Hiring a good contractor is essential to a successful project. It is a role that requires a range of skills. I've done it myself, I've been on the other side as a customer, and I work on the third side as an Architect. With the type of work we do, I find that there are essentially two types of contractors: The Builder and The Manager. Each has their own set of skills and challenges, and an individual often wears both hats. In broad strokes, The Builder is on site every day laying out dimensions, hammering nails, receiving supplies, working hands-on with his crew and various subcontractors– in short, making things. The Manager does everything else, including getting the work, estimating, managing the customer, architect, crew & subcontractors, scheduling, ordering materials– in short, overseeing the project.
Builders usually work on one or two jobs at a time. They might have a partner, or a family member, or several employees/journeyman that they work with regularly. They fold all the work of management into their day, which often extends into evenings and weekends. They are intimately involved in the carpentry work, and oversee the trades to varying degrees. They tend toward keeping things simple. Focused on the work at hand, they might lose sight of long-lead items that need to be ordered in advance. If they have a question about a construction detail it might only be discovered on site, rather than during a drawing review prior to the work. Generally their estimates run a page or two, covering the work in broad strokes, including their labor, a materials estimate from the lumber yard, and estimates from major subcontractors.
Managers are capable of running several and more complex jobs at a given time. They have a lead carpenter/site manager at each job-site. Depending on workload, they might subcontract major portions of the work such as rough framing. They spend a lot more time in the office and on the phone than Builders. When they visit a job site they are less likely to pick up a hammer, but they should still have a wealth of experience in the field, and do get more closely involved when questions arise or special coordination with sub-trades is required. They tend to see further down the road, and should keep customers on track with timely decisions. They also tend to spend more time reviewing plans and establishing the logistics of a project prior to each stage of work. Generally their estimates are quite detailed, with multi-page spreadsheets and line item figures incorporating data from previous jobs. In general there is an added cost to this level of oversight, and often it is worth it for complex projects.
Due to my experience in construction, I am sometimes asked if I’ll manage a home building project. I have done it in the past, but find that it is a tough balancing act. I believe it’s important for a manager to oversee all the trades, coordinate their interaction, and be intimately involved and responsible for the progress and quality of the work. This I can do as a Contractor, but not so well as an Architect. It requires the cultivation of relationships with sub-trades established over years, as well as more time and presence on site than I am able to give to a particular project. Insurers also view quite differently the roles of Architect and Contractor, so the equation of risk-to-profit needs to make sense. For these reasons I leave construction management to the general contractor who is in a position to better serve a customer in this regard.
Where do I fit into the Builder/Manager picture? It depends on the job and the extent of services. For a simple job with a limited budget, I might prepare only a basic set of plans for permit and construction. From then on it's up to the customer and contractor. For those projects I tend to get a call only when a problem arises, which is typically from the job site with work paused to figure something out. For more complex jobs and more extensive services, I visit the site often, communicate with the customer and contractor regularly, troubleshoot and provide ongoing refinement to the plans and details as the project progresses. I am often then involved with interior design, and assisting with material and fixture selection as well. From my perspective, either a Manager or Builder type of contractor can be fine to work with. In practice the line between the two is blurry, I make the distinction here only to point out the two essential skill sets that the role requires. The decision of who to hire is ultimately made by the customer after interviews, references, and costing has been provided.