Understanding the Surge in Change Orders for Firm Fixed-Price Contracts in Construction Projects: The New Normal?

In recent years, a critical trend has emerged in the world of construction, particularly in government projects – a notable surge in change orders within firm fixed-price contracts. This pattern is not just a minor hiccup in project execution; it is a major concern that can impact the success of the project, leading to significant cost and schedule overruns, strained relationships with stakeholders, and potentially legal disputes. Therefore, understanding the reasons behind this trend and strategizing effective ways to manage it has become an urgent need for industry professionals.

What is a Firm Fixed-Price Contract?

A firm fixed-price contract is a contractual agreement in which the contractor commits to deliver specified services for a predetermined price. This type of contract provides budget certainty but also bears the risk of unforeseen changes. The latter has led to an increase in change orders, which are modifications to the original contract due to factors such as scope changes, unclear project specifications, and unforeseen site conditions.

Causes for the Surge in Change Orders

Several factors contribute to the increasing change orders in construction projects. These range from unforeseen site conditions, changes in legislation or building codes, design errors, to material cost fluctuations, inflation and overall raising construction costs. However, one of the most prominent causes is the lack of clarity in the Statement of Work (SOW) or design documents provided in the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage before awarding the construction contract.

Impact of Unclear Statement of Work

An unclear SOW can lead to significant confusion and misunderstanding about project requirements. The SOW is a critical document that provides a clear description of the work to be done. It includes specific details about the deliverables, deadlines, and standards that must be adhered to. If the SOW is ambiguous, it opens the door for scope creep, where the project’s requirements continuously expand beyond the initial plan. This often leads to changes in design, labor, materials, or methods, each of which can result in change orders, thereby increasing project costs and extending timelines.

Ambiguity in Design Documents

Similarly, ambiguity in design documents is another major contributor to change orders. Design documents offer a graphical and textual representation of the project’s design and form the basis for the actual construction. If these documents lack clarity or detail, they leave room for interpretation and assumptions. As construction progresses, these assumptions are often found to be incorrect, necessitating design changes. These changes, in turn, lead to change orders, again impacting the project’s cost and schedule.

The Role of Key Personnel and IPT in Managing Change Orders

The Project Manager plays a critical role in coordinating with various teams to implement changes and negotiating change orders to balance project constraints of budget and time.

The Construction Manager oversees the overall project execution, including changes. They ensure alignment of changes with project objectives and effective execution to minimize disruptions.

The Buyer Technical Representative (BTR) is the liaison between the project team and the contractor, helping to ensure the project’s technical requirements are accurately understood by the contractor.

The Contract Specialist navigates the contractual implications of change orders, assessing the impacts on the project and participating in negotiations to retain fair contract terms for all parties.

The Integrated Project Team (IPT), a multidisciplinary team working towards a common objective, plays a substantial role in managing change orders. Effective teamwork within the IPT can lead to early detection and resolution of issues, minimizing the need for change orders.

Cost Impact of Change Orders

Change orders often lead to increased costs related to labor, materials, equipment, and overheads. Additionally, they may result in cost escalation due to project delays. The contract specialist, BTR, and project manager work collaboratively to control these costs and negotiate the best terms for all parties involved.

Schedule Impact of Change Orders

Change orders can significantly disrupt project schedules due to additional work or modifications in project plans. The Project Manager and Construction Manager are crucial in managing these impacts by coordinating resources, managing risks, and maintaining clear communication among all parties.


While the rise in change orders in firm fixed-price contracts, particularly in government projects, might seem daunting, it is not an insurmountable challenge. With diligent planning, clear articulation of the project SOW and design documents, and efficient change management spearheaded by key personnel and the IPT, the effects of change orders can be significantly reduced.

This approach ensures not only smoother project execution but also healthier relationships among stakeholders, improved risk management, and an increased level of trust between government agencies and contractors. In the long run, these factors can contribute to the development of a more resilient, adaptable, and sustainable construction industry that is well-equipped to handle the dynamism and unpredictability inherent in its nature. It’s not just about adapting to what might seem like a ‘new normal’; it’s about creating a better normal for the future of construction project management.

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Acumen Technical Project Services, LLC is your trusted partner in delivering excellence in project and construction management. Our proven strategies, innovative solutions, and unwavering commitment to quality set us apart in the industry. From project conception to completion, we navigate the complexities of every project with precision, ensuring client satisfaction every step of the way.

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