I have seven children, and two of them have flown the coop. I also have two grandchildren who are ripe for spoiling. You see, grandchildren are a different type of kid, which means I get to treat them different than the kiddos living under my roof. In construction, however, some courts have held that the type of contract delivery method do not change the treatment of the other contract clauses, such as the applicability of a differing site conditions clause.
Appeal of John C. Grimberg Co., Inc., ASBCA No. 58791 (Oct. 25, 2018) involved the construction of a biolab facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The contract was a design-build contract. As is typical of a design-build contract, no unit prices for rock excavation were set for because the contractor’s foundation solution is not established at the time of award. Interestingly, this contractor had performed other contracts at Fort Detrick involving deep foundations that happened to be design-bid-build contracts containing unit prices for excavation.
During construction, the presence of incompetent rock forced the contractor to use more drilling rigs than anticipated. This crowded the site and prevented scheduled commencement of grade beams and rough-in of underslab MEP work. By the time the contractor completed drilling piers, it had excavated nearly four times the amount it had anticipated in its proposal. The contractor submitted a Request for Equitable Adjustment, alleging that it had encountered a Type I differing site condition—i.e, where the site differed materially from those represented by the government. The contracting officer denied the claim, and the contractor appealed.
To establish such a claim, a contractor must prove: (1) the conditions indicated in the contract differed materially from those actually encountered during performance; (2) the actual conditions were reasonably unforeseeable to the contractor at the time of bidding; (3) contractor reliance; and (4) damages. In this case, the board rejected the government’s argument that the differing site conditions clause is applied more restrictively to a design-build contractor than in the design-bid-build context. The board reasoned:
The identical DSC clause is required to be included in fixed-price construction projects, whether the design-bid-build or design-build method of contracting is utilized. There is no justification for interpreting the clause differently in the design-build context. As appellant concedes, design risk is transferred to contractors in the design-bid context, but not the risk of DSCs. A design-builder does not forfeit its rights under the DSC clause to rely on solicitation representations of subsurface site conditions.
The board concluded the contractor had established Type I differing site conditions claim that the “quantities of rock encountered greatly exceeded the quantity reasonably foreseeable based on a fair reading of contractual indications, albeit the Project was constructed in highly-variable karst topography at the site.”
Ultimately the decision is a good lesson for contractors to document “all of the facts, circumstances and contractual indications of subsurface conditions,” which is what the board relied upon in making its decision. Another lesson learned is the importance of “reasonableness” when drafting or submitting claims. Although the board found that two of the borings used by the contractor were unreasonable, it was “more reasonable” than the government’s analysis. In the end, reasonableness matters.