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How to Navigate Change Orders with Cold-Formed Steel

Change orders are common for most construction jobs, including those using cold-formed steel framing. Here’s how to navigate and avoid them.


As a professional dealing with the built environment, you have to be prepared for change. Changes commonly occur as a result of codes, market conditions, and evolving technology — but changes on jobs in the field cost both time and money, and change orders can impact budgets if they aren’t properly resolved.

Change orders are bound to happen, so the best thing you can do is be ready for them, document everything about the changes upfront, and resolve them as soon as possible.

The Cold-Formed Steel Engineers Institute recently hosted a webinar, led by Don Allen, P.E., Director of Engineering for Super Stud Building Products, Inc., on “Change Orders with Cold-Formed Steel.” Allen covered the issues that lead to change orders, how to avoid them, and how to get paid for them when they occur.

Scope, Cost, Time and Approval

A change order is additional work outside the scope of the original contract and not rendered necessary by the fault of the contractor. Most states do not require a signed change order form as long as there is clear evidence that the owner or general contractor (GC) authorized the work, the work is an extra, and the contractor or subcontractor relied on that direction and actually did the work.

Critical change order components include the scope of the work, time, and cost of the work. The cost can include direct costs (like labor, materials, and supervision), indirect costs (such as delays, lost profit, opportunity costs, and office overhead costs), and consequential costs (such as damages, destruction, and re-sequencing the work).

For GCs and subcontractors, approval is another critical component of a change order. When faced with a change in the field, contractors should always get some sort of written approval before proceeding with the changed work. Getting written approval up front helps clarify the scope of work to be done, and increases the likelihood of getting paid for the change order.

Common Causes of Change Orders

While a range of causes can drive change orders, the most common ones are:

  • Design errors
  • Changes in market conditions (such as labor cost, and the availability of products or manpower)
  • Change in the owner’s requirements  
  • Revelation of existing conditions  or latent conditions (e.g., you tear out a wall and find asbestos or piping the drawings and schedule didn’t consider)

When it comes to CFS‐specific areas, change orders are likely to occur when other team members’ work is out of tolerance, or when completed field work doesn’t provide needed access to framing installation or connections. Another common area for change orders in relation to CFS is when other trades damage CFS framing during installation of their work.

When it comes to CFS‐specific areas, change orders are likely to occur when other team members’ work is out of tolerance, or when completed field work doesn’t provide needed access to framing installation or connections. Another common area for change orders in relation to CFS is when other trades damage CFS framing during installation of their work.

Proactive Approaches

Many architectural contracts are written with language that tries to shift the responsibility to the contractor if unforeseen things happen during the project. It’s always best to have the contract carefully reviewed. When possible, have a lawyer look it over. Most contracts do not reference the AISI Code of Standard Practice for Cold-Formed Steel Framing (AISI S202), but they should. This document contains important language about responsibility for change orders (specifically under Section H7).

Some contracts reference the “latest edition” of a code or standard. This is a red flag for a change order. Codes and standards are updated all the time. When something comes into question, it then becomes difficult to determine which “latest edition” of the code applies: the edition that was in place when the document was written, when the contract was signed, or when work started. Architects, specifiers and engineers need to ensure that codes and standards referenced are aligned with the building code that is adopted in the jurisdiction where the project is located.

Change Order Hiding Places

Incomplete plans and inaccurate specifications are the No. 1 cause of change orders. Sometimes these are constructability issues. Other times, plan errors come from specifications that do not match code. It’s common for architects and engineers to recognize familiarities with a former project and simply pull out the old specifications and submit them. Architects, specification writers, and engineers should always go through the specifications to make sure they include correct and up-to-date references. Make sure the listed manufacturers are current, and if there is no delegated design, the sizes of studs, slip connections, etc. are called out.

Many manufacturers write specifications in such a general manner, they have little meaning or applicability on a project. This becomes a big issue when contract specifications are simply lifted from a manufacturer’s brochure or website. Therefore, when creating specifications for a project, architects, engineers, and specification writers should make sure they use current, professionally written specifications, or use a current template or platform such as MasterSpec, BSD SpecLink, ARCAT, or a similar trusted source.  Poorly written specifications, and specifications that are not harmonized with drawings, can quickly lead to change orders.

Another common error is using the term “gauge” to refer to the thickness of cold-formed steel framing.  According to the commentary of American Iron and Steel Institute’s North American Standard for Cold-Formed Steel Framing – Product Data (AISI S201), “Gauge thickness is an obsolete method of specifying sheet and strip thickness.  Gauge numbers are only a very rough approximation of steel thickness and should not be used to order design or specify any sheet or strip product.”  The best way to specify framing is with a performance specification: where a certain level of performance, such as a limit on deflection, is required for framed assemblies.  Minimum thicknesses may also be specified, but they should either be in the form of a standard designator (example: 43 mil) or decimal inches.  AISI S201 gives some of the standard thicknesses in both mil and inch units – specifiers should be careful not to specify the design thickness as the minimum thickness.

The previously mentioned  AISI Code of Standard Practice for Cold-Formed Steel Framing (AISI S202), is a great resource for resolving potential issues with CFS construction. It covers issues from quality control to design and construction responsibilities, and gives a path to resolution for many situations that could possibly lead to change orders.  In summary: although some change is inevitable, using a quality material like cold-formed steel, coupled with carefully detailed complete drawings and coordinated specifications, can drastically reduce costly change orders, and lead to a successful project for all.

Learn more about upcoming CFSEI webinars. Or, if you have questions about a new or upcoming project that involves cold-formed steel framing, contact us for complimentary project assistance.  AISI S202 and all the AISI standards are available for free download from

Key References:

Contractor’s Guide to Change Orders, How to Resolve Disputes and Get Paid  Andrew H. Civitello Jr.

Construction Change Orders, Impact, Avoidance, Documentation   James O’Brien 

AISI S202-15: AISI STANDARD Code of Standard Practice for Cold-Formed Steel Structural Framing 2015 Edition

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