How the construction industry works: a beginner’s guide

How the construction industry works
Many different organisations work together to build a construction project. Recruiters expect aspiring apprentices, trainees and graduates to understand how a project comes to be built.

This article outlines the typical process of how a construction project is built, but some larger firms offer a design-and-build service where they take on the typical work of both a consultant and a contractor. Bear in mind that large projects can take years to get from the initial idea to being fully completed.

A construction project starts with the client

... who decides something should be built. The client might be a property development company, a local authority, a central government department, a private business or an individual.

The client decides what it wants to build, the timeframe in which it should be built and how much it should cost.

The client then hires consultants

... who will advise it on matters relating to the design, cost and any regulations. The client could employ several consultancies or one consultancy to advise on everything. Either way, one consultant organisation will often oversee the project on behalf of the client.

Common consultant organisations include:

  • architecture practices
  • cost consultancy (quantity surveying) employers
  • civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering employers.

Consultants, then, look after the design phase of the project – they design the structure and work out how much that design will cost to build. Once this has been established, they decide which construction contractor should do the construction work. Contractors have to ‘bid’ for the work – put a case for why they are the best.

What’s it like to work for a consultant?

If you work at a consultancy, your work will be on the design phase. Architects design the project. Civil engineers make sure that the technical details on plans will work and quantity surveyors price up how much the design would cost.

  • You work in an office... sometimes you get to visit sites and occasionally you could be ‘seconded’ (sent) to work on a site, but this is an office job.
  • You work office hours (typically 8.30 am – 6.00 pm) but may have to work longer hours close to a deadline.
  • You usually work on a number of projects at the same time.
  • As you work on a project in its early stages, it may be years before you see the finished project in operation.

The consultant gets contractors to carry out the construction work

Once the contractor has won the work from the consultants, construction begins on site. Contractors ensure the project is built to the agreed quality, budget and timeframe. They take instructions about the design from the design consultancy and run any design-related problems past them.

What’s it like to work for a contractor?

Job roles with contactors include site managers, civil engineers, quantity surveyors, and trades or craft people.

  • You work on sites (or from a temporary office on site) in all weathers.
  • Depending on the project, you might need to work shifts or overnight.
  • Working hours are longer out on site (typically 7.30 am – 6.00 pm) and you may need to work longer hours if things get behind schedule.
  • You typically work on one project at a time.
  • You get to see things being built before your very eyes, but don’t get to influence the original design.

Contractors may get help from subcontractors

If there is work involved in the project that needs specialist skills or knowledge, the contractor might offer the work to specialist organisations. Typical tasks that might be given to subcontractors include:

  • the reinforced concrete works
  • structural steelwork
  • work on the foundations
  • plumbing and electrical work.

Subcontractors tend to be smaller employers. If you work for a subcontractor, you'll work on site and have similar working hours to contractors.

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