If you are looking at ways to bring your construction project to life, you will probably run into the question of whether or not you need a general contractor. General contractors are often a necessary component of construction projects of all sizes. While the role of general contractor is an important one in the construction industry, it is often confused with other entities involved in a construction project including construction project managers, architects, engineers, and subcontractors.

In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive overview of general contractors. We’ll look at what a professional general contractor is, what they do, and how their role overlaps with and diverges from other entities involved in a construction project. If you are asking yourself, “do i need a general contractor”, this information will help you get closer to your answer.

Like many other aspects of construction projects, working with an experienced general contractor can make a significant difference in the success or failure of the project. General contractors, along with the subcontractors they work with, are responsible for the physical construction portion of a construction project. As such, selecting a general contractor that has a demonstrated track record of completing projects that are similar in scope and complexity to your project will go a long way towards minimizing any potential delays or budgetary problems.


What is a General Contractor?

A general contractor is usually a firm consisting of a group of managers, field superintendents, field laborers and specialists that are responsible for completing the majority of the physical construction processes related to a project. General contractors can vary in size and complexity. Some general contractors do the majority of the work required to complete a project using their own employees. More often, however, work requiring specialized skills is subcontracted out. This includes electricians, plumbers, roofers, or other types of specialty subcontractors.

What are the Responsibilities of the General Contractor?

In order to get a better understanding of why you will probably want to work with a general contractor, let’s take a closer look at some of their responsibilities on the job site.

  • Construction Coordination – General contractors are responsible for coordinating the physical construction phase on the job site. The general flow of construction projects is fairly linear, meaning that one component of a project must be completed before the next part can begin. In terms of completing physical construction, general contractors coordinate between the different entities on a job site to ensure that work is progressing smoothly and according to schedule.
  • Construction Oversight – The general contractor is also responsible for direct supervision of staff on the construction site. This isn’t to be confused with the high-level oversight that is provided by construction project managers. Rather, here we are focused solely on the job site. On the job site, general contractors provide day-to-day oversight of all work being completed. They ensure that the construction work is completed according to contractual obligations, timeline requirements, and within the project’s budgetary scope.
  • Vendor Coordination – Most often, general contractors will play some role in coordination between vendors of various types. This is particularly relevant for materials and supplies necessary to bring about satisfactory completion of physical construction. If concrete needs to be poured for the foundation, the general contractor will coordinate the day and time of the delivery between the vendor and their staff to ensure all required entities are on-site and ready for that part of the project.
  • Subcontractor Coordination  – Coordinating the activities of specialty subcontractors with regular general contractor staff is generally under the purview of the general contractor. In some cases, if there is a project manager already overseeing the project they may work closely with the general contractor to determine what subcontractors will be needed and when their work will begin. More often, scheduling and coordination of the various subcontractors on a project will be the responsibility of the general contractor.
  • General Construction – Nearly all general construction activities are the responsibility of the general contractor. The physical construction process is their role in a construction project. Much of the physical construction on a project will be completed by staff employed directly by the general contractor. The degree to which a general contractor is responsible for completing portions of physical construction will depend on their approach. Some general contractors outsource much of the physical construction process to subcontractors, while others only utilize outside subcontractors to a minimal degree.

General Contractor vs. Construction Manager

If you are still wondering do you need a general contractor, one area that helps clear up some confusion is comparing the roles of a general contractor and construction project manager. A common misconception is that these are the same thing. Many people believe that general contractors operate in the same capacity as a construction manager, and the two terms are interchangeable. In most situations, this isn’t the case.

In some very specific situations, a general contractor may be used in the same capacity that a project manager would usually serve in. This typically only happens on projects that are small in scope and complexity, although some general contractors do offer a wider range of project management services. With that being said, the service that general contractors and construction managers provide is very different.

In contrast to a general contractor who is responsible for physical construction and all that process entails, the construction manager is responsible for providing top-down direction and oversight throughout the entire construction process. This is easier to differentiate when you consider when a construction manager enters the construction project. A construction management firm is typically brought onto a project from the very beginning by an owner. In fact, projects most often don’t really begin until an owner and construction manager sit down, discuss the project and determine if it is feasible or not.

So, for most large and complex projects a construction project manager facilitates the process including the design and engineering stages and secures necessary permitting for a project prior to a general contractor joining the team. The construction manager and the general contractor may work together during the procurement stage of a project to ensure that all necessary materials for a project have been ordered and staged. Once all necessary permitting has been secured and the necessary materials and labor have been assembled, the general contractor will coordinate the physical construction phase of the project.

Effective construction managers will regularly tour their job site to ensure that the construction that is being completed matches what is outlined in the contract. At the same time, a good general contractor will be effectively overseeing the day-to-day construction process to ensure that the work is being completed according to the project timeline and that the quality of work matches the expectations for the project.

How do you Select a General Contractor?

Selecting the right general contractor for a project is an important component of project success. Not every general contractor is the right fit for every job. As project owners are keenly aware of, construction projects have a great deal of risk associated with them. The point during a construction project that is the riskiest is during physical construction. While the preconstruction phases of a project do carry some risk, such as the entitlements process taking longer than expected, they don’t carry the same level of risk that occurs once construction has begun.

The construction phase is inherently risky for a number of reasons. Some of these risks can be managed and controlled. Others are entirely outside of the control of all parties involved in a project. A prime example of this is the weather. Inclement weather can cause delays in construction that both raise the cost of the project and impact the overall completion timeline. Minimizing the level of risk facing the project is an important part of what construction project managers do. One level of that effort is in selecting the right general contractor for the project.

What’s the Process for Selecting a General Contractor?

Selecting a general contractor for a project can be done through a traditional bidding process, a design-build process, or a negotiated selection process. Once the client and project manager have sat down and determined if a project is feasible and created a strategic plan for the project, they will have an idea of the budget and timeline required for project completion. The project manager will bring on a construction design team to draft plans and specifications for the project, while also securing any necessary permitting or entitlements. Once that has been completed, the project manager will begin accepting bids from general contractors. An exception to this is when a general contractor is brought onto the team early on through a negotiated selection process.

Project managers are normally utilized to oversee the bidding process. Project managers are exceptionally well positioned to do this for a couple of reasons.

  • Background – Construction managers have multiple layers of familiarity with what general contractors do. Most construction managers have worked in the past for a general contractor, and many started their careers doing so. This gives them insight into how general contractors operate, what makes a general contractor effective, and whether a specific general contractor is right for your project.
  • Industry Knowledge – Many construction project managers are familiar with the general contractors that operate in the area and may have worked with them in the past. They’ll have insight into whether a general contracting firm has a history of meeting project deadlines and staying under-budget, and may have an idea of whether a specific project is a good fit for a certain contractor.
  • Experience – Construction project managers are adept at analyzing bids and distilling that information down into a targeted recommendation. Since your project manager will assist in drawing up the contract between the general contractor and owner, it is important for the construction management team to be involved in the general contractor selection process.

Because the general contractor selection is an important component of project success, the client and construction management team will ideally work closely to identify the general contracting firm that is the best fit for the project. If this is done through a bidding process, the construction management team will identify select general contractors that are a good fit for the project. As part of the selection process, the project manager and owner may conduct interviews to select the general contractor that will work on the project.

Final Thoughts

General contractors have a wide degree of responsibility for the construction process. General contractors work closely with the project management team and subcontractors to carry out the physical construction of a project.

If you still aren’t sure if you need a general contractor on your project, be sure to consult with your project management team. Not only can they indicate whether a general contractor is necessary, but they can also help guide you through the process of finding the right general contractor for building your project.

If you are interested in learning more about whether a general contractor is needed for your project, please contact Gilliland Construction Management today!

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By Kirt Gilliland

Mar 26, 2019