. By all means keep that feature’s price handy because once the budget is blown, it should be item #1 on your list of Value Engineering ideas.

Some notes on notation

Construction Documents (CD’s) are the composite of a set of drawings (plans), Scope letters, Request for Proposals (RFP), specifications, soils reports, directives, Addenda, and RFI responses. Mid-sized projects may have literally thousands of pages in their specification manuals, and hundreds of sheets in their plans. After all the work in putting them together, design teams are often imperious about questions that are answered in the CD’s.

RFI’s should pointedly reference the applicable sheets, details, and specifications down to the individual sub-heading. If you don’t tell the design team where to find what you’re looking at, they won’t have much reason to believe there’s a problem.

Whenever necessary a screen shot, or photocopy of the relevant information with bubbling around the area in question should be attached to the RFI. The motivation is to guide the reader through your natural confusion. For example:

Note A on Detail 5/A5.1 calls for “5/8″ thick ceramic tile”, which corresponds with the dimensioned layout of the room shown on the Floor Plan Sheet A6.1 (see attached). In contrast, specification 9300-122,A,5 calls for 24″ thick ceramic tile (see attached). We believe the intent is to install 5/8″ thick ceramic tile.

Is that correct?

If not, please provide the desired tile thickness for the area in question.

Be forewarned, irrelevant details always attract attention and causes confusion. Screenshots are really easy but it’s virtually impossible to cut out all notes, dimensions, and icons that will distract your reader from the real question.

Formal for a reason

RFI’s are a formal and contractually binding process between the GC and the Architect/ owners representative. The questions and their answers become part of the defined project scope of the contract. This means that unless otherwise noted, the questions you asked the Architect during the job walk are off the record. They can absolutely disavow any direction, instruction, hint, or help they gave you.

You should not directly ask any questions of the Architects’ consultants (engineers, interior designers, landscape designers, etc.) because the consultant’s response would effectively bypass the Architects’ control over the design. Architects extend the same courtesy to the GC by not communicating directly with their subcontractors. Most GC’s instruct their bidders to direct questions only to the GC’s estimator and emphatically warn bidders that contacting the design team or client will result in exclusion from the bid.

Life in the slow lane

The price paid for binding answers is time. RFI’s involving multiple design disciplines take the longest since there is more coordination required to answer. If the design team is answering multiple GC’s questions, they might compile and collate the RFI’s looking to avoid redundancies on their next bid-directive. This leaves even the easy to answer RFI’s waiting for a last moment response.

RFI’s are frequently misunderstood, or mishandled leading to situations where after weeks of waiting, the response fails to solve your problem before the bid. Architects who don’t understand your situation aren’t inclined to extend the bid, or revisit a “closed” issue.

Estimators need to understand the stakes of writing RFI’s properly. Many botched RFI’s lead to Architect responses that add additional layers of confusion, risk and frustration. Perhaps worst of all, your competitors poorly written RFI might oblige you to sort out a problem they created.

Informal guidance          

Occasionally there will come a problem that leaves your estimate stuck until you’ve got the Architect’s answer. In these cases, Estimators should reach out to the Architect informally and ask for advice on how to phrase the problem so it will be easily resolved. Some Architects will appreciate the courtesy and may even tell you how they’ll answer your RFI. Not only is the RFI answered, but the estimator gains time to share the information with their subs before the bid.

Subcontractor driven questions

Skilled trade subcontractors can come up with some very technical questions. A GC Estimator may lack the trade-specific knowledge to properly articulate the question to the design team. Many GC’s simply copy and paste a subcontractors RFI onto their template and submit it as though it was their question. These RFI’s may be poorly written, or asking for information already provided in the CD’s.  Since skilled trades generally correlate to engineering consultants, the RFI responses may be full of incomprehensible engineering legalese. This is most prominently displayed when a soils engineer answers an excavators poorly written RFI.

Request For Information

Rick knows what he’s doing but his writing is atrocious.”

GC estimators should take the time to learn what the sub is asking about. If this issue affects one bidder, it likely affects others. Getting to understand the problem and it’s likely solutions, is critical to asking only what you need to know. There are lots of sub estimators who were pressed into estimating, or are expected to estimate in addition to a host of other duties. RFIs before the bid should be decidedly geared towards answering estimating questions. You need to know enough to price the job, not to perfectly build it on bid-day.

Preparing for the bid

Sometimes the most dearly needed RFI’s go unanswered before the bid deadline. Estimators need to prepare contingency plans for every significant RFI. Generally speaking, the suggested solution in your RFI should be your bid-day default condition. If that RFI goes unanswered, then your proposal clarifications will need verbiage informing the client that you’ve included your specific solution to an issue raised in RFI (#) submitted to the Architect on (Date). Most clients aren’t paying attention to their Architects RFI log. A submitted bid implies that you had everything you needed to accurately bid the job. Architects who ran out of time answering RFI’s should have every sympathy with your situation. If the issue is serious enough that you can’t risk such a move on the project, it’s time to reconsider the opportunity. Sometimes missing information is intentional.  Weak design teams and unreasonable clients won’t improve after the contract is written.

 

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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved