When are variations not variations?

A construction contract typically contains a variations clause, allowing for the SO to instruct for variations to the works. These variations can take the form of additions or omissions, and at times may be substantial in nature.

But can a contractor contend that a variation order is in fact NOT a variation, but constitutes an entirely new or replacement contract? A contractor may want to advance such an argument in one of the following circumstances:

Firstly, where the contractor faces a substantial omission variation, resulting in the balance of the contract works to be unprofitable or at the very least unpalatable at the contract rates. In pricing for a contract, it is common practice for contractors to price certain items at better margins, whilst allowing for thin margins or even losses in some items in the quantities. Imagine a situation where the better-margin items are omitted leaving the unprofitable balance of works. A contractor would want to argue for the balance works to be paid at a fair price instead.

Secondly, say that variation works are ordered for entirely new works not envisaged by the original contract (albeit for the same project). For example, an apartment project receives a variation to include an entirely new recreational complex for sporting facilities. Whilst the contractor may be willing to undertake the works, the contractor must nevertheless balance that against the need to complete the works on a timely basis, as well  as to consider whether these new works are acceptable to be carried out under the contract rates.

Thirdly, where the variations are within the scope of the contract works, but there are so many variations ordered to the extent that there is a substantial increase in technical queries, and number of construction drawings to be complied with (in the case of McAlpine Humberoak Ltd v McDermott International, the number of drawings increased from 22 to 161, yet the Court of Appeal dod not agree that the original contract has been replaced). A contractor placed in such a situation may contend that what he originally tendered for has changed so substantially that he cannot possibly be tied down to the original contract rates.

In USA, the trend is to consider cases with overly substantially variations to be an abandonment or cardinal change of the original contract works, beyond the reasonable expectation of parties at the time the contract was entered into. Consequently, such abandonment or cardinal change would allow the contractor to argue for payment on the basis of quantum meruit or fair rates (as opposed to the contract rates which may be relatively depressed). It is important to note that there is no need for the employer to in fact intend to abandon the original contract, because such intention is implied from the conduct of the employer.

Thus far, I am not aware of any such argument being mounted successfully in Malaysia as yet. At most, variation works that did not fall within the scope of the contract would be priced at fair market rates, but there does not seem to be much readiness to re-price the rest of the contract works on the basis of abandonment or cardinal change.

For the appropriate case with the right factual matrix, the USA position would be an interesting proposition to make.

Kheng Hoe Advocates advise primarily contractors in CIPAA, litigation and arbitration of construction disputes. We can be reached at khenghoe@khenghoe.com. 

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