Industry Insights

Exploring the Key Elements of a Scope of Work in Construction Projects

Kristen Frisa
July 3, 2024
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Every project begins with a plan. A general contractor can't plan for success on a project without a well-thought-out idea of exactly what needs to be done. That's where a scope of work document comes in.

A scope of work defines the work to be done on a construction project. It's hard to overstate the importance of a well-articulated scope of work for the success of a construction project, as this document helps direct budgeting, planning, and execution of the project from start to finish. An incomplete or misunderstood scope of work can lead to inefficiencies, rework, and disputes.

To create a good scope of work, construction project teams need a clear idea of the purpose and structure of the final product the project will produce. Here, we'll discuss the ways to create a scope of work, some of the most important elements to consider in writing one, and some key ways to ensure a quality scope of work every time.

The purpose of a scope of work

A construction scope of work (SOW) is a document that provides a clear and detailed description of the work that needs to be done to complete a construction project successfully. It defines the tasks necessary to move a project from an idea to a real-world building and assigns those tasks to project team members. It gives each party direction, while offering a fuller picture of project goals and desired outcomes.

The SOW document lives with other critical project documents, like construction contracts and budgets, as it is foundational for all the work done on the project.

While the owner drives the purpose and direction for the project, the owner will likely not be the one to actually draft a scope of work document. The designer or engineer may create the document, sometimes with the help of the owner's representative or an outside consultant.

What's included in a scope of work

Construction SOW documents can look very different depending on the project at hand, but they should all include the critical elements necessary for clarity.

A broad view of the project

A project overview should describe the purpose of the finished structure, who will use it, and the goals for the surrounding community. Detail what success looks like for this project, including when it will ideally be open for use.


Break the project down into smaller goals that can be handed off to specific project team members and will drive the project toward its final destination. The deliverables should be time-bound and include milestones that will mark progress along the way. This section needs to be defined clearly enough that there is no confusion about where one team member's work begins and ends.

A rough project timeline

The exact project schedule might not be complete or included here, but the SOW should include an initial timeline that the project team can use to plan their work.

Why write a scope of work?

A scope of work is a necessary piece to any construction project because it provides direction for the entire undertaking. Here are some of the main benefits to having a clearly written, signed, scope of work.

Clear understanding of specific requirements

A scope of work helps each project team member understand what they're being asked to do. For instance, if a project calls for a room to be painted, the scope of work will detail what exactly should be painted, and what colors to use – should the floor be painted? Does the scope of work for this contractor include painting trim? Will this contractor paint just the interior, or are there exterior elements that should be covered too? This example is oversimplified, but it demonstrates the importance of including as many details as possible in the scope. The painter needs a clearly written, effective SOW to understand the time, materials, and method of completing the task at hand to be able to bid and plan for the work.

Avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts

Project stakeholders need to have as firm a grasp as possible on their role in project progress. Any vagueness can lead to contractors doing more or less than what was expected, which can lead to rework, wasted time, and arguments over compensation. Experienced general contractors may even leave the scope of work intentionally vague, hoping to earn more money on change orders later in the project. Project owners and construction management teams should get as many trusted opinions about the scope of work as possible.

Managing project timelines, budgets, and payment schedules

Breaking project outcomes into an SOW allows project planners to see all the details laid out, for more accurate scheduling and budgeting. As the SOW lays out project milestones, owners and contractors can better anticipate the timing of associated progress payment terms, and plan accordingly.

A payment solution like Truss can work with the SOW to plan for and organize progress payments. Truss allows contractors to collect progress payments on a single invoice for easier tracking. Further, contractors can access funds paid through Truss as soon as the sender clicks "pay," which can help to improve cash flow throughout the project.

Challenges to defining a scope of work

While an SOW is a critical part of the planning process, it is also subject to change throughout the project. Those changes should be carefully managed to prevent disputes.

Changes in project requirements

Even the most carefully crafted scope of work may change throughout the project lifecycle. Unexpected site conditions or other events may make it necessary to change the project scope through change orders or partial terminations.

Part of the reason the SOW is so important to construction industry projects is that those project requirements change and evolve over time—the SOW provides a baseline by which to measure those alterations. Open communication can help ease the difficulties of making these changes, especially in keeping all stakeholders apprised of any updated expectations.

Scope creep

The term scope creep refers to the expansion of responsibilities put on a project stakeholder that are outside of the original understanding of the scope of work. Scope creep may begin innocently enough – if the language in the scope of work was too vague, the contractor may not have understood exactly where the work was to begin or end. Unaddressed scope creep can leave the contractor on the hook for unexpected time and expenses.

Managing project expenses

As the project evolves, it becomes even more critical to track and organize project expenses to help control spending and prevent budget overruns. Truss' real-time tracking features can help manage project expenses as the work progresses, helping to monitor and control budget changes that result from scope adjustments.

Strategies for defining the scope of work

Scope of work documents won't solve all the challenges that emerge on construction projects– they will necessarily change as the work progresses. However, the SOW does have to be accurate and comprehensive enough for the contractors to plan and budget accurately. Best practices for achieving a comprehensive SOW include adequate research and collaboration.

Work with stakeholders

Open up communication with all the project teams when drawing up a scope of work. Each construction stakeholder has unique expertise to offer that can reveal previously missed project details or considerations for the project. Early collaboration can also foster trust in relationships that can benefit the overall project.

Set clear objectives and project deliverables

A scope of work will benefit a great deal from detail and clarity – vagueness is the enemy here. The SOW should detail the goal of the work, the milestones that will measure success, and the deliverables necessary to complete a successful project.

Documentation and communication of changes to the scope

Maintain a history of the SOW through its iterations. Each time there is a change, there needs to be written records of the current version, the reasons for the change, and the new version. Every party on the project team needs to be aware of the changes and how they impact the project, so they should all have access to the new scope of work. Make sure there are avenues for stakeholders to ask questions about the changes if needed.

Embrace the clarity provided by a comprehensive scope of work

A well-defined scope of work provides a solid foundation for the construction agreement and the rest of the work on a construction project. Outlining the specific tasks, deliverables, and timelines for the tasks for each project stakeholder helps construction teams plan and execute their tasks in a way that benefits the entire project.

Further, a clear scope defines stakeholder responsibilities, which can help avoid conflicts and misunderstandings. Platforms like Truss further enhance project management by streamlining payment schedules and expense tracking, thereby bolstering financial transparency and control.

While a SOW is destined to change as a project progresses, proactive communication and collaboration among stakeholders can maintain its integrity and help deliver a successful project.

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