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Modernizing construction conventions

by Michelle Mantegna, AIA, EDAC

As an industry shifting toward leaner processes and multidisciplinary collaboration, there’s been a need to evolve the process of RFIs, or Requests for Information. At the onset of construction for the Mayo Clinic’s East Expansion, we identified that although the RFI process might be outdated, it’s fundamental to construction administration (CA). Through collaboration and continuous improvement, we sought to evolve the process, resulting in more efficient workflows.

Negative impacts of the traditional RFI process

RFIs are a traditional communication tool used to provide Contractors with a formal mechanism to clarify or resolve gaps, conflicts, or ambiguities in the contract documents during the bidding or construction phase. Through this process, a contractor will submit a digital document conveying the questions with text and/or diagrams which the Design Team then provides a written response to the Contractor’s queries. From there, the Contractor determines if the RFI has cost or time impacts.

In theory it is a very simple, straightforward, 7–9-day process, but I have yet to be on a project where the “R word” is not plagued with deep rooted frustration, trepidation, or divisiveness. Contractors become concerned with not only the time and costs associated with receiving, logging, and reviewing RFIs, but also the potential impact on the construction schedule. RFIs make design teams uneasy as they can create the illusion of negligence, while Owners fear the potential of the work resulting in changes to the contract sum.

Overall, it is a process that continues to encourage silos. As our industry advances, we found it was critical to improve this process to better support the teams we work on and the spaces we design.

Redefining the process

Prior to the start of construction, the multidisciplinary team (coined ‘Vertical Velocity’) had been working together for approximately one year. We were deeply vested in the culture and processes that were created in the Big Room (a format where teams are co-located in one space) to execute this major expansion project on Mayo Clinic’s Phoenix Campus. The project entailed the three-story expansion of the outpatient clinic, a horizontal expansion of the logistics platform, surgical suite, and perioperative suites, as well as a kitchen and dining expansion.

During onboarding, we spent a lot of time defining standards, expectations, timelines, and requirements that shaped the culture and the way we would deliver the project. We agreed to throw out processes that didn’t work and trust in new processes aligned with our values. From this, the Question and Answer (Q&A Log) was born to make the traditional RFI process more efficient. The new Q&A process included the following measures:

a. Using simpler technology to track questions
b. Answering questions in real time
c. Relying on the multi-disciplinary team to resolve queries
d. Documenting changes or clarifications in monthly bulletins

This new process created efficiencies and evolved preconceived stigmas. Over the course of 2.5 years of construction on this 330,000 SF project, only 38 formal RFIs were realized! Due to the project’s size and complexity, this could have easily resulted in 500+ RFIs. The Q&A Process captured all other questions that would’ve otherwise been traditional requests for information.

Enhancing collaboration

To facilitate this process, we found it imperative to evolve the traditional OAC meeting into a format where we could all review these questions and provide answers together as a multi-disciplinary team. In meetings, we reviewed an Excel file and quickly filtered design clarifications, requests for design changes, or constructability issues related to specific scopes and shared them with the appropriate team members. With everyone in the same room, there was no back-and-forth to clarify or forward questions. In case a question could not be resolved in real time, we set up task forces or SWARMs to huddle and tackle the issue quickly.

Monthly bulletins issued by the design team streamlined changes to the field in a single deliverable as opposed to sketches or slip-sheets that typically accompany an RFI. Overall, the team felt like the process was much easier to manage than the inconsistent volume of RFIs on a typical project. The transparent process also unexpectedly yielded more camaraderie. Team members from various disciplines were more willing to get together in person or over the phone to resolve issues rather than defaulting to a “the balls in your court” mentality.

Justin Adams, a Project Director with McCarthy Construction, reflected, “The Q&A process allows for a deeper collaborative process to solve challenges that arise during construction and accelerates the turnaround of information by at least 60% or greater. By utilizing this approach, it inspires the team to work together to resolve questions in a manner that creates accountability and to achieve the greatest desired result.”

The Q&A Process used on the Mayo East Expansion project was undoubtedly one of the best innovative processes conceived. This process streamlined time, saved costs, and created a team-based approach that will impact our project deliveries moving forward. From this experience, we learned that not only is there always room for improvement but that we should also be open to taking risks to challenge ourselves beyond our standard process. It’s when we choose to embrace the risks that we discover those long-lasting solutions.

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