Construction and Real Estate

Is there a jack-of-all-trades?

February 12, 2014
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Do you want a jack-of-all-trades?
Elzinga & Volkers workers build the Spectrum Health Beltline Integrated Care Center. Photo via

When you think of a handyman or handywoman, chances are you envision a person with a truck full of tools — ready to handle any job you throw at them.

These “Jacks” or “Jills” of all trades are extremely talented individuals with skills in multiple disciplines.

But do these jacks-of-all-trades have limitations? I would argue, yes.

A handyperson does not come equipped to deal deeply with tasks you give them. They perform quick fixes.

When you want the best outcome for your project, you hire the person who knows the most about — who specializes in — your project.

You don’t want a general practitioner performing your open heart surgery. You want the open heart surgeon.

Now, consider this in the construction industry: not all subcontractors and general contractors are well positioned to work on any type of project.

General contractors vs. construction managers

General contracting and construction management, at their base, are distinguished by the contract form under which the companies are hired. But more importantly, they differ in their project performance.

First, construction managers bring much more to a project team than building expertise. Project planning, design, scheduling and cost estimating are also services provided by any good construction manager.

You might be thinking, “Well, then every company just needs to implement those tasks on every building!” but I would challenge you to think about the difference in building a hospital versus a metal-stamping facility. Each building has details and challenges that the other does not.

For example, hospitals are regulated by multiple state and federal agencies and can lose accreditation if constructed incorrectly. Your construction manager must understand these differences and their impacts on the project’s cost, schedule and planning.

The days of any contractor being able to build any building well are over. Specialized construction managers are becoming respected industry experts that deliver value well beyond the bricks and sticks of the buildings they build.

Specialization isn't reserved for complicated buildings

Projects don’t need to be technically complicated to benefit from a specialized project team.

Consider the construction of a church. For the most part, these building projects are straightforward — no tricky medical equipment or constant occupancy traffic to work around.

But if you dig a little deeper, you start to see the benefits of hiring a construction manager and subcontractors with specialized expertise.

For example, funding is a challenge for most church projects, so churches typically set up programs where members donate in-kind gifts of labor and materials. A construction manager experienced in church construction can better manage this program safely and effectively, ensuring that all donations are maximized and volunteers are safe.

Specialized construction managers also use their lessons learned through similar project experience to contribute to the design and planning of a building. Details and materials that worked well in the past can be incorporated into a building, while details and materials that did not work well can be avoided.

Bringing these best practices and experiences to a building’s design can benefit projects large and small, simple and complicated.

Today’s marketplace

Owners continue to demand more and more detailed qualifications from construction firms when requesting proposals.

For example, hospitals not only require that firms have worked in the health care environment, but that they have worked in the specific departments being added or renovated.

Manufacturing companies ask for construction expertise in specific types of production spaces, such as clean rooms and food processing.

More sophisticated building owners are also seeing the benefit in utilizing specialized trade contractors early in the design process. HVAC contractors and electricians in particular are being used more and more in a design/build or design/assist role, because of their precise understanding in installing and maintaining complicated systems. The construction market is trending towards these specialized, collaborative teams that deliver more innovation to building spaces.

As a parting thought, I challenge you to consider why you might demand specific building experience and industry understanding from your architects and engineers, but not from the firm who carries out these plans?

You may find that you get more than you expected from a specialized construction manager and subcontractor than from a jack-of-all-trades. 

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