FOR YOUR CONSTRUCTION PROJECT
This section provides a brief description of the main tasks required to plan and complete a significant construction project, and who typically performs them. However, jobs can be organized a lot of different ways, with different people performing different functions. For example, an architect can also be the general contractor. A general contractor can work for you as a construction manager. A subcontractor might play the role of general contractor on certain jobs. Before deciding which way makes sense for you, it’s good to step back and get to get a big-picture view of what has to get done and who usually does it.
Regardless of who does what, every construction job has certain key functions that have to be done by someone. If no one has clear responsibility for that role, things are likely to fall through the cracks. You can learn about these functions in greater detail under Project Management before you decide how much you want to handle yourself. Briefly, the main tasks, and who can perform that task, are listed below. If you plan to be your own contractor, substitute yourself wherever you see “General contractor.”
Finance: Unless you are sitting on a pile of cash, you will need to borrow money for your project. A bank will require a detailed budget and draw schedule to establish when to release funds as work progresses. Someone will need to approve and administer these disbursements, even if you are paying out of pocket. In general, you never want to pay for more work than has been completed.
Who: Your banker, your rich uncle, yourself
Design: Starting with a vision (or a picture or plan in a plan book), you develop a preliminary design, and eventually a final set of blueprints that will be needed to obtain a permit and guide the construction of the home or remodel. In addition to the look and feel, size, and floor plan, the design includes technical information about electrical and mechanical systems, and structural information that ensures that your new home or addition is sturdy, and not prone to bouncy floors, sagging roofs, or cracks in the foundation.
Who: An architect, designer (non-architect), design-build contractor, yourself with the help of plan books, photos, and software
Specifications: The design determines the shape, size of the building, the interior layout, and many of the aesthetic details such as interior and exterior trim details. The “specs” tell the building what materials to use and, in some cases, how to use them. Well-written specs will result in attractive, durable materials installed properly so that will perform well for many years. Poorly written or missing specs may result in cheap materials being installed in a less than optimal fashion.
Who: The architect or other designer, the general contractor (with input from you)
Estimating: Once you have a plan and specifications, someone needs to estimate costs. A lender, of course, will need an accurate cost estimate. But, you will need an estimate for your own purposes as well. The estimate and the schedule, discussed below, are powerful tools for managing your project.
Estimating material costs is pretty straightforward as most contractor-oriented lumberyards will do a takeoff from the plans and bid the whole package – at least for the materials they carry. Estimating labor is a skill that takes many years to learn to do well. However, there are good estimating guides that will enable you to do a pretty good job with little or no experience. Also, if you are hiring subcontractors to do much of the work, you can use their bids to cost out portions of the job. While an architect or construction manager will often prepare a general estimate, the number that really counts is the general contractor’s contract price (unless you are your own contractor).
Who: General contractor; the architect or construction manager
Contract Writing and Negotiations: When you put a project out to bid, most contractors will want to use their own construction contract. If you use an architect for bidding negotiations, he or she will use the appropriate AIA contract. You can also have a lawyer draft a contract on your behalf. Truth be told, no contract is 100% neutral – most favor one party more than another, so whatever contract you use, make sure you read and understand the fine print. More on contracts under Project Management.
Who: The general contractor, architect, construction manager, lawyer, yourself
Scheduling: Your job schedule maps out how long each phase of the work will last as well as the order of work. Some jobs can be done at the same time – for example, carpenters can be installing drywall on the interior, while others are installing siding and roofing outdoors. However, many tasks must be performed sequentially. The framers can’t start until the foundation is completed; the interior work can’t start until the building shell is tight to the weather; the insulation can’t go in until the electrical and plumbing are roughed in; and the drywall can’t go on until the insulation is in. You get the picture. One trade not showing up, or a critical material not being delivered can really mess up your schedule. The people you’ve had to postpone may start another job and get back to your job when they can. A tight schedule is critical to getting your job done efficiently with minimal hassles.
Who: General contractor or construction manager
Permitting: Before you can clear trees, drill a well, install a septic system, or start building, you will need your permits in hand. The types of permits required and their costs vary greatly from one place to another. California has the distinction of being the most expensive place to build with permits that can run into the tens of thousands and impact fees that can exceed $100,000 in certain areas for a single family home. At the other end of the spectrum, some rural counties still have no building inspector and you can pretty much build what you want. Most of us are building somewhere between those two extremes, but the message is the same: find out what permits are required and get your ducks in a row to obtain the necessary ones before you proceed.
Who: Owner, general contractor or construction manager
Project Management: This is a big one, covering all the tasks that get the building built as designed, on time, and on budget. This involves ordering materials, supervising and scheduling tradespeople and subcontractors, maintaining quality control, coordinating with building and mechanical inspectors, as well as the owners, designer, and everyone else who shows up on the job site. The person in charge of project management also troubleshoots problems like subs not showing up or a foundation that is out of square. He or she resolves conflicts between different trades: for example, the plumber can’t run his pipe where it should go because there is a structural beam in the way. Sometimes this role is performed by more than one person: For example, a general contractor may have more than one job going on and will use a lead carpenter or foreman to handle day-to-day job management, while he handles the big picture. On large developments, a clerk or the works or construction manager may be on the job site to oversee the construction of several homes at once.
Who: General contractor or construction manager. The architect plays a role, as well, if retained for construction administration.
Construction: After all this designing, planning, budgeting, permitting, and reviewing, someone has to dig holes, pour concrete, bang nails, and get the thing built. This could be some combination or yourself, friends, carpenters and subcontractors you hire. Or it may be a small building company where the owner, functioning as a the general contractor, does much of the work himself with a couple of employees and a few subcontractors. Larger building companies tend to use fewer employees and more subcontractors, who are specialists in one specific trade. There are pros and cons to each approach, which we’ll discuss later.
Who: General contractor and tradespeople, who may be either employees or independent subcontractors.
The main participants in a large construction project are described briefly below. Depending on the size and nature of a project, some of these people or functions may be combined or not needed at all. For example, if you don’t need financing, you won’t need a loan officer. On a small remodeling project, the general contractor might also be the designer and lead carpenter. As you’re reading, think about what expertise each person bring to the job, and what you might bring to the job. Also think realistically about the time commitment you can and want to make to your project.
Owner: That’s you. You’re paying for the project so you get to make the key decisions. If you want the project to match your vision, the more you stay involved the better. As in the old post-office game, lots of things get lost in translation from you to the designer to the builder to the subcontractors and so on. If you don’t stay involved throughout the project, you’re likely to have a lot of “That’s’ not what I had in mind” moments. Micromanaging is not the key, but good communication is.
Designers: These are the people who, with your input, determine the size, shape, color, style, floor plans, finish materials of your project and prepare construction documents (plans and specifications) that a contractor can bid on and build. The design phase is usually a collaborative effort, with you making the final decisions. Designers include architects, non-architect designers, interior decorators, landscape designers, color consultants, yourself, and anyone else you want to include in the design process. Under a full architectural contract, the architect may also handle bid negotiations, contract administration, and site visits to make sure the builder is correctly following the plans. Some cities require that plans be stamped by a licensed architect or engineer – especially in large urban areas and those with special requirements for seismic, high-wind, or other technical building issues.
Draftsmen: This person prepares the detail plans, or blueprints, required to get a building permit for most jobs. If you hire an architect, most likely a draftsman in the architectural office will produce the prints. If you’re a pretty good designer, but don’t have drafting skills or knowledge of structural issues and building codes, a good draftsman can turn your sketch into a full set of plans very economically. While their formal role is to draft (accurately draw) what you give them, they will often make good suggestion to improve the plan. Some are good designers in their own right and may have some architectural training, but never went the distance to get licensed as an architect.
Engineers: If you have unusual site conditions (like really bad soil), or an unconventional design, you may be required by the building department to get an engineer to review and stamp the plans. Or you may want to do this on your own even if not required.
Design Consultants. If you want to build a house out of the mainstream, a zero-energy, earth sheltered, or non-toxic house, for example, it would be wise to bring an expert into the loop early in the design process – or find a design firm that specializes in this type of house. Otherwise you will waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel and learning the same lessons they did the hard way.
Building, Plumbing, and Electrical Inspectors: This people will review your plans and approve them if they meet the building code. Or they will give you advice on what you need to do if they fall short of meeting code. They also make periodic visits to the site to make sure the tradespeople are doing the right thing. Ask their advice beforehand if you’re not sure about any aspect of the design – they appreciate being consulted and can be very helpful. Be respectful, and above all, don’t make an enemy of the building inspector – he can make your life miserable.
General Contractor: Most large jobs are run by a contractor who takes full responsibility for the whole project. The general contractor obtains the necessary permits, hires tradesman and subcontractors to complete the work. He or she orders materials, schedules workers and deliveries to keep the job moving efficiently and oversees quality control. In a small company that handles just one or two jobs at a time, the GC may also swing a hammer at times and work on the job-site most days.
Foreman/Lead Carpenter: While the general contractor is meeting with prospective customers, bidding other jobs, or working in the office, a foreman or lead carpenter is probably managing the job site. He troubleshoots problems, maintains quality control, orders materials, and makes sure the job is progressing smoothly. With some companies, this is the person you will be dealing with day to day – not the person who sold you the job back at the office.
Construction Manager: This job title is a little fuzzy as it can mean somewhat different things on different projects. But the essence of the job is this: the construction manager oversees the project for the owner and is paid a fee, typically hourly, to make sure things go as planned on the job site. The construction manager may also help evaluate plans, negotiate contracts and solicit bids from subcontractors, handle permits and inspections, resolve conflicts on the job, and approve change orders and progress payments. It is mostly an advisory role, with you, the owner, making the final decisions. See more on working with a construction manager.
Superintendent (or Clerk of the Works): In larger developments, a superintendent may supervise several houses going up at the same time. He often has a job site office in a trailer and visits each job daily to make sure work is progressing properly and that that workers, subs, and materials are on schedule and maintaining quality standards.
Subcontractors: These are independent workers or small companies that specialize in one trade: excavators, foundation contractors, framers, plasterers, electricians, plumbers, roofers, flooring installers, tile setters, painters and so on. Some general contractors use subcontractors to do almost all the work. Others employ a core crew of carpenters to do the basic work, and hire subs for specialized tasks. Finding good subs, getting them to show up just when you need them, and overseeing their work is the contractor’s (or construction manager’s) responsibility. If the insulation sub does not show up on time, then the drywall sub can’t do his work, and everything gets backed up. Since so much work today is handled by subcontractors, the quality of the job often depends largely on the skill level of the subs and how effectively they are supervised by the general contractor (0r yourself as an owner-contractor).
Building Inspectors. These folks issue permits and inspect the work at certain stages for compliance with the building, plumbing, electrical, or other building codes. Some are experienced and knowledgeable, others not so. In any case, they hold a lot of power so it’s in your best interest to remain on good terms. When in doubt about something that is questionable, innovative, or unusual, it never hurts to check with the inspector before doing the work. Get their input beforehand – they like that and are much more likely to approve your work. Remember, however, that building codes are primarily concerned with safety and specify minimum standards. Just because a building passes code doesn’t mean it is particularly well built, comfortable, durable, or attractive. It just means that the structure should not sag badly, the stairs won’t trip you, the wires won’t shock you, and the plumbing should work properly.
Suppliers. Suppliers are an important part of the team as materials typically account for about half the cost of construction (not counting overhead and profit). If you work with a contractor-oriented yard, they will often do a material take-off from your plans and bid your material list. In addition, they will help with special orders, deliver things in the most efficient way, and may extend you a line of credit. You can negotiate over terms and discounts, but will probably find that the customer service you receive is well worth the slightly higher price you might pay compared to a cash-and-carry big box-type yard. Think: knowledgeable sales people, access to product reps, timely deliveries (with a crane when needed), and you’ll see the difference.
Lawyers. On a big, expensive job, it’s not a bad idea to have an experience construction lawyer review the contract. There are a number of clauses that can be written to favor one party over another. For example, who pays for design errors, hidden conditions, conflicts between the plans the specs? Are there penalties if the contractor finishes late? What happens if he walks off the job before it is completed (or you fire him)? Should the contract require mediation or arbitration to settle disputes? You’ll learn more about key contract clauses under project management.
Loan officer. This important member of the team disburses the funds to according to a draw schedule which tracks progress on the job. There are several variations of construction loans. Look for a loan officer who understands your situation and is willing to work with you around interest rates and draw schedules, and who offers a construction loan that converts to a mortgage upon completion. Your loan officer will also tell you what insurances you and your contractor must carry. Start with your own bank, with people you know, and who will walk you through the loan process. Many banks now use outside loan officers, who may be less helpful to you if things are going badly on the project. Since their pay is linked to making disbursements, they may want to disburse the final check even if you feel the work is substandard and needs to be redone.
Insurance agent. It’s a good idea to talk to your insurance agent before you start construction. He can tell you who should carry which policies to insure the building during construction, and to protect you from liability for accidents that may occur on the site. It is important that your general contractor and subcontractors are properly insured, since otherwise, liability may fall to you as the owner. Don’t be afraid to ask for certificates of insurance from your general contractor to make sure he is protected by Worker’s Comp, General Liability, and Auto Liability for business vehicles. The general contractor should be getting similar proof of insurance from the subcontractors. If you are hiring subs directly, then you should ask the subs for the same proof of insurance. Finally, get Builder’s Risk insurance to protect the building under construction. Either the owner of general contractor can purchase this insurance.