Changes to the scope of work are one of the most disputed areas in construction projects. It’s often an issue because changes usually increase costs and the parties dispute over who should cover the costs. This type of conflict can stem from many factors. A common cause is a lack of clarity or understanding of the parties’ obligations under the construction contract. Another cause is the parties failing to document changes during the construction process.
The contract – scope it out.
One way to protect against such disputes is to clearly outline the included and excluded work within the agreement. If it is not clear within the contract what is truly a change, the parties can end up spending meaningful time, energy, and money debating. Alternatively, the issue can be easily resolved at the contract drafting stage. Clearly outlining the specific scope of work for the project should give the parties a better understanding of what is a legitimate change. This will allow them to focus on what needs to be done instead of which party is responsible for paying for it.
Clauses Provide Clarity
In other cases, the contractor will require the authorization of the owner to proceed without providing a cost estimate. This can be effective when changes are required by third parties such as the local municipality. Or, when unforeseen items are discovered. Items that are easily calculable can also be undertaken without a specific quote. For example, additional amounts of flooring or drywall. Change order provisions can take on a number of forms. Having them in place can add clarity and reduce conflict once the project is underway.
On the ground
Once the project has commenced, the contractual change order provisions should be followed to avoid disputes. Although having a change order signed by all parties is the best practice, this can be more difficult than you think while the project is ongoing. In many cases, changes will be made during a quick discussion on-site, or through a telephone conversation. When it is not practical or possible to get a signed change order prior to undertaking or authorizing additional work, there are other ways to document that change to protect the parties. The use of follow up emails or text messages regarding discussions, changes or instructions can go a long way to document changes and avoid disputes in the future. In a number of recent cases, these types of communications have even been seen as sufficient where a written agreement was explicitly required by the contract documents.
These follow up or confirmation communications can also serve a second purpose. Parties often leave site discussions or phone calls with different impressions as to what was truly agreed upon at the time. These communications can allow the parties to articulate their understanding of the change and work out any items that may not have been clear at the time – prior to undertaking any work in relation to the proposed change. Although there is no perfect system or solution, this is yet another way to potentially avoid or minimize future disputes between the parties.
Although changes can lead to disputes on site, they do not have to. There are no perfect solutions when dealing with changes during a project. However, taking some or all of the steps outlined above should provide some meaningful protection along the way. Clarifying the scope of work, and documenting changes can mean the difference between finding common ground or engaging in protracted debates with the other parties.
Do you still have questions? Contact our Construction Lawyers for more information about handling changes in construction.