A general contractor is responsible for the day-to-day oversight of a construction site, management of vendors and trades, and communication of information to involved parties throughout the course of a building project.
The general contractor is employed by the client, on the advice of the architect, engineer or the architectural technologist. A general contractor must first assess the project-specific documents (referred to as bid, proposal or tender documents). In the case of renovations, a site visit is required to get a better understanding of the project. Depending on the project delivery method, the contractor will submit a fixed price proposal or bid, cost plus price or an estimate. The general contractor considers the cost of home office overhead, general conditions, materials and equipment as well as the cost of labor to provide the owner with a price for the project.
Contract documents include drawings, project manual (including general, supplementary and/or special conditions and specifications), addendum or modifications issued prior to proposal/ bidding and prepared by a design professional such as an architect. The general contractor may be the construction manager or construction manager at risk.
A general contractor is responsible for providing all of the material, labor, equipment (such as engineering vehicles and tools) and services necessary for the construction of the project. The general contractor hires specialized subcontractors to perform all or portions of the construction work.
Responsibilities may include applying for building permits, securing the property, providing temporary utilities on site, managing personnel on site, providing site surveying and engineering, disposing or recycling of construction waste, monitoring schedules and cash flows, and maintaining accurate records.
UK and Commonwealth usage
In the United Kingdom and some British Commonwealth countries the term 'general contractor' was gradually superseded by 'main contractor' during the early twentieth century. This was the term used by major professional, trade, and consumer organizations when issuing contracts for construction work, and thus the term 'general contractor' fell out of use.
General contractors that conduct work for government agencies are typically referred to as prime contractors.
Licensing requirements to work legally on construction projects vary from locale to locale. In the United States, it is the states' responsibility to define these requirements. For example, in the state of California, the requirements are stated as follows:
"With a few exceptions, all businesses or individuals who work on any building, highway, road, parking facility, railroad, excavation, or other structure in California must be licensed by the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) if the total cost of one or more contracts on the project is $500 or more."
There are no set educational qualifications to become a general contractor, though many employers prefer a bachelor's degree. Some general contractors obtain bachelor's degrees in construction science, building science, surveying, construction safety, or other disciplines.
General contractors often start out as construction workers. While gaining work experience, they learn about different aspects of construction, including masonry, carpentry, framing, and plumbing. Aspiring general contractors communicate with subcontractors and may learn the management skills they need to run their own company.
Experience in the construction industry as well as references from customers, business partners, or former employers are demanded. Some states require candidates to provide proof of financing to own their own general contracting firm.
General contractors often run their own business. They hire subcontractors to complete specialized construction work and may manage a team of plumbers, electricians, builders, carpenters and other specialists. General contractors build their business by networking with potential clients, buying basic construction tools, and ensuring that their subcontractors complete high-quality work. General contractors don't usually complete much construction work themselves, but they need to be familiar with construction techniques so they can manage workers effectively.
In the City of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, there has been implemented a new Contractor Licensing program that requires various contractors and skilled trades to obtain licenses to do business within Toronto, even if they run their business outside the city. And in Ontario, it is mandatory that General Contractors who offer electrical services clearly state that they "only use ESA/ECRA Licensed Electrical Contractors".
As a business owner
Businesses may choose to hire contractors over employees for a variety of reasons. For legal reasons it can be easier to hire and to release a contractor compared to a permanent employee. Additionally, business owners may choose to hire contractors because of economic uncertainty or other factors that make hiring employees impractical. Other reasons include access to specialist skills, flexible hiring and firing, and lower costs.
The first step in vetting a general contractor is to perform a contractor licensing lookup to ensure the contractor is properly licensed to perform the work. Most states in the United States have free online license check databases available to the general public.
General contractor example
A property owner or real estate developer develops a program of their needs and select a site (often with an architect). The architect assembles a design team of consulting engineers and other experts to design the building and specify the building systems. Today contractors frequently participate on the design team by providing pre-design services such as providing estimations of the budget and scheduling requirements to improve the economy of the project. In other cases the general contractor is hired at the close of the design phase. The owner, architect, and general contractor work closely together to meet deadlines and budget. The general contractor works with subcontractors to ensure quality standards.
- Hendrickson, Chris. & Au, Tung (2000). The Design and Construction Process. Project Management for Construction: Fundamental Concepts for Owners, Engineers, Architects and Builders. (Chapter 3) http://pmbook.ce.cmu.edu/03_The_Design_And_Construction_Process.html.
- Allen, Edward, & Iano Joseph (2009). Fundamentals of Building Construction Materials and Methods. 5th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.
- "California Contractors License". Craftsman Book Company. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
- Wood, Hannah (8 February 2012). "Why Do Companies Hire Contractors?". TH Services. Retrieved 11 March 2012.