Changes to your Scope of Services on the Construction Project (law note)

change!Our office is in the middle of a large renovation.  It’s been several months of drilling, sawing, painting, carpeting– you name it.  I’m proud to say that we have had not one change to the scope of work during that time.  <insert maniacal laughter here>.  Okay, that’s simply not true.  Change–like death, taxes, and bodily functions–happens.

In the same way that incoming wave will soon destroy that sand-written “change” sign in the picture that accompanies this post, change will happen in all parts of a construction project.

As the architect or engineer of record, you undoubtedly have a thoughtful, well-written contract or proposal.  Ideally, your contract states exactly what is, and is not, included.  But inevitably, something will slip through the cracks.  A likely scenario: the owner asks for “just a small change over here,” “one more quick site visit” over there, and hey, what’s a few extra months of contract administration among friends, right?

Whenever you experience such “scope creep”, document it.  Ask how compensation will be handled up front.  Even a quick email to the owner, stating that you’d be happy to make that extra site visit and will invoice per the contract, will make the owner aware that you expect compensation.   Have the discussion before the work is done.  When they are likely to say “great- how soon can you do it?”.  Or, if they don’t expect to pay you for your extra services, they’ll tell you that.  Either way, you’ll know what the expectations are for payment.  And, should you not get the payment later on, you have a nice piece of written evidence to show a judge or jury.

Your turn.  Have you experienced “scope creep” on a project?  How did you handle it?  Comment below, or drop me a line.  New readers: Check out the white paper on 7 Critical Mistakes that Design Professionals Make, available for free download on the right hand side of the page.


Photo “Change in the Sand” (c) Melissa Brumback. Creative Commons License

That’s not the way we’ve always done it! (Why you should update your office practices)

Phone boothAnyone recognize the photo to the left?  If you are of the Millennial generation, this is a quaint thing called a public pay phone.  They used to be everywhere.  Imagine, not having a cell phone to keep you in constant contact with Big Brother…………. [the good old days].

As you may be able to tell from the fact that the receiver is hanging down, this phone has seen better days.

What does this have to do with construction? Everything.  Just because something is done one way– even for years, or decades– doesn’t mean it should stay that way.  Just as you learn new technical skills and change your designs, you should also update and modernize your office practices.

What do I mean by office practices?  How you open a project.  Whether or not you get a contract in writing (you should).  How you keep and store project files both during and after project completion.  You should also modernize and update your contracts.  Still using 1997 AIA documents?  Maybe it’s time to step it up to the 2007 forms.  Have a custom “terms and conditions” contract?  When was the last time you reviewed it with your lawyer?  Laws change just as construction techniques change.

A little planning now could save you in legal fees and headaches later on, in the dreaded discovery phase of a lawsuit.  Just because you’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean you should always keep them the same.  After all, when was the last time you saw a public pay phone?

Your turn.  What are your standard operating procedures?  Do you know how your project files and emails are saved by each employee?  Do you know if your employees know your SOP?  And, you do have a written contract, right?

 Creative Commons License
Phone booth in the Countryside by Melissa Brumback.

Understanding & Modifying Key Construction Contract Terms

As I mentioned, I  was one of three amigos who spoke on a Construction Contract webinar last week.  We had a good turn out and lots of very astute questions during the Q&A portion.  While you will miss all of my witty insightful helpful commentary, you can check out the slides for my portion, on understanding and modifying key terms, here:

Drafting Construction Contracts

My comrades’ presentations can be found by visiting Chris’s blog (for payment provision issues) and Craig’s blog (for damages and dispute resolution issues).  Happy viewing!

Safe Harbors- not just for Sailors anymore (or, why advance planning can prevent claims of defective plans & specs) (law note)

Have you ever considered a “Safe Harbor Provision” for your Owner-Architect or Owner-Engineer contract?  Maybe it is time that you do.

As you are (probably too well) aware, on every construction project there are changes.  Some of these are due to the owner’s change of heart, value engineering concerns, contractor failures, and material substitutions.  Some may be because of a design error, omission, or drawing conflict.  It happens.

safe harbor provisions

A “Safe Harbor Provision” is a provision that establishes an acceptable percentage of increased construction costs (that is, a percentage of the project’s contingency).  The idea is that if the construction changes attributable to the designer is within this percentage, no claim will be made by the Owner for design defects. 

An example provision is provided in the EJCDC documents (Exhibit I, Allocation of Risks, of  Form E-500), which provides

Agreement Not to Claim for Cost of Certain Change Orders: Owner recognizes and expects that certain Change Orders may be required to be issued as the result in whole or part of imprecision, incompleteness, errors, omissions, ambiguities, or inconsistencies in

the Drawings, Specifications, and other design documentation furnished by Engineer or in the other professional services performed or furnished by Engineer under this Agreement (“Covered Change Orders”). Accordingly, Owner agrees not to sue or to make any claim directly or indirectly against Engineer on the basis of professional negligence, breach of contract, or otherwise with respect to the costs of approved Covered Change Orders unless the costs of such approved Covered Change Orders exceed __% of Construction Cost, and then only for an amount in excess of such percentage. Any responsibility of Engineer for the costs of Covered Change Orders in excess of such percentage will be determined on the basis of applicable contractual obligations and professional liability standards. For purposes of this paragraph, the cost of Covered Change Orders will not include any costs that Owner would have incurred if the Covered Change Order work had been included originally without any imprecision, incompleteness, error, omission, ambiguity, or inconsistency in the Contract Documents and without any other error or omission of Engineer related thereto. Nothing in this provision creates a presumption that, or changes the professional liability standard for determining if, Engineer is liable for the cost of Covered Change Orders in excess of the percentage of Construction Cost stated above or for any other Change Order. Wherever used in this paragraph, the term Engineer includes Engineer’s officers, directors, members, partners, agents, employees, and Consultants.

 [NOTE TO USER: The parties may wish to consider the additional limitation contained in the following sentence.]

Owner further agrees not to sue or to make any claim directly or indirectly against Engineer with respect to any Covered Change Order not in excess of such percentage stated above, and Owner agrees to hold Engineer harmless from and against any suit or claim made by the Contractor relating to any such Covered Change Order.

[Emphasis added to key provisions by me].

Essentially, the EJCDC safe harbor provision includes the following:

  • Owner’s acknowledgement that change orders are standard operating procedure on construction projects
  • Owner’s agreement not to sue or bring any claims against the engineer  unless the costs of such exceed a negotiated percentage of the construction cost.
  • Owner’s acknowledgment that not all change orders over the allocated percentage are the designer’s responsibility, as the aggregate amount does not include costs that the project owner would have incurred if the work covered by the change order had been included originally (the “betterment” to the owner).
  • Owner’s acknowledgement that only the overages attributable to the design are compensable — notably, nothing changes the professional liability standard for determining if the engineer is liable in excess of the percentage. 

Again, this is one of those “don’t try this at home” moments.  A poorly written safe harbor provision could do more harm than good.  It may be seen as establishing a warranty, and that would be an uninsurable loss.  If not properly crafted, it may create the expectation that all overages fall on the designer.  Proceed with caution!

When well-drafted, however, a safe harbor provision can provide you with some level of comfort for the inevitable discoveries that happen when the drawings hit the pavement.

 Have you ever used a “safe harbor” provision in your Owner-Designer agreement?  Did it work to your advantage, or did it create unreasonable expectations that change orders were capped at that amount?  Share your experience below.


Photo: Boats in safe harbor, Roseau, Dominica via teletypeturtle/Creative Commons license.

Certificate of Merit to sue architects or engineers? (Tue Tip)

You know how they say the best laid plans can go awry?  Just as unforeseen issues pop up in construction, they also pop up in the practice of law.  So, while it is still Tuesday, I apologize for the late hour of my post.

I bring you good tidings, despite my lateness.  Right now, in the North Carolina General Assembly, is a proposed bill that would require a Certificate of Merit to be filed in civil litigation against an architect, engineer, or a design firm.  If it passes, this would require that an unbiased, third party (who is also a licensed professional) has reviewed the claim and believes it has merit.  

boy holding certificate of merit

This boy has his certificate of merit: will lawsuits against architects and engineers require the same?

Such a pre-lawsuit requirement  has long been a right that doctors enjoy.  Now, there may a chance for architects and engineers to also enjoy protection from otherwise frivolous lawsuits. 

The bill has been introduced, had its first reading, and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.  While the bill is a long way from passage, it is a good sign that the public recognizes too often professionals are the targets in lawsuits simply because of their “deep pockets” (really!) or their insurance coverage. 

You can keep track of the progress of Senate Bill 435 here

(h/t to Kathryn Westcott, ACEC-NC Executive Director)

Photo: (c) John Dolan via Flickr/Creative Commons License.

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