Create A Clear Scope of Work to Avoid Problems Later

The Scope of Work in any contract is the foundation on which the contract is built. The Scope of Work (SOW) describes what one party is to do for another. When understood with clarity, the parties to a contract can, at least conceivably, work together to complete the project.

But too often our perceived expectations of what we are to do for another party or they will do for us go under-fulfilled or prove to be simply false. Like land surveying errors, I will call these “busts” in expectations. Here are a few examples from my recent projects where two or more parties are at odds over busts and subsequently, who is responsible to resolve (and pay for) the solution:

  1. On a design/build project, the Limit of Disturbance for a site was drawn based on a site-walk with the end-user/tenant, contractor and design engineer but the owner believed the limit included the entire site and wants the contractor to work the enlarged area at no additional cost.

  2. A line striping subcontractor parked its truck in the general contractor’s yard and let the water storage tank drain overnight on to the ground (clean, potable water). The property owner’s environmental inspector cited the general contractor for violation of the discharge permit for dumping chlorinated water.

  3. A water tank contractor excludes all piping from its contract and specifies that other trades are not permitted to fasten anything to the tank for fear of causing a leak. The mechanical contractor needs pipe brackets attached to the tank to hang pipe. The general contractor doesn’t know who is responsible for labor, materials and risk of a leak.

  4. The property owner directed the general contractor to have workers park their personal vehicles on an unpaved lot next to the site. When it rains, the vehicle traffic from the lot tracks mud on to the paved roads. The owner expects the general contractor to pay for street sweeping services.

It’s easy to point the finger and say busts in the SOW are created by either poor contract administration, poor site management or failure to enforce standard contract terms. However, when I encountered each example, I checked back and read thru the contract to determine who might be responsible. In each case, I couldn’t find clear direction in the text. The disputes started with busts in the SOW, not the performance of those running the project.  

How do we flush out these busts and establish a very clear SOW before the work starts? The formal answer is we “de-scope” each other. What this means in practice is we literally question everything possibly related to the work and document the answers in terms of inclusions (what we will do) and exclusions (what we won’t do) for the other parties in the contract. For example, let’s say you’re an excavation contractor working for a GC on a tight access, city building project. Here are SOW questions the parties should be asking to seek out the busts:

  1. Is the excavation measurable from the drawings and how will it be measured to verify complete? Same question for fill imported to the site.

  2. Who will verify if soils, destined to be fill elsewhere, are unsuitable during the excavation and again at the bottom / foundation elevation?

  3. If soils are unsuitable and over-excavation is required, how will it be measured and paid (unit price, T&M, lump sum)? Who will measure and verify quantities?

  4. Who will perform material testing and what are the required tests?

  5. Who is responsible if ground water is encountered? Who will install the pumps?  Who will maintain the pumps?  Where will the water be discharged?  

  6. What about environmental issues such as polluted soil or ground water? Who is responsible to identify, test and resolve?

  7. What if rock is encountered? What is rock – solid bedrock or over-size boulders?

  8. What are the site working hours? Are there noise or light restrictions?

  9. Where will workers park their vehicles?

  10. Who is responsible to clean the streets from truck traffic, whether this contractor’s traffic or others’?

  11. Is there site-specific safety training or security checks that workers must complete?

  12. Who will maintain site access roads and to what frequency and specifications?

  13. Who will provide flagging service for traffic in/out of the site?


As you can imagine, there are dozens more questions to be answered. Feel free to reply with your ideas and I’ll post the lists as templates for others to use. If it isn’t already, seeking out the busts and noting them as inclusions or exclusions ought to be a best practice before any of us sign a contract.

Mission Critical Operations (MC Ops) is a construction management & advisory consultancy focused on improving quality, schedule and financial performance on high-profile and potentially contentious projects throughout the nation.