RFPs from the Edge

22 02 2011

Last month, the one session I attended at the AESP national conference was how to write a better request for proposal (RFP).  It was sort of a forum led by our friends at Tetra Tech.  Essentially, it was full of people like me, for whom a major responsibility is business development and marketing – responding to RFPs.  For a while I sat there like a lump, thinking, eh, just deal with it and quit whining.  Toward the end of the session I started getting fired up.

Here are some guidelines for writing RFPs:

  • If you’ve already decided who you are going to hire but have to go through an RFP process as a formality to keep some government wonk off your back, just issue the RFP with a one-week deadline with an impossible pile of content to gather so it is obvious to everyone who knows anything (i.e., not the clueless wonk), that the RFP is a charade.  I have plenty of opportunity without being duped into writing a proposal for which we have no chance.  And whatever you do in this scenario, don’t extend the deadline because some clueless bidder doesn’t “get it” and asks for an extension.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it days before the deadline passes.  One thing that really smoked my butt last summer was having a deadline extended with about three hours to go for the 5:00 deadline.  This was obviously to accommodate some whining  bidders.  The RFP had been out for weeks.  If a bidder can’t manage their time better than that they deserve no chance at the project.  Is that how you would handle the actual work should you win?  I wrote as much in our proposal on that one, sparing the name calling, however.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it before the original deadline.  That is correct.  We recently submitted a proposal on a Friday, the due date.  We added to the proposal that we had not received the questions (from bidders) and answers (from buyer) for the proposal.  Samples of this Q&A are discussed in You Are So Fired.   As a result of not having the Q&A, we wrote that if there is something we didn’t get from the guy who promised we would get the Q&A, have mercy on us.  The next Tuesday here came the Q&A and an extension to the next Thursday, two days away.  Good grief!  And it had MAJOR implications.  See next bullet…
  • If there is a deadline for completing the actual project, PUT THIS IN THE RFP! (please)  The RFP discussed in the previous bullet was for a quarter million dollars with no project timeline mentioned in the original RFP.  We provided two scenarios: first to complete it by late fall for one price and second to finish early the next year.  In the Q&A provided after the due date, the report was to be completed by June 30.  Nice.  If I had known that I probably wouldn’t have even bid the thing because it’s too aggressive and practically impossible to deliver.  Did I mention this was an ARRA (“stimulus”) project.  Makes sense that it makes no sense.
  • Either provide a very detailed scope of work or budget, or both.  If neither is provided, you have nothing to bid on.  This may sound like a “duh” but some RFPs want innovation and therefore leave the approach wide open, which is ok, but unless the RFP comes from congress, which knows no limit on spending, please give me a number to work with.
  • Know what you are doing.  We were recently teaming with another firm on a proposal for a relatively huge pile of work.  The constraints on cost per project and per unit of savings were about 40% lower than industry standards.  For example, a rule of thumb is that a program should deliver savings for about 1.5 times the energy cost per unit.  They were talking about something more like 0.8 times cost per unit.  C’mon.  This will be a case of hopefully getting the project and then explaining their plan is naive and needs a reality pill.
  • Keep it linear not a convoluted, semi-parallel piece of junk.  Some RFPs have an approach, scope of work, form of proposal, with a total of about 4 separate lists of things to cover.  I want to be sure to cover everything and present it clearly but this gets a little difficult when the format detailed in the RFP is a mess.  It doesn’t flow like I want because the RFP is a heap of junk.
  • Don’t mislead or outright lie about selection criteria.  When I see an RFP from a government entity with a proposal selection process that puts less than 50% scoring on cost, I know nobody put any thought into that.  Sometimes it’s a laughable 20% of the weighting.  It would be a rainy day in hell when a government entity doesn’t select the lowest cost proposal.  Quality and ROI rarely (and I do mean not always) matter to government entities, which is why we skip most of them.  I did fall for the ARRA one above, like a dope.
  • And of our wonderful utility clients, tell the purchasing / sourcing departments we are not designing a power plant, transmission system, or even a measly substation.  We don’t need to carry $20 million in professional liability insurance.  This may be asking for the impossible too, but ask the legal department to be reasonable.
  • Finally, for cry sakes hire the firm / team with the best proposal.  In the past year, we assembled a team to do a study for a regional energy efficiency consortium.  Our team put a lot of thought into the proposal and developed an outstanding approach and work plan.  I knew who our competition would be.  A firm that had done a million of these and they would switch covers on the last report, make some adjustments for the region and tell them what they tell everyone else.  If you kid yourself long enough, you’ll start accepting it as correct.  At some point you have to go to the streets and find out rather than tweak the last edition.  Our approach was to get real data from the ground up.  We lost to the mass-market provider and in the post mortem, the consortium rep couldn’t tell us a single reason why we weren’t selected.  In fact, she only told us how much they liked our proposal, over and over.  Head, meet wall.


I was in Austin, TX last week for my first real visit to the state.  Per my experience, there is no shortage of traffic.  Per the locals, the city likes sprawl.  It features a nice downtown and believe me when I tell you I’ve never seen so many people running in the morning darkness as there were in Austin.  Not in New York, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle.  The only thing that I’ve experienced that was close was in the hills outside Silicon Valley.  And the Austin dudes are fast.  I was passed by three women in one six miler – four if you count one that pulled out in front of me and pulled away.  Fantastic!  These women were probably in their running prime but I’m not going to whine about my age till I’m at least 60.  But the average high temperature in July/August is 96F, which to me in WI, is a god-awful 4-H day, hazy, hot, humid, heinous.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

You Are SO Fired

28 09 2010

As a sub-consultant or as a prime contractor we must do about 25 “major” proposals per year.  By “major” I mean there is a formal request for proposals (RFP), sometimes there is an “intent to bid” form to submit, formal question submittals to the buyer, formal distribution of all questions and answers to all bidders, and then bids are due.  All questions from all bidders and their answers are provided to all bidders to help maintain a level playing field.

I think I/we have only asked questions when there are contradictions within the RFP.  For example, the due date is provided in one place and in another place it is different.  I want to know for sure when it is due – almost always the latter date, but I take nothing for granted so I ask.  Just about all other questions I would ask, even if good ones provide me with no advantage at best, and are self-destructive at worst.  Remember, all bidders get all questions and answers.  Questions give away ideas, strategy, and almost always reveal how stupid some people are.

I don’t think I coined the statement but the following definitely applies for these things in many if not most cases.  “There is no such thing as a stupid question – only stupid people asking questions.”

I have three sets of questions to poke at in this post.  I provided answers to each question.

The first examples come from an RFP for engineering services for industrial energy efficiency.  The successful bidder(s) would be providing assistance to industrial end users in the form of identifying opportunities, estimating costs and benefits, and maybe assisting with implementation services.  It is up to the proposer to propose needed services that remove barriers to EE for these end users.

Q:  What is the definition of “medium to large industrial customers”?

A:  Who cares?  What difference does it make?  You are not bidding on a specific job.

Q:  What is the program’s “custom track”?

A:  You’re fired.  If you don’t know what custom is, you should also be fined for asking and wasting my time.

Q:  What types of industries comprise the majority of participants (end users)?

A:  I’ll put that one in the “you lose” box.  This person is too stupid and/or lazy to investigate the types of industries in the region.  Also, if an industry is not being addressed sufficiently, don’t you suppose that might be a good opportunity?

Q:  What typical examples of “non-energy benefits” do you want included in the proposal?

A:  The “non-energy benefit” is that this stupid question tells me that I can put your proposal in the lose box without reading it because you clearly don’t understand this business.

Q:  Are teaming arrangements acceptable…?

A:  Yes but nobody in their right mind would team with you for asking this question.

This next set is for developing an energy management plan for a county at a very high level since the budget is small relative to the scope of the project – the number of buildings and size of the region covered.  This is a big county with hundreds of buildings (many of which will be picnic shelters and stuff like that) and millions of square feet.

Q:  Is there a list of potential bidders?

A:  Yes.  Would you like a draft of their proposals too?  Seriously, we always have to guess who else is bidding and differentiate ourselves from them.  I’ve never experienced or heard of this being distributed prior to proposal submittals.

Q:  My name is Dr. Evil and I am the world’s greatest one man show on earth (intentional redundancy).  Is it ok if I join several the bidders going after this project?

A:  You may do so as long as you give me your real name so I can put the proposals of those pitiful enough to hire you in the lose box.

WARNING: Strap yourself in your chair so you don’t hurt yourself falling over in laughter.  The following question may be the best one I’ve seen.  NOT responsible for personal injury.

Q:  Price is one of the evaluation factors.  What exactly does that mean?  [and he goes on from there]  If we bid less than the not-to-exceed amount provided in the RFP, will that improve the scoring of our proposal?

A:  On behalf of the United States, I should just give you a negotiated reasonable profit in exchange for your permanent relocation out of the country.  You don’t even need to do the project!

Q:  Are all the facilities on the same utility rate (tariff) or are there different tariffs used among the hundreds of buildings?

A:  You are SO fired.  I’m sure a park shelter house is going to be on the same tariff as a major airport.  Not only that, there are multiple utilities serving the county!  But this takes several gruesome clicks on the computer so I understand your plight.

The last RFP was for a combined heat and power (CHP) study.  The CHP would be customer owned and sited for a large region.

Q:  As part of the study are you interested in…, e.g. “switching electric hot water for solar thermal technologies?”

A:  Using a digital voice recorder, read the title of the RFP then your question, three times in succession while recording.  Play it back as many times as necessary for the subliminal message to kick in.

WARNING:   Fasten your seat belt again.  NOT responsible for personal injury.

Q:  Is the mission, vision and values specifically for the state’s energy program?

A:  No.  We felt our letterhead had too much white space so we developed and used that to fill it up.  It doesn’t really apply to anything.  What difference does it make?!  Also, you may want to consider brushing up on your 3rd grade grammar skills.

Q:  Is cost effectiveness analysis to assume “going forward” costs only?

A:  No.  It should include customer expenditures on landscaping from 1997 through 2002.  If you have trouble linking the two together, we are open to alternative ideas.

Q:  What, if any data and source limitations do you have?

A:  The successful bidder will have access to our direct line to God who already knows what you will be doing and exactly when and where you will be doing it as you open our rejection letter addressed to you.

The End

I may have evaluated proposals a time or two but can’t specifically recall any.  However, if I would, I would certainly factor in the types of questions bidders ask when evaluating proposals.  Some questions demonstrate ignorance of our industry.  Some seem to indicate that the bidder would be a pain to work with or needs excessive hand holding to do the job.  Others just seem to indicate lack of IQ or it could be lack of thinking.  But what is the difference?  Don’t you evaluate questions from interviewees who want a job in your company?  I wouldn’t want them either way.  Some questions are superfluous and irrelevant; possibly indicating the bidder has no idea what “this” is about.  Do you really want people who waste your time or are too stupid or lazy working for you?

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Tax Deduction Pennies

21 10 2009

Recently, we received our umpteenth “request for proposal” (RFP) to provide the engineering required to capture the elusive $1.80 tax deduction on new or remodeled buildings.  We spend a lot of time, money and effort to drive business through our doors but I’m not sure I want to see another one of these.

Like the rest of the universally incomprehensible tax code, the engineering piece of this is relatively complex.  If we did this all the time, it wouldn’t be a problem.  But it seems we get the next RFP just as the rules are overwritten in my long-term memory banks.  What do we compare to?  Does this apply to both retrofit and new construction?  Does retrofit compare to new construction baselines or actual pre-project conditions?  How do these partial incentives for HVAC, envelope, and lighting work?  How do the two lighting approaches work?  What suffices for demonstration of percent savings?  Half day – gone.

To do the engineering right, which is the only way we do things, it takes a lot of energy modeling time and expense (with the exception of the isolated lighting calculation).  Also, consider:

  • It is impossible to save anywhere near 16.7%[1] with envelope measures , relative to energy code, so you’re left with 50% total building savings.  As a side note for COMMERCIAL buildings, in many if not most situations, it is not cost effective to save energy by adding insulation, and you can save some but not much with enhanced glazing.
  • We need to save 50% of the total building consumption with HVAC and lighting, but on average per benchmark data, HVAC and lighting only account for 67% of building operating energy cost.  See where I’m going with this?  Your combined HVAC and lighting savings need to be 75% more efficient than baseline!  There’s a reason LEED has about 50% set as the threshold to capture all possible energy points!  You have to use a genius designer, perhaps have deep pockets, plus all the stars have to align for a “lucky” baseline system to have a shot at 50% savings[2].


  • Only the lighting power density approach for a $0.60 per square foot deduction is worth pursuing.
  • The threshold for the rest needs to be reduced, to perhaps 30% savings, which is still impressive and also certainly not something one can achieve without trying.

[1] End users can get partial deductions for (1) envelope, (2) HVAC, and (3) lighting, by saving 16.7% of the total for any of the three.  This 16.7% is one third of 50%..

[2] We are actually shooting for all 10 LEED 2.2 points on one project, but “only” 42% savings are needed for that.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP