Understanding Variation Orders

Variation orders are formal documents issued to modify the original scope of work in a construction contract. These changes can involve additions, deletions, or alterations to the project. Variation orders ensure that all parties are aware of the changes and agree on the new terms, costs, and timelines.

Key Elements of a Variation Order:

  • Description of Change: Detailed description of the variation, including what is being added, removed, or altered.
  • Reason for Variation: Explanation of why the variation is necessary, such as client requests, unforeseen conditions, or regulatory changes.
  • Cost Estimate: Detailed breakdown of the costs associated with the variation, including labour, materials, and any additional expenses.
  • Impact on Schedule: Assessment of how the variation will affect the project timeline, including any delays or extensions.
  • Approval Process: Steps required for approval, including stakeholder consultations and formal sign-offs.

Types of Variation Orders

Variation orders in construction can be broadly categorised into three main types:

1. Additive Variation Orders

  • Definition: Changes that involve adding new work or increasing the scope of existing work.
  • Example: Adding an extra floor to a building or including additional landscaping features.
  • Impact: Generally results in increased costs and extended project timelines.

2. Deductive Variation Orders

  • Definition: Changes that involve removing work or reducing the scope of existing work.
  • Example: Eliminating a planned swimming pool or reducing the number of rooms.
  • Impact: Typically leads to cost savings but may require redesign efforts.

3. Substitution Variation Orders

  • Definition: Changes that involve substituting one aspect of the project for another.
  • Example: Replacing specified materials with alternative materials due to availability or cost considerations.
  • Impact: Can have varying effects on costs and timelines, depending on the nature of the substitution.

Impact on Construction Project Costs

Variation orders can significantly impact construction project costs. Understanding these impacts is essential for effective financial management and project control.

Additive Variation Orders:

  • Increased Costs: Additional work, materials, and labour lead to increased project costs.
  • Extended Timelines: More work can extend the project timeline, increasing indirect costs.
  • Enhanced Value: If managed well, additive variations can enhance the project’s overall value and functionality.

Deductive Variation Orders:

  • Cost Savings: Reduction in scope leads to cost savings, freeing up the budget for other areas.
  • Redesign Costs: Changes might require redesign efforts, which can incur additional costs.
  • Impact on Project Quality: Excessive deductions can impact the quality and overall value of the project.

Substitution Variation Orders:

  • Cost Neutral or Varying Costs: Depending on the nature of the substitution, costs can either remain neutral or vary.
  • Schedule Adjustments: Substitutions may require schedule adjustments to accommodate new materials or processes.
  • Risk Management: Effective substitutions can manage risks related to material availability and costs.

Strategies for Managing Variation Orders

Effective management of variation orders is crucial for maintaining project control and achieving successful outcomes.

Strategy 1: Thorough Documentation

  • Implementation: Ensure all variation orders are thoroughly documented with detailed descriptions, cost estimates, and impact assessments.
  • Benefit: Provides a clear record of changes and facilitates transparent decision-making.

Strategy 2: Stakeholder Consultation

  • Implementation: Conduct regular consultations with all stakeholders to discuss potential variations and their implications.
  • Benefit: Ensures all parties are informed and aligned, reducing misunderstandings and disputes.

Strategy 3: Cost and Schedule Impact Analysis

  • Implementation: Perform detailed cost and schedule impact analyses for each variation order to understand its implications fully.
  • Benefit: Helps in making informed decisions and managing the overall project budget and timeline effectively.

Strategy 4: Approval and Implementation Process

  • Implementation: Establish a clear process for approving and implementing variation orders, including defined roles and responsibilities.
  • Benefit: Streamlines the management of variations, ensuring they are handled efficiently and systematically.

Best Practices for Cost Management

Adopting best practices for cost management can help control the financial impact of variation orders and ensure project success.

Practice 1: Regular Budget Reviews

  • Implementation: Conduct regular budget reviews to compare actual costs against estimates and identify variances early.
  • Benefit: Helps in taking corrective actions promptly to stay within budget.

Practice 2: Effective Communication

  • Implementation: Maintain regular communication with all stakeholders to provide updates on potential variations and their status.
  • Benefit: Ensures that all parties are informed and aligned, reducing misunderstandings and disputes.

Practice 3: Use of Project Management Tools

  • Implementation: Utilise project management software to track variation orders, update project plans, and communicate with stakeholders.
  • Benefit: Enhances efficiency and ensures that all variations are managed systematically.


Understanding the types of variation orders in construction and their impact is essential for effective project management. By knowing the different types of variation orders, implementing strategies to manage them, and adopting best practices for cost management, project managers can navigate variations effectively. This not only helps in maintaining project control and staying within budget but also enhances client satisfaction and overall project success.