Change Orders in Construction Projects
Prepared by Özgenur Baştuğ
Construction projects are complex long-term projects with dynamic nature. They bring together multiple parties within different disciplines and require them to work coherently in a designated area to construct a structure with a constrained budget within a specified time. Most of the construction projects are incomplete in terms of design, procurement, contracting prior to the start of the construction due to their complex nature. Project properties are determined and finalized during the construction of the project and changes are exerted within the process.
Although the ultimate goal during the planning phase would be to minimize the changes and unexpected situations, it is almost impossible to complete a construction project without subjecting it to change during the construction phase. While these changes may stem from so many different reasons like material quality, change in design, time considerations, etc. they can be minimized as much as possible with careful planning and execution.
Any deviation from the scope of work agreed in the contract is considered as a change in a project. A change order (also called variation order) is a formal document issued either by the contractor or the client for changes in the project such as changes in the project scope, design, completion date, contract price, etc.
By keeping in mind that changes will be needed at some point of the project, these possible changes must be foreseen before the start of the construction phase. To be able to protect the project from the unforeseen extra costs and disputes with the contractors, change order format should be prepared carefully within the planning phase of the construction. Change orders must be clear and detailed without leaving any important information related to description of the work, pricing and timing missing.
This article is written with an emphasis on project management. The main goal of the article is to provide accurate information regarding the change orders and its impacts on construction projects. It can be used as a guiding/briefing document for project managers.
Change Order: Definition & Content
Any deviation from the scope of work agreed in the contract is considered as a change in a project.
A change order is a written agreement to modify, add to, or otherwise alter the work from that set forth in the contract.  In general, change orders involve change in scope, time and material for additional work, extra costs for additional working hours. Due to dynamic and complex structure of the construction industry changes in the construction projects is inevitable and change orders are utilized in all types of projects.
Change Orders in Standard Construction Contracts
In general, construction projects use standard contracts established by the professional organizations and the change orders are included in all major standard contracts under the general conditions. There is not only one standard form for these contracts.
In the United States, the most commonly used contract forms are provided by American Institute of Architects (AIA), Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC) and Associated General Contractors (AGC). While the contract forms of International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) are rarely used in the United States they are quite common in Europe.
According to above mentioned standard contracts;
- Change orders are part of the general conditions of the contracts.
- Change orders are formed either by the request of the client/owner or with the recommendation for a change from the contractor.
- Change orders are binding only when they are written documents containing the signature of both parties. Oral modifications are not binding.
- Change orders may be initiated any time before the takeover certificate of the works is issued.
American Institute of Architects (AIA)
According to AIA, a change order is a written instrument prepared by the architect and signed by the owner, contractor, and architect, stating their agreement upon all of the following:
- Change in the work,
- The amount of the adjustment, if any, in the contract sum,
- The extent of the adjustment, if any, in the contract time.
Associated General Contractors (AGC)
According to AGC, a “change order” refers to an official change of any kind in the original scope of work or terms of a construction contract agreed to by the owner, contractor, and project designer. Change orders include work that must be added or removed from the original contract in order to best serve the finished product of a project. 
International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC)
Changes are referred as “variations” in the FIDIC Red Book. According to FIDIC Red Book, each variation may include :
- Changes to the quantities of any item of work included in the contract,
- Changes due to quality and other characteristics of any item of work,
- Changes to the levels, positions and/or dimensions of any part of the works,
- Omission of any work unless it is to be carried out by others,
- Any additional work, plant, materials or services necessary for the permanent works including any associated tests on completion, boreholes and other testing and exploratory work,
- Changes to the sequence or timing of the execution of the works.
Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC)
Change orders are also addressed by EJCDC. According to Article 10 of EJCDC’s 2007 General Conditions, a change order can stem from: 
- Changes in the work ordered by the owner,
- Changes in the work due to defective work,
- Changes in the contract price or contract times.
Content of a Change Order
Since change orders are many times the reason for a conflict between the agreed parties a change order must be clear, and it should involve no discrepancies. It should involve the work to be performed, where and when the requested work should be performed, the payment method and time, changes in the duration, etc. Therefore, preparation stage of the change order should be handled very carefully. Change orders should particularly involve below mentioned information in order not to be the source of conflict/dispute later on between the agreeing parties  :
- Identification of change order
- Description of change order
- Reason for change
- Change in contract price
- Change in unit prices (if applicable)
- Change to contract time
- Statement that secondary impacts are included
- Approvals by owner’s and contractor’s representatives
Causes of Change Orders
The potential causes of the change orders and the agents who are causing these orders are investigated by many researchers. As a conclusion of the research conducted, four main agents were suggested for the change orders. These are clients, consultants, contractors, and some external agents.  In these agents, it must be noted that clients and consultants are the main drivers of the change orders.
Potential reasons of the change orders and related agents who are causing these changes can be summarized as in the figure below:
- The main drivers of the change orders are the clients which are followed by the consultants.
- Change orders are mainly issued for the additional works.
- The most common causes of the change orders are:
- Change in plans: Caused by the changes made by clients. They may happen due to insufficient involvement of the client in the design phase, lack of understanding of the client in terms of design or merely a change of mind or requirements. 
- Change in scope: Occurs due to inadequate planning in the project definition phase.
- Financial problems: Client may undergo some financial problems leading to some budget constraints or may simply seek to make some savings. This problem may lead to change in schedule, specifications and the quality of the construction. 
- Conflicting contract documents: Contract documents must be clear, detailed and understandable. If a contract fails to meet these requirements, then it results in misinterpretation of the actual requirement of a project  These misinterpretations may later on result in change orders, conflicts, delays in the project, etc.
- Impediment in prompt decision making process: It is highly important for a project that the decisions should be taken as fast as possible in order to avoid extra costs and delays. Therefore, it is also an important factor for the success of the projects. The lack of this results in change orders during the life cycle of the project.
- Change in design: Changes in design are quite common in the fast track projects where the construction phase starts before the completion of the design.  While the changes in the design phase, or the initial part of the construction phase do not have much adverse effects, changes in the later phases may cause severe impacts on the project.
Preparation of Change Orders
Preparation Process of the Change Orders
Change orders can be either requested by the contractor or issued by the client. Processes followed in these cases slightly differ from each other.
If the change order is requested by the contractor:
- Contractor prepares a change order request form and submits to the client.
- Change order request is reviewed and evaluated by the client and if it is found necessary the request is approved.
- After the approval of the request for change order, proposed document is discussed between the client and the contractor including the effect of the changes on time and cost.
- Upon agreement, final version of the signed change order including the scheduling and cost breakdown is submitted to the client by the contractor.
- Client accepts and signs the change order and the work described in the change order starts.
If the change order is issued by the client:
- The need for a change is determined by the client and the change order proposal is initiated.
- Initiator change order is prepared and submitted to the contractor.
- Proposed change order is evaluated by the contractor.
- After the review of the contractor, proposed document is discussed between the client and the contractor including the effect of the changes on time and cost.
- Upon agreement, final version of the signed change order including the scheduling and cost breakdown is submitted to the client by the contractor.
- Client accepts and signs the change order and the work described in the change order starts.
It must be noted that if by any reason the change is deemed unnecessary for the client, then the client has the right to deny the change order.
Important Points During the Preparation of Change Orders
While preparing the change orders, the work that is to be changed should be considered in detail. According to Levy , before the submission, change orders should be complete in every aspect. There should be no need for any further explanation and the change order should cause no question marks regarding scope, cost or schedule. Below mentioned items should be considered for a detailed and complete change order :
- The reasons for the change should be explained in detail and there should be sufficient documentation attached to the change order to describe the changed condition. If necessary, copies of drawings, specifications can be included to prove and support the need for the change.
- Steps required to implement the change should be explained in detail.
- Any impact on the target completion date or any other schedule impact on the completion of work should be detailed in the change order. A detailed schedule should be submitted within the document.
- Any permits that might be required and the estimated time for obtaining these permits should be indicated.
- Any impact on the direct and indirect costs should be considered and the detailed cost breakdown should be included in the change order.
Negotiation of Change Orders
Before a change order is issued, the terms on the change order should be reviewed in detail by both parties and agreed on. In many cases, meetings are held for the negotiation of the terms in the change orders. There are problems encountered while negotiating. The most common ones are the determination of the cost, agreement on the impact of the change order on the schedule and required time extension. These are discussed in detail until an agreement is achieved by both parties. The negotiation process, is one of the problems with the change orders since they extend the time for the approval of the order, require extra work for both parties and may cause dispute between the client and the contractor.
Cost determination is the most common problem encountered during the negotiation since it directly affects the project cost. Direct and indirect costs, revised rates, additional preliminaries are discussed and often may lead to disagreement between the two parties.
Determination of the time required is another most common problem encountered during the negotiation. There may be disagreement between the parties regarding the duration of the work indicated in the change order and its impact on the overall schedule of the project.
Duration of the approval process may be one of the issues in the negotiation process. Change orders are reviewed and discussed in detail. It might take time to come to an agreement between the two parties, and also after the agreement it might take a while the change order to be approved. This causes problems for the contractors and may delay the works.
Impacts of Change Orders
Construction projects may involve complex operations which cannot be accurately determined in advance.  Change orders can be considered as escape points from the contract when the changes to the contract are required. These changes which are executed via change orders, may satisfy the needs of the client for the overall project, correct the problems faced during the construction phase and enable the completion of the project with maximum efficiency.  On the other hand, change orders may cause significant problems during the course of the project if they are not handled carefully.
Changes can be divided into two as beneficial and detrimental changes:
Beneficial changes are the type of changes which are favourable for the project. They provide positive impact to the project; therefore, they are welcomed by the management of the project. These impacts can be:
- Reduction in cost,
- Reduction in time,
- Improvement of the quality standards,
- Omission of the errors,
- Reduction in the degree of difficulty in the project.
Detrimental changes are the type of changes that reduce owner value and have a negative impact on a project. They should be minimized as much as possible to avoid the problems. It must be also noted that the detrimental changes may not seem detrimental in the first place but due to their timing they might be considered as detrimental. They may have to be applied due to lack of any other alternative available at that moment of the project.  Potential impacts of the detrimental changes can be:
- Cost overruns,
- Time overruns,
- Disputes between the parties of the contract,
- Adverse effect on the professional reputation of one or more parties,
- Additional specialist equipment/personnel,
- Additional health & safety equipment/measure,
- Degradation of health & safety,
- Degradation of quality.
As a common conclusion of the research made on the impacts of the change order, it has been found that the most common impacts of the change orders are the cost overrun and time overrun:
- Cost Overrun
- Change orders are generally prepared for the additional works; therefore, they will cause the increase in the cost due to:
- - Time and material charges,
- - Overheads,
- - Rework and stand by time,
- - Loss of productivity,
- - Change in cash flow due to inflation.
- Time Overrun
- Change orders might affect the project completion time adversely due to:
- - Time spent during the preparation, negotiation and approval of the change order,
- - Extra time needed for the additional works in the change order,
- - Time spent due to loss of productivity,
- - Loss of time due to delayed material delivery for the extra works.
Change Orders & Iron Triangle
Project management focuses mainly on the ability to complete the project in the best way possible in terms of scope, time, cost, and quality. Although there are many other criteria; time, cost and scope are traditionally considered as the three key constraints and referred as “iron triangle”. Quality is also considered to be another criterion which is formed as an integral dimension of the project management supported by the iron triangle. 
The triangle represents the main three constraints of a project and their interdependent relation to each other. One constraint cannot be changed without changing the other one and the project quality is also affected because of these changes. To achieve overall success in the project, these factors should be balanced.
When the change orders are examined fully in terms of causes and impacts, it can be clearly seen that they have a direct link to the iron triangle which comprises the main focus of the projects.
Change orders may affect one of these factors and due to their interdependent relationship, all factors will be affected. Or they may affect all of them at the same time also. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that change orders are quite important when it comes to managing a project effectively and successfully.
Each contract contains a section for the change orders and change order form. It is almost impossible to complete a project without a change order; however, the use of change orders must be minimized as much as possible. To be able to do that, involved parties (planners, designers, project managers, etc.) should be careful prior to the start of the construction. However, since the errors can be corrected or plans can be changed later on with the change orders, this situation limits the effectiveness of the project.
Although change orders are useful tools to make changes from the agreed scope of work in the contract, it should be understood that they are not as broad as a contract and they do not allow to change all the unwanted aspects of the contract but rather some parts agreed between the parties related to scope of work, time, cost, etc.
In addition, since change orders are costly, they are allowed up to some extent due to financial concerns. The total amount of the change orders can be up to some percentage (determined by the project executives) of the overall project contract.
A change order is a written agreement to change the work from the agreed scope of work in the contract. In general, change orders may involve changes in scope, time, and material. They may be issued for addition or omission of work, change in plans, design, schedule, or scope. Due to dynamic and complex structure of the construction industry it is almost impossible to complete a project without issuing a change order.
Change orders may be used as powerful tools to modify the project according to the needs of the client and to maximize the efficiency of the project. However, if the change orders are not prepared carefully and in detail, then they might cause many issues between the involved parties and in the end may cause increase in the project cost and delays in the project completion time.
The following list provides resources for further research and study on change orders:
- 1. Edward R. Fisk, Wayne D. Reynolds (1997): Construction Project Administration
- Construction Project Administration can be used as a guide for the successful management of a construction project from design phase to close out. It has a complete chapter dedicated to change orders which is used and referenced in this page frequently. The book is very useful if one wants to learn more about specific aspects of the construction management since each subject is discussed in detail with examples.
- 2. Sidney M. Levy (2000): Project Management in Construction
- Project Management in Construction aims to provide relevant information about each phase of the construction projects for the managers and general contractors. It has a chapter for the change orders in which the author describes many aspects of the change orders from content of the change orders to pitfalls to avoid during the preparation of the change orders.
- 3. International Federation of Consulting Engineers. (1999): FIDIC Conditions of Contract for Construction for Building and Engineering Works Designed by the Employer.
- The International Federation of Consulting Engineers is an international standards organization for consulting engineering and construction. Also known as FIDIC Red Book, the mentioned document defines the conditions of contract for construction projects. It describes the roles and responsibilities for different parties involved. Also, there is a section dedicated to the changes in which the content of the change orders and the change process are described. Therefore, detailed information about the change orders can also be obtained from this document.
- 4. American Institute of Architects. (2017). AIA Document A201 – 2017 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction.
- American Institute of Architects is a professional organization in the United States whose contracts are commonly used for the construction projects. General Conditions of the Contract for Construction is the contract prepared by AIA to clearly define the rights, responsibilities, and relationships of the owner, contractor, and architect. The details of the construction project contracts can be seen in the document. It is one of the most common contract types used in the United States. The reader may have the overall knowledge about the construction contract conditions by reading this document.
- 5. Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee. (2007). EJCDC C-700 Standard General Conditions of the Construction Contract.
- Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee is a committee which includes the American Society of Civil Engineer and more than fifteen other professional engineering design, construction, owner, legal, and risk management organizations. Standard General Conditions of the Construction Contract is a standard contract prepared by EJCDC which explains the duties of each party of a contract. It is one of the most common contract types used in the United States. The reader may have the overall knowledge about the construction contract conditions by reading this document.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Fisk, E.R. (1997). Construction Project Administration. New Jersey: Prentice – Hall.
- ↑ American Institute of Architects. (2017). AIA Document A201 – 2017 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction.
- ↑ The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America. AGC the Construction Association. Change Orders. https://www.agc.org/change-orders
- ↑ International Federation of Consulting Engineers. (1999). FIDIC Conditions of Contract for Construction for Building and Engineering Works Designed by the Employer.
- ↑ Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee. (2007). EJCDC C-700 Standard General Conditions of the Construction Contract.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Arain, F.M., Pheng, L.S. (2006), Developers' Views of Potential Causes of Variation Orders for Institutional Buildings in Singapore, Architectural Science Review, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 59-74.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Ndihokubwayo, Ruben & Haupt, Theo. (2008). Uncovering the Origins of Variation Orders. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242110226_UNCOVERING_THE_ORIGINS_OF_VARIATION_ORDERS
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 Osman, Z., Omran A. and Foo, C.K. (2009). The Potential Effects of Variation Orders in Construction Projects. Journal of Engineering. 2: 141-152.
- ↑ Muhammad, N. &. (n.d.). Causes of Variation Order in Building and Civil Engineering Projects in Nigeria. Jurnal Teknologi. 77. 91-97. 10.11113/jt.v77.6404.
- ↑ Staiti, Mujahed & Othman, Mohammed & Jaaron, Ayham. (2016). Impact of Change Orders in Construction Sector in The West Bank.
- ↑ Ssegawa, J.K., Mfolwe, K.M., Makuke, B. and Kutua, B. 2002, “Construction Variations: A Scourge or a Necessity?”, Proceedings of the First International Conference of CIB W107, 11-13 Nov. 2002, Cape Town, South Africa, pp. 87-96
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 Memon, Aftab & Abdul Rahman, Ismail & Hasan, Mohamad. (2014). Significant Causes and Effects of Variation Orders in Construction Projects. Research Journal of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology. 7. 4494-4502. 10.19026/rjaset.7.826. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268630247_Significant_Causes_and_Effects_of_Variation_Orders_in_Construction_Projects
- ↑ CII, 1986. Constructability: A Primer. Construction Industry Institute, University of Texas at Austin, TX.
- ↑ Levy, S. M. (2000). Project Management in Construction. New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc.
- ↑ Infrastructure BC. Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre (AACC), Schedule 17. https://www.infrastructurebc.com/pdf/aacc%20-%20Schedule%2017%20(Variation%20Procedure)%20Severed%20Version%20-%20v9A.pdf
- ↑ Ndihokubwayo, Ruben & Haupt, Theo. (2009). Variation Orders on Construction Projects: Value-adding or Waste?. Ruben Ndihokubwayo. 1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45380450_Variation_Orders_on_Construction_Projects_Value-adding_or_Waste
- ↑ 17.0 17.1 Ibbs, C. & Wong, Clarence & Kwak, Young. (2001). Project Change Management System. Journal of Management in Engineering. 17. 10.1061/(ASCE)0742-597X(2001)17:3(159).
- ↑ Van Wyngaard, C. & Pretorius, Jan-Harm & Pretorius, Leon. (2012). Theory of the Triple Constraint — A Conceptual Review. 1991-1997. 10.1109/IEEM.2012.6838095.