If you are considering a new construction project, chances are you will be spending some time weighing different options for how that project is built. Project completion in the construction industry is always the goal, but achieving project completion in an efficient and timely manner can sometimes be challenging and may require some sort of construction manager. In order to complete your project, you might consider hiring a general contractor or project manager. Understanding the difference between these two roles in a construction project is essential to choosing the best option for your unique project and situation.

It may not be immediately clear what the difference between a project manager and a general contractor is to individuals outside of the construction industry. Much of this confusion comes down to a lack of understanding about the important role that both a project manager and general contractor occupy in the construction process. In this article, we’ll dive into the difference between the two and their scopes of work. In particular, we’ll answer questions such as “what is a project manager in construction?”, and explore how project managers add value to construction projects in their role. We’ll also highlight how project managers and general contractors work together as a project team in a complementary fashion to ensure projects are completed on schedule without going over budget. In doing so, we’ll look at what is a general contractor responsible for, and what responsibilities a project manager has in the construction process.

The information in this article will hopefully clear up any confusion about the difference between a general contractor vs. project manager in a construction project and the scope of services they can provide. Understanding the difference these two roles will help you understand whether a project manager can help your construction project get off the ground.
What Project Managers and General Contractors Have in Common
Much of the confusion surrounding the roles of general contractor vs project manager stems from a misunderstanding of what exactly is different between the two. While there are some significant differences between the two positions, there are also some similarities. These similarities often obscure the different responsibilities that each role carries.

At a basic level, both general contractors and project managers play a pivotal role in construction projects. Project managers execute their responsibility at a higher level, ensuring that there is coordination between different entities in a construction project. Similarly, general contractors must coordinate between different employees, specialists, and subcontractors that they work with to ensure that projects are completed. So, while both carry a responsibility to coordinate between different entities underneath them, general contractors and project managers operate at different levels in the construction management process.

In some construction projects, general contractors serve in a project management role. This is a large source of the confusion for people that are wondering what differentiates these two management positions. For smaller or less complex construction projects, the client may choose to work with a general contractor who will not only perform much of the construction but will also help coordinate between different parties in the construction process including the client, architect or designer, and subcontractors. However, this isn’t always the case, and it is important to note that project managers often have different skill sets and competencies that add value to construction projects in a way that is different than general contractors and visa versa. If your project is larger or more complex you should hire a project manager.

A final way that general contractors and project managers are similar is that they must interpret and execute the desires of the client. However, this is also largely dependent on the size and complexity of the construction project. For smaller or less complex construction projects, the general contractor may serve as the primary point of contact with the client. For larger projects, the responsibility for the coordination of different entities involved in the project such as the designer, client, contractor, and subcontractor would be the responsibility of the project manager.
What is a Project Manager?
At this point, you might be wondering what a project manager does that is different than what a general contractor does. Despite some similarities in roles, there are distinct differences in the role that project managers and general contractors play in the construction process. In order to clearly see how project managers and general contractors are different, it is helpful to gain a firm understanding of what exactly a project manager does and how it adds value to a construction project.

Project managers are responsible for high-level coordination of construction projects. Unlike a general contractor, which is primarily responsible for the actual physical construction of a whole or part of a construction project, a construction project manager works closely with all parties involved in a construction project to ensure that the owner’s goals have been met, the project has remained under budget, and the project is completed on time.
What Sets a Project Manager Apart From a General Contractor?
Project managers serve in their role as a team leader and primary liaison with the client. Clients will work closely with a project management team so that the scope and goals of a project are clearly defined. Once the project has been clearly defined and is fully understood by both the project manager and client, the project manager is then tasked with assembling and managing the various entities that will actually carry out the project.

As you might guess, the initial phase of a project management team’s work has to do with planning. An effective project manager has to be able to fully understand the client’s desired project outcome, which requires working closely with the client to ensure that every facet of a potential project is clearly defined from the outset. This process is known as strategic plan development. When creating a strategic plan, the project manager and client will work together to define the scope of the project, the desired completion timeline, and budget.

Although the workflow will vary depending on the project manager, after creating a strategic plan the project manager will be tasked with developing a comprehensive budget. Project managers are not only responsible for crafting a budget that aligns with the client’s expectations and goals but also implementing that budget and ensuring the project remains on or under budget throughout the construction process.

As you probably know, construction projects are notorious for running over-budget. There are a variety of reasons for this, and some are outside of anyone’s control. However, an effective project manager will create a budget that incorporates all areas of the budget so that there aren’t any surprises down the road. The budget plan created by the project manager should include all costs associated with the project, including permitting, construction, design, fees for the project manager themselves, and any other associated costs that can be anticipated. Having a clearly defined budget, and sticking to that budget over time, is one of the ways that project managers add value to construction projects. By working with a project manager, clients will have a clear, full-field view of the costs associated with a project.

Creating a strategic plan and comprehensive budget is one small, but important, part of what a project manager does. Project managers also oversee the execution of the construction project to ensure that each aspect of the project aligns with the client’s goals as outlined in the strategic plan, and are implemented according to the wishes of the client. An important part of what project managers do is assemble the team that will complete your construction project. This team usually includes designers, engineers, and contractors. Choosing the right team is vital to ensuring the successful completion of your project within the project timeline and budget.

Project managers will assemble the team that will complete your project by issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) to architectural, engineering, and general contracting firms. The project manager should work closely with the client during this process to ensure that the selected firms are appropriate for the client’s wishes and project outline. In some cases, project managers may offer targeted recommendations of firms that have expertise that could prove beneficial to project completion. During this period, project managers are expected to perform a certain level of due diligence to ensure that firms selected for this process have experience with similar project types and have the qualifications and knowledge base to complete the project.

Once proposals have been received, the project manager will review the proposals and create a summary of each. Along with their summary, project managers will utilize their knowledge and expertise to make recommendations to the client for which firms are the best fit. If desired, the project manager can then conduct interviews with potential firms to find the firms that have the qualifications, knowledge, and experience to complete the project. After design, engineering, and general contracting firms have been selected, the project manager can oversee the contract negotiations with each to ensure that the scope of the project, expectations for each firm, budget, and completion timeline are all clearly defined and understood by all parties in the project team.

Project managers have a variety of responsibilities that this article won’t dive into. However, it is worth spending some time to outline some of the important ways that project managers add value to construction projects through construction management. One of these ways is through oversight of the physical construction process. This is a period that is often fraught with delays. Effective project managers will help avoid these delays by both selecting firms that have demonstrated an ability to complete projects on budget and within the project timeline, but also through on-the-ground oversight. This means that project managers will physically visit the site and monitor the progress of the construction. Physical oversight is an important part of the project manager’s responsibilities. Through physical oversight, project managers are able to assess both the quality of the work to ensure that it adheres to their standards, but also to identify potential problems early on before they become large delays. In order to do this effectively, project managers need to be intimately familiar with all aspects of the construction project. By utilizing their expertise in this area, project managers can identify issues before or as they arise and quickly work to minimize their impact on the project completion timeline and cost.

Lastly, one of the areas that project managers enhance the construction process is through thorough documentation. Documenting every facet of a construction process is time-consuming. This responsibility will often fall on the client if they are working solely with a general contractor. The documentation and communication facet of a project manager’s responsibilities ensure that each party involved in a project clearly understands their role on an ongoing basis. It also ensures that the client maintains a full-field view of the project from beginning to end. Importantly, project managers are also responsible for ensuring that all invoicing is done accurately and aligns with the contractual obligations of each party.

Closing Thoughts

While general contractors and project managers often have conflated roles by those outside of the construction industry, in practice they fulfill very different functions. For individuals looking to answer what is a general contractor responsible for, the answer is that general contractors are utilized for the physical construction of a project. In contrast to this, project managers coordinate and oversee the construction process. This includes from an initial meeting with the client to get a firm understanding of the desired outcome, scope, and cost of a project, to selecting the design, engineering, and general contracting firms that will complete the project. In addition to this, project managers oversee the physical construction process and building to ensure that the work is completed according to the agreed upon project completion timeline.

Construction project managers add value to the construction process through their oversight and coordination roles. An effective project manager has extensive knowledge of all aspects of the construction process, allowing them to quickly identify areas of risk or potential problems and work to resolve or avoid those issues without affecting the project timeline or budget. Contact Gilliland Construction Management today to find out how a project manager can help make your dream construction project a reality.

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By Kirt Gilliland

Dec 06, 2018