Architects vs. General Contractors

What’s the difference between an Architect & General Contractor?

If you’re new to development, interested in building a commercial building for your business, or curious about the commercial building process; you’re in the right place.  There’s some gray area of what the differences are between an Architect and General Contractor. Most tend to associate Architects solely with designing buildings and then handing the project over to the General Contractor.

In this article we’re answering the questions “ What’s the difference between an Architect and General Contractor?” and “When is the right time to hire an Architect or General Contractor”?

This is an abbreviated version of the design build process, click here for a visual guide of the process.

The Site

We’ve heard the phrase, “it’s all about location”, or seen it in action when we conveniently pull into a McDonalds straight off the highway. Not only is location important for restaurants and retail but it’s just as important for commercial buildings. For example when building a warehouse/distribution facility it’s key the site is close to a major highway. If the warehouse needs employees, being near public transportation is a must.

Location is one factor in finding the right site, but there are many other factors to consider: zoning, code requirements, lot size, topography of site, as well as, environmental factors. Before purchasing a site, an Owner can hire an Architect to do the “leg work”. Researching and confirming the items above plus drawing rough sketches to ensure the building fits the lot.

pre-general contractor

Preliminary Designs

Once the site is purchased, it’s time to start the design phase. The Owner and Architect will sit down for a series of meetings to establish design criteria and performance requirements “the program” for the project. (Need a list of questions to prepare for your initial meeting with an architect? Click here to download.)

The first round of designs or “preliminary designs” takes in account all the aspects of the program. The layout of the building needs to have good flow to promote employee productivity. If the floor plan is confusing in a drawing, it will most likely be confusing in the built environment. 

When it comes to interiors, the design will be part of the preliminary drawings. Interior design theme boards highlighting the company’s brand are presented to the Owner.

As for the structure, the Architect retains a Structural Engineer who evaluates the site investigation reports to determine foundation design. The structural design of the building frame ensures it will be structurally sound. The fee of the Structural Engineer is typically part of the Architect’s fee proposal.

When the preliminary design is approved by the owner, the Architect creates the construction documents. Construction documents contain the fine details of the project with written product specifications of the site and building design. These documents can often exceed 100 sheets of drawings. 

Once all of the drawings and documents are completed, the Architect applies for permits. The Architect submits their drawings and Civil Engineers submit their own.

Construction documents are ready, it’s time to hire a General Contractor. 

general contractor

General Contractor’s Role

The General Contractor manages the construction timeline and hires Subcontractors to complete the work. The construction documents are provided, however if questions arise, the General Contractor sends RFI’s (request for information) to the Architect. Depending on the scope of the project, weekly calls can be scheduled. The General Contractor, Architect, and Owner will work through scheduling, delays, or general questions surrounding the project.  

After construction starts, the Architect will visit the site for inspection, they have no role in supervising the jobsite. Site visits can help alleviate problems and ensure the building matches the design. When the project is close to completion, the Architect will do a final walk through. 

general contractor vs architect

When Is The Right Time To Hire An Architect? 

There are three options an Owner can choose when it’s time to start the project. The Owner, Architect, or General Contractor can lead a project, below are the differences.  

When a project is Architect led, it is a “Design/Bid/Build” project. When construction drawings are complete, a Request for Proposal (RFP) is sent to General Contractors, inviting them to bid on the project. The Architect can advise the Owner with a list of General Contractors they trust and have worked with in the past. 

In this role the Architect is the liaison between the Owner and General Contractor. The Architect will charge the Owner for the architecture and engineering services. 

The second option is “Design/Build” or “Turn Key” this is when the General Contractor will lead the project. They will either have an inhouse Architect or hire an outside firm for drawings and permits. The General Contractor will submit pay applications monthly to the Owner, and these applications for payment will include architectural and engineering fees. 

We’ve heard clients mention they didn’t use an Architect for their last project(s), they’re referencing the Design/Build process. An Architect must be involved in the project, as their drawings have to be submitted for permit review and approval for construction to begin. 

The final option is when the Owner leads the project. The Architects and General Contractors will bid for the project. The owner will manage the project. Unless an Owner is fully experienced, this process should be left to professionals.  

This is an abbreviated version of the design build process. If you’re interested in a detailed version, we’ve put all of this information into one document.  

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