Unit Price Contracts… Why are they so special?

The unit price contract has many advantages over other types of construction contracts, but it could also introduce complexities. We will look at different types of contracts and how they apply across different construction projects, in order to determine why unit price contracts are so special and when to use them.

Different Types of Client-Contractor Agreements

We will consider fairness, transparency, contractor performance, liability, responsibility, quality of work performed, and administrative efficiency when analyzing the various agreement types.

Depending on who you ask there are 4 types of contracts commonly used in construction; each with various pros and cons, and best use scenarios.

Contract Types

  • Lump-Sum or Fixed-Price contracts are very common. They are based on a single price or prices per section of the contract. Projects with a complete drawing set and a clearly defined scope of work are good candidates for Lump-Sum Contracts.
  • A Cost-Plus or Cost-Reimbursement contract will take the direct cost of material and labour PLUS a percentage of the cost, fixed fee, incentive, or award based on performance metrics. These are typically used by construction managers.
  • Time and Material (T+M) contracts are very similar however the rates for material and labour will each have a mark-up built into their rates.
  • Unit Price or Itemized contracts are an excellent choice for projects that involve repetitive tasks and resources that are easily quantifiable. Line items of work will cover the supply and install of all labour, material, overhead, mark-up/profit, taxes, permit and inspection costs. Typical units are EACH, LM, M2, M3 FT, SQFT, YARD, CY, VISIT, MONTH, YEAR, LUMP SUM, and ALLOWANCE. The last two are used when the scope isn’t fully determined.

Risks and Rewards of Different Construction Contracts 

Lump Sum Contract

Lump-Sum Contracts are a great way to reduce the risk for the project owners. Contractors are motivated to get the work done fast and find their own efficiencies, in turn, increasing project performance and contractor productivity. Furthermore, evaluating lump-sum bids and selecting contractors is relatively easy because they are typically all-inclusive. Beware of the contractor inclusions and exclusions when evaluating bids, the fine print can make or break your budget and can make it harder to compare one bid to the other. Lastly, inspecting work completed and partial progress draws can be harder to assess, although the administration is easier due to the number of items.

Cost Plus Contracts

Cost Plus Contracts tend to deliver higher quality results as the contractor has an incentive to select the best materials and labour. These contracts reduce the contractor’s risk and mostly place it on the owner. This is a good option when there is a lot of trust between the owner and contractor. However, this may require greater supervision due to the contractors’ apathy to control costs.

T + M Contracts

T+M Contracts are the riskiest for owners since there isn’t a clear understanding of the total cost. These contract types do not motivate the contractor to work quickly or efficiently and supervision is critical. Without supervision, disputes are very common. On the plus side, estimating is fairly simple as it is based on rates of time and material.

Unit Price Contracts

Unit Price Contracts provide mutual benefits for the owner and the contractor. If the owner has selected an experienced consultant they can be confident in quantity take-offs and accurate schedule estimates. Also, since unit price contracts pre-determine rates, construction can commence before the full design is complete. This is ideal for projects where we cannot clearly define the scope of work until construction activities are underway. When it comes to monthly progress billing, unit price contracts are the most accurate and transparent when quantifying the work performed.

What’s so special about unit price contracts?

Unit price contracts require a lot of upfront work from consultants and contractors but can present many advantages during the bidding phase and the construction phase of the project. This type of contract will yield high performance, competitive and compliant pricing in the bidding stage, and shared risk for all stakeholders. These contracts are common in engineering, landscape construction, low-rise construction, and homebuilding.

Great for comparing bids

Typically the consultant or owner determines the schedule of prices, and contractors submit bids based on that. The bidding process generally allows for more comparable bids. This is because all bidders have the same items, quantities, and units properly defined in a convenient list. Also, bidders are more likely to submit a bid since there is no need for a take-off. Even so, non-compliant bids still do happen. Here are 8 ways bidders are sending in non-compliant bids, with some ideas to prevent them.

Additions or Deletions are easy and fair

Unit price contracts are perfect for projects with familiar materials and repetitive work units. This makes it extremely easy for contract administrators to add or subtract contract items because the price is clearly stated in the contract. Say your contract only has 550 sqft of granular to install and the site actually requires 600 sqft. It’s super easy for the project consultant to create a change order and add 50 sqft. Here’s a video for creating a change order in 2 minutes on ContractComplete.

Increased Transparency and Fairness

Since the contract clearly states all prices, the unit price contract increases transparency at the beginning, middle, and end of a project. Contract administrators can easily identify bids that do not have fair weights at the beginning of the project and choose to address the issue early on. Secondly, it’s easy to see how much work is outstanding within a contract at any point during the construction phase. Lastly, at the end of the project, if the contractor does not perform a portion of the original scope, they simply do not bill for these items since it is based on quantities completed, which is only fair to the client.

Progress Billing and Invoice Certification

Certifying invoices is simpler with a unit price contract since the completed work is easy to count or measure on-site by contract administrators. This helps the consultant but can also help the contractor receive payment faster since the certification process is more black and white. Here’s a video demonstrating how easy it is to create and distribute a payment app/certificate on ContractComplete.

Potential Downfalls?

Some downfalls may arise when working on more complex projects where the scope of work is not perfectly defined by repetitive units. For example, a project with all different doors and door sizes… each opening and material used would differ from the next.) In this case, the owner or consultant must itemize each opening and will lose out on some of the benefits.

Also, more upfront work is required for the consultant or client because the scope of work needs to be properly itemized. Although, the benefits generally outweigh the pitfalls.

How to Efficiently Manage Unit Price Contracts

Unit price contracts have many advantages, but sometimes the manual, tedious nature of the contract administration deters people from using them. So if you find yourself spending too much time manually creating change orders, invoices, payment certificates and bid analysis spreadsheets you should consider using ContractComplete.

ContractComplete helps busy contract administrators save time by automating the manual, tedious and repetitive paperwork involved with unit price contracts. Bid-calling, bid analysis, progress reports, change management, RFIs, submittals, and payment certification are all instantly generated on the platform, and all stakeholders can participate.

Pricing is either based on a per-project or per-user basis, so whether you are managing dozens of contracts or just one per year, we have a pricing plan for you.

Standardized Unit Price Contracts by Country

Canada

  • CCDC-4 2011
  • Schedule of prices + Provisional Items
  • specified unit of work performed.
  • Canadian Construction Documents Committee

USA

UK

  • Measured Term Contracts (MTC) “Measure and value” contract
  • MTC 2016
    • Units of work are separated into ‘Orders’ for each separate item and the employer supplies a written description or drawings for each Order where relevant.
  • “Schedule of rates” + Quantities applied following progress inspections.
  • The Joint Contract Tribunal 

Australia

  • Measured Term Contracts
  • Australian Building Industry Contracts – a joint venture of Master Builders Australia Ltd and the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA).
  • ABIC-MW-1- 2018,
  • ABIC-BW-1-2018(for contracts up to $50K)
  • Standards Australia – AS4000-1997 
    • AS4000 is designed for use on major building and engineering projects where a ‘superintendent’ is engaged to administer the contract. The superintendent may be an independent professional (or a firm of consultants) or an employee of the principal. The contract price may be calculated as a lump sum or re-measurement (schedule of rates/bill of quantities) or a combination of these.
  • Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA)
    • ABIC MW-2018 (major works), with residential works variants for each State and Territory; designed for use with an architect as the principal’s representative.

Inspired to try unit price contracts? Why not do it with ContractComplete? Mention this blog post for a discount on your first 3 months!


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Staying active and busy is the highest priority for Alex. On the squash court, hockey rink or golf course; this is where you will find him when he isn't working, exploring local history, brewing ales, or attempting to art. "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination" ~ AE

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