When it comes to a construction project, many hands make light work. For that reason, a typical project will involve several companies all working together to bring a contract to completion. Generally speaking, one company will run the project and hire other companies to carry out the bulk of the work. The scenario describes the contractor and subcontractor tiers in a contract, with one contractor running the show, and several types of subcontractors working underneath them.
But most folks use the term “contractor” to describe anyone who works in the construction field. In reality, there is a big difference between a contractor and a sub, and we’ll take an in-depth look at that difference here. We’ll also cover some types of subcontractors to clear up any misconceptions.
What is a subcontractor?
To the world outside of the hammers, nails, excavators, and blueprints, “contractor” tends to describe everyone who builds anything. But, in reality, many construction companies function as subcontractors. This is a very different role than a contractor.
A contractor is a person or company that enters into a contract with a project owner, whether it be a residential building, a commercial entity, or a municipality. This is the person or company whom the project owner trusts to organize and run the project. A company in this role might also be referred to as a “general contractor” or “prime contractor.”
On the other side of things, “subcontractor” describes anyone who works for a general contractor. In most cases, the contractor hires the subcontractor to complete an aspect of the job. In some cases, a subcontractor might hire their own subcontractors, making the hired subcontractor a “sub-subcontractor.”
That might be very confusing, so think of it this way: A contractor signs paperwork with the project owner, while a subcontractor signs paperwork with the GC. The organizational structure of a typical project looks like this:
- General contractor
With that in mind, it becomes a lot easier to understand the contractor vs subcontractor roles, as well as the different types of subcontractors in construction.
Different types of subcontractors
With a better understanding of what makes a company a contractor or subcontractor, let’s take a look at the different types of subcontractors on a typical project.
Before a project can start, some general contractors will hire an excavation sub to prepare the site for building. This subcontractor will bring heavy equipment to the job site, prepare a driveway, remove trees, level the property, and excavate the area for the foundation. On smaller projects, the GC might handle this task themselves, or the concrete sub might hire their own sub-subcontractor to handle the job.
The subcontractor that pours the foundation, footings, or other cementitious structures is the concrete subcontractor. Generally speaking, this sub enters into a contract directly with the GC, and their job is to lay the groundwork for the project. They might also pour the driveway concrete or walkways and patios on finished projects.
General contractors often handle wood framing themselves, but they might also hire a framing subcontractor to build the walls and roofs of the project. This crew will likely install exterior sheathing, windows, and exterior doors as well.
On large projects, a steel erection subcontractor might be necessary, and they’ll typically hire a crane company as a sub-subcontractor.
Roofing, siding, and sheet metal work
When it comes to drying-in the building envelope, general contractors will typically hire subs. These roofing, siding, and sheet metal subcontractors typically specialize in this line of work, having all the tools and experience to close-in the structure quickly and efficiently while the GC focuses its attention on other jobs.
The average general contractor doesn’t carry a plumbing license, which means they have to hire a licensed plumbing subcontractor. This company will install the waste lines, vents, and water pipes in a building or renovation. They’ll also tie into the city water lines or well. Very often, they’ll hire a septic subcontractor or excavation sub to install tanks and leach fields, though the GC might hire them themselves.
Keeping the space warm or cool requires a specific amount of knowledge and experience, and it’s a job best left to the HVAC subcontractor. This company will install boilers, furnaces, ductwork, air conditioners, and other mechanical equipment to help keep the building comfortable.
Electrical subcontractors are necessary on every job site. This sub installs electrical panels, wires, fixtures, generators, transfer switches, and other electrical gear for which a general contractor doesn’t carry a license.
While the bulk of the structure is typically performed by the framing subcontractor or GC, much of the interior work goes to the carpentry subcontractor. This sub has a lot to do, hanging doors, trim, and cabinetry, as well as installing flooring and other accents and features. In many cases, the carpentry crew will also install drywall, though that work can go to an entirely different sub.
Masonry and stonework
The brick and stone surfaces on a project are typically left to subcontractors who specialize in the trade. Masonry and stonework subs have the job-specific tools and equipment to work with these tough materials and the knowledge and skill required to lay courses of brick or blocks in straight lines.
The plastering subcontractor finishes the work of the drywall subcontractor. They tape the seams with joint compound and create smooth, even walls. They’ll also cover the lathe with plaster, which requires years of experience to do effectively. For that reason, GCs know hiring this job out to a quality subcontractor is well worth the cost.
Painting and paper hanging
When it comes to bringing a space to life with color and patterns, the general contractor will hire a painting and paper hanging subcontractor. They’ll paint the walls, ceilings, trim, and exterior of the building when necessary. They’ll also hang wallpaper, which is a job most GCs are happy to turn over to another company.
Any of the tile work, whether it be flooring, shower spaces, backsplashes, lobbies, or accent walls, will go to a specialty tile setting subcontractor. Like other specialties, this sub has the job-specific tools to handle the project. They also know which materials work best and how to get their hands on rare or unique tiles.
There are many specialty trade subcontractors in construction
There are many, many more types of specialty subcontractors involved in the construction industry. Some might specialize in acoustical ceilings and soundproofing, while others might only work in audio/visual installations.
General contractors might also hire landscaping subs, tree removal crews, or pool installers. Also, large custom windows in commercial buildings might require a subcontractor specializing in their installation, while solar panels are best left to subcontractors with experience in the field.