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A general contractor (main contractor, prime 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 a manager, and possibly a tradesman, employed by the client on the advice of the architect, engineer or the architectural technologist or the client him/herself if acting as the manager. A general contractor is responsible for the overall coordination of a project. 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.
In the United Kingdom and some British Commonwealth countries the term 'general contractor' was gradually superseded by 'main contractor' during the early twentieth century.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 except in large organizations where the term main contractor is the top manager and a general contractor shares responsibilities with professional contractors.
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 jurisdictions 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.
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 getting 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.
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.