To those working at building sites, the term “superintendent” may seem as familiar and self-explanatory as “extension of time” or “practical completion”.
However, when disputes arise fine distinctions become important. Even experienced builders, just like experienced judges, have trouble working out what the superintendent is required to do in contentious times.
This is because the superintendent has multiple duties to different parties. They have the difficult job of navigating conflicting interests, and this becomes much harder when the relationship between the principal and contractor has deteriorated.
Although the precise duties of a superintendent will always depend on the terms of the contract, we will describe in general terms some obligations that participants in a building project must be aware of. We will also take a real-life case study to illustrate some of these points.
Sometimes called “contract administrator” or “architect”, the superintendent’s precise role will vary as it is largely determined by the terms of the contract between the principal and the contractor. The parties may agree by contract to restrict or widen the superintendent’s functions, and courts will generally allow this.
However, there are a number of general commonalities to this role across different projects. In most cases, the superintendent has a dual role or function:
- On the one hand, the superintendent will often be the agent of the principal, and will perform functions on behalf of the principal such as issuing directions to the contractor, varying the scope, of works, making approvals, or receiving notices;
- On the other hand, the superintendent will often be responsible for certifying, assessing and valuing items under the contract, including progress claims, extension of time claims, liquidated damages, and practical completion.
The principal is required to ensure that for the second set of functions above, the superintendent act “honestly and fairly” (or otherwise, “reasonably and in good faith”).
Often this is an obligation to exercise impartial and independent judgment, and to reach a decision without taking improper considerations into account. They should afford procedural fairness to both parties, giving notice of the issues it is considering and allowing both parties to communicate to them their submissions.
In general, for these second set of functions, the interests of not only the Principal, but also those of the Contractor, must be considered. All too often, superintendents fail to understand their obligations of independence and this triggers court proceedings.
In practice, this dual role can be complicated. Superintendents are generally appointed by the principal. They are very often either a part of a firm consulting to the principal, or they are an employee of the principal. Even if there is no pressure exerted by the principal, they are paid by the principal. Exercising their judgment impartially in this context can be very challenging.
A superintendent is not a party to the contract. It is unlikely that they will themselves be the subject of court proceedings. However, their decisions may give rise to disputes as between the principal and contractor.
The New South Wales Court of Appeal has given some guidance for what is considered appropriate action by a superintendent under a construction contract, in the case Peninsula Balmain Pty Ltd v Abigroup Contractors Pty Ltd  NSWCA 211.
Peninsula and Abigroup entered into an AS2124 building contract. Abigroup sought payment of a progress claim. The following month, Peninsula issued a notice to Abigroup requiring Abigroup to show cause that a contractual right to terminate should not be exercised, and cross-claimed for liquidated damages under the contract.
In response, Abigroup moved to terminate the contract, claiming that Peninsula had breached the then Trade Practices Act (which has since integrated into the broader Australian Consumer Law), for failing to disclose an agency agreement for design and construction projects between Peninsula and the superintendent.
The Court considered the whether Peninsula contravened the Trade Practices Act for failing to disclose to Abigroup the agency agreement with the superintendent?
On appeal, Hodgson JA held:
“the superintendent is the owner’s agent in all matters only in a very loose sense, and that, when exercising certifying functions in respect of which the superintendent must act honestly and impartially, the superintendent is not acting as the owner’s agent, in the strict legal sense.”
The Court concluded that the superintendent is to exercise their power in the interests of both parties and, is to act honestly and impartially and not as an agent of the owner in undertaking certifying functions such as assessments of variations, delays and progress claims.
There was also an argument that the superintendent should have but failed to exercise its power to award an extension of time. It was common ground that Peninsula Balmain had caused delay, but that Abigroup had not applied for the extension of time or followed the proper procedure. However, the extension of time clause included a paragraph that read: “Notwithstanding that the Contractor is not entitled to an extension of time the Superintendent may at any time and from time to time before the issue of the Final Certificate by notice in writing to the Contractor extend the time for Practical Completion for any reason.”
Hodgson JA found that, even though Abigroup had not applied for the extension of time, “this power is one capable of being exercised in the interests both of the owner and the builder, and in my opinion the Superintendent is obliged to act honestly and impartially in deciding whether to exercise this power”. In the facts of the case, the finding was that if the superintendent had acted fairly and impartially, they would have awarded the extension of time. The date for practical completion was extended, and liquidated damages were reduced.
This ruling was dependent on the particular extension of time clause of the case, and the facts of the dispute. However, it powerfully reinforces the point that even though the superintendent is the agent of the principal, they are obliged to act honestly and fairly in discharging certain functions, unless the contract says otherwise.
In conclusion, the role of a superintendent is very demanding and requires a high level of understanding of contract law, the responsibilities, the specifics of the project, and a high skill of identifying and managing conflicts. If you have any queries about your obligations under a construction contract, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org