The 5 Main Types of Construction Contractors: Roles, Services, and What They Do
From towering commercial office buildings to home renovation projects, a diverse range of skilled construction contractors perform the specialized trades and services that bring architectural plans to life. This comprehensive guide examines the core categories of contractors operating in the construction industry today – general contractors, specialty trade contractors, subcontractors, design-build firms, and construction managers.
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Understanding General Contractors
General contractors (GCs) serve as the lead manager on building projects of all sizes. They oversee and coordinate nearly all aspects of a project from start to finish. Key responsibilities of the general contractor typically include:
- Working with architects and engineers on finalizing design plans and obtaining required permits
- Estimating total project costs and creating construction budgets/schedules
- Hiring and managing necessary subcontractors for each trade and project phase
- Securing building materials and supplies needed for the project
- Overseeing day-to-day activity and workflows onsite during construction
- Performing inspections and quality control checks at key milestones
- Coordinating any change orders or plan modifications with owners/architects
- Managing all communications and legal paperwork like contracts and invoices
General contractors must have extensive construction knowledge and project management skills to execute complex building projects smoothly while meeting quality standards. Larger general contractors may provide pre-construction services like detailed cost estimating, value engineering, and constructability reviews during the design stages too. They also often directly perform some of the actual on-site construction work like concrete foundations in addition to subcontracting specialty trades.
Understanding Specialty Trade Contractors
While general contractors oversee the big picture construction process, specialty trade contractors are hired to carry out specific aspects of each building project. Some of the most common specialty trade contractor categories include:
- Electrical – Design, install, and maintain building electrical systems
- Plumbing – Design, install, and maintain water supply, drainage, and other plumbing systems
- HVAC – Install and maintain heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment
- Drywall/Framing – Build interior wall framing and install drywall panels
- Painting – Prepare surfaces and apply protective coatings and paint
- Excavation – Clear land and prepare trenching for foundations
- Concrete – Pour and finish concrete foundations, slabs, and structures
- Carpentry – Cut, shape, and install structural wood elements and trim
- Flooring – Install flooring materials from tile to wood flooring
- Landscaping – Perform land clearing, drainage, planting, and exterior finishes
Specialty trade contractors have very deep expertise and training within their specific field in order to deliver quality installations that meet required building codes and regulations. Most companies focus on a single specialty trade only rather than trying to provide multiple services. Good general contractors will combine appropriate specialists for each building project.
The Role of Subcontractors
Subcontractors are additional construction professionals hired by general contractors or specialty firms to take on specific project tasks under a subcontract agreement, rather than handling an entire trade themselves. Common examples of subcontractor roles include:
- Traffic control – Manage vehicle access and detours around work zones
- Site prep – Clear debris and prepare land before construction
- Fencing – Install temporary fencing around active construction sites
- Equipment rental – Provide heavy machinery like cranes or bulldozers for site use
- Clean up – Remove construction waste and perform job site clean up
- Security – Provide security services to monitor active construction sites
Using reputable subcontractors provides general contractors with greater flexibility to cost-effectively expand and contract labor to match project workloads. Subcontractors typically specialize in a particular function and report to the general contractor or other hiring construction firm managing the overall project. Many subcontractors are small companies or self-employed workers. Numerous subcontractors later transition into general contractors themselves after gaining experience.
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Understanding Design-Build Firms
Design-build contractors represent a relatively newer model in construction where one company combines architectural design services with actual construction under a single contract, rather than splitting design and build. The design-build firm partners with a designer to prepare plans that they then self-perform project management and construction services for, rather than subcontracting all the trades.
This consolidated design-build approach provides clients with a single point of accountability over both the design and physical construction. It can also help speed up project timelines since building activities can begin before designs are 100% finalized, enabling some overlap between planning and construction phases. However, the cost savings and speed from design-build is contingent on finding an experienced design-build firm with the competency to properly execute both aspects. Design-build has grown in popularity as a project delivery method for many commercial construction segments in recent years.
The Role of Construction Managers
Lastly, construction management (CM) companies offer professional consulting and advisory services to owners and developers throughout projects, without directly performing the actual construction. Typical construction manager services include:
- Providing budgeting, scheduling, and construction planning guidance
- Assisting with design reviews, value engineering, and preconstruction services
- Overseeing bidding and contractor/subcontractor selection
- Helping manage change orders and construction challenges
- Conducting quality control inspections and oversight
- Providing overall project status updates and reports for owners
In this capacity, construction managers act as an intermediary owner’s representative on projects to provide experienced guidance, facilitate communication, and mitigate risks, while the general contractor still executes the physical construction activities. Hiring a CM firm gives clients enhanced project oversight, especially for complex builds.
There are certainly more niche and emerging types of construction roles, but these five contractor categories perform the bulk of heavy lifting that brings buildings and infrastructure projects to fruition. Understanding the core differences allows owners to assemble the right mix of construction expertise.
Growth in Specialty Trade Contractors
Specialty trade contractors focusing on specific activities like plumbing and electrical work have seen strong growth globally. Data from IBISWorld shows specialty trades make up over 70% of the US construction industry. The EU construction sector has over 3.4 million specialty trade enterprises. Specialization allow firms to build deep expertise as projects complexity increases.
Demand for General Contractors
While smaller in number, general contractors remain key for major construction projects worldwide. There are over 140,000 general contractor firms in the US per IBISWorld. Revenue for large multinational GC firms like Vinci, ACS Group, and Bechtel continues rising. General contractors provide coordination and oversight on large-scale infrastructure and developments.
Construction Management Firms Expanding
Dedicated construction management firms are increasing to support complex projects. MarketsandMarkets forecasts the global construction management software market size will grow from $1.4 billion in 2020 to $2.8 billion by 2025. Demand for skilled construction project management is rising in Europe, Asia Pacific and North America.
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