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How the construction industry works

The graduate guide to the construction process – know how your employer will fit in

It's essential to know how the client, contractor, subcontractor and consultant fit into the building process before you apply for jobs with any of these.

Every construction project takes the work of several different parties. Here are the main players, all of whom offer graduate jobs in construction:

The client: has something to be built

The construction process starts when the client decides there is a need for a project.

The client decides what they want to build, when they need it to be finished and how much they are prepared to pay. They usually employ a number of consultants to produce designs and estimate costs. The client will also have to obtain planning permission for the project and may need to purchase land or make legal agreements with other interested parties.

As construction proceeds the client pays the contractor, as well as the other organisations involved, for the work they have done. Queries about the shape, size or colour of the building will be answered and other information will be given to those carrying out the work. The client will also make preparations to take over the finished project (for example, to move occupants and furniture into a completed building). Some client organisations have the ability to do design work, and some even have contracting capability, so some aspects of the process can be carried out in-house. However, this is rare and the most common route is for clients to employ consultants and/or contractors to take care of the process.

The consultant: designs the project

Clients often employ consultants quite early in the project to advise them on design and cost matters.

Consultants are usually employed for their expert knowledge in a particular field, for example, planning regulations, the design of a project, health, safety and welfare regulations or costing. While traditionally employed by the client, consultants are now increasingly recruited by contractors as part of their design team. Some specialist consultants employ only a handful of people, whereas others have thousands of staff working in different offices around the UK and worldwide.

Consultants commonly involved in construction projects:

  • Architects are involved in designing the aesthetic appearance of buildings and the way in which internal spaces are arranged to ensure that the building meets the functional requirements of the client. The architect will often lead and co-ordinate the activities of the other consultants and be responsible for ensuring that the building complies with the conditions of planning permission.
  • Structural engineers are responsible for designing the structure and foundations that support the various loads on a building, including people, furniture, fittings, vehicles and machinery. Structural engineers also ensure that the building will withstand all the elements.
  • Building services engineers design the systems within the building that control the internal environment. These include heating and ventilation, water supply and drainage, lighting, power supplies and telecommunications.
  • Cost consultants (often referred to as quantity surveyors) prepare estimates of how much projects will cost to build and monitor the actual costs during construction. They also review the tenders from contractors and advise the clients on which contractor should be employed for the construction work. 

Key contractors include Arup, Atkins and Mott MacDonald.

The contractor: conducts the majority of the construction work

Once sufficient design information is available, the client’s consultant team will issue tenders to contractors, who then submit a price or bid for building the project.

The contractor’s main task is to complete the project in accordance with the design, to the required quality, in the time allowed and for the agreed price. Responsibilities also include the safety, health and welfare of the workforce and the public, the protection of the environment and minimising disruption.

The large number of organisations involved in the construction of any project are co-ordinated by the contractor to ensure the project is completed successfully. The contractor brings together the construction team which includes: the client (although many clients employ a specialist project management consultant to deal with day-to- day matters during construction), the design consultants, specialist subcontractors and suppliers, the local council, the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, the local highways authority, the emergency services, and electricity, gas and other utilities companies.

Some contractors have design capability in-house and are able to carry out parts of the detailed design work themselves. Alternatively, they may employ their own team of consultants to look after the design. Contractors can be small local firms or large multinationals with annual turnovers of many hundreds of millions of pounds.

Key contractors include BAM Construct, Skanska and Balfour Beatty.

The subcontractor: carries out specialist work

Subcontractors have specialised skills that the main contractor needs to build elements of the project.

Main contractors are responsible for the whole of a project and rarely have all of the skills necessary to build every part of a complicated building or structure. Subcontractors are employed by the main contractor for parts of the project such as reinforced concrete works, structural steelwork, foundation piling, roofing, cladding, plumbing and electrical work. Many subcontractors have specialist design knowledge of their area of work that consultants are not familiar with. These subcontractors are often given some design responsibility to make sure that the details of their part of the project successfully integrate with the other parts of the project design.

Subcontractors are usually smaller in size than contractors, but there are some subcontractors who operate throughout the UK and have turnovers comparable with medium-sized contractors.

We would like to thank Hugh Price, a professional development manager at Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, for his assistance with this article.