The construction industry is made up of a series of relationships with architects; designers; engineers; contractors; sub-contractors all working together to meet the needs of the client. This blog is the fifth in the series looking at the different players in the industry. The aim of this series is to provide a clearer view of the complex construction industry and how the different members of the project team work together. In this blog we review the role of the Main Contractor.

The Contractor – a brief overview

  • By late 1700s “In grosso” (by the great)
      • Contracting to do work for a fixed sum
      • Tend to be with individual tradesmen
      • Occasionally with individual for complete project
  • 1815: London Institute – Thomas Cubitt’s first major project, the founder of modern contracting
  • 1800s New methods of contracting – General contractors established. Fixed price contracting develops
  • 1850s Competitive Tendering starts. Practice of sub-contracting developing
  • 1851 Great Exhibition / Crystal Palace – Contract Type: Off-site manufacture
  • 1852 Palace of Westminster completed – Contract Type: Competitive Tender
  • 1887 RIBA members cannot hold profit making position in contractor organisation
  • 1950s Local Authorities try new forms of contract
        • Selective tendering
        • Negotiated contract
        • Serial contract
  • Package deal (D&B)
  • 1960s Development of design and build
  • 1979 Management Contracting starts
  • 1985 Completion of Lloyds Building – Contract Type: Management Contracting
  • 1986 Eurotunnel formed, forerunner of PFI
  • 2003 Modern Methods of Construction
  • 2004 Completion of Scottish Parliament – Contract Type: Management
  • 2007 Wembley Stadium completed – Contract Type: Traditional
  • 2008 Heathrow Terminal 5 Completed – Contract Type: Management
  • 2009 Merger of Major Contractors Group and National Contractors Federation to form the UK Contractors Group
  • 2011 Olympic Park Opens- Contract Type: Traditional and D&B
  • 2012 The Shard completed – Contract Type: Traditional
  • 2014 Leadenhall Building completed – 83% off-site manufacture
  • 2016 BIM required on government projects over £5 million by 2016

The role of the Main Contractor

The role of the Main Contractor will vary depending on the type of contract to deliver the project. If Traditional, then the Main Contractor’s role is to build what the architect designs. If Design & Build or PFI (now PF2) then the Main Contractor will also have responsibility for design.

In both cases the Main Contractor influences product selection. In the case of Traditional this will take the form of advice to the Architect. But in D&B or PFI then the Main Contractor may even provide the Architect with a list of approved materials to select from. In this case it will be the Design Manager who will understand the Client’s needs and then brief the Architects.

There is a common misconception that all the Main Contractor is only interested in is price. But this is because most manufacturer and supplier sales people only deal with the Buyer. The Buyer will have a bill of materials and it is his job to drive down the cost of purchase as much as possible. It is thus not surprising that this is his focus.

Although every commercial organisation has an eye to profit, within the Main Contractor organisation there are other influencers who have other priorities. The Estimating Department want to know about the compatibility and availability of products, the Contract Manager will be interested in sub-contractor familiarity and minimising disruption to the build programme. And the Design Manager will be interested in the most efficient solution to provide a first class outcome. By understanding these needs and offering solutions which represent value it is possible to reduce the influence of price.

Communicating with Building Contractors

When specification selling there is the tendency to focus on just the Architect or Engineer forgetting about the Contractor. Perhaps this is because when we think Contractor it is often the Buyer, Estimator, or Project Manager of a Sub-contractor. But an often forgotten specifier works for the Main Contractor and will be responsible for many product decisions. And with the implementation of Building Information Modelling the Contractor’s influence will grow.

As with all specifiers Contractors do not want to be sold to. They want to deal with technically competent people. They are looking for design advice that is accurate and reliable. The Contractor is looking for quality, price, availability and then technical support.

Our research into Contractor communication channels provides this insight:

  • Online readership of most of the leading journals is higher than hard copy, readership of adverts is low
  • The Construction News website is the most popular for industry news and opinion, the IHS website for product ideas.
  • Newsletter readership has increased
  • Social networks are increasingly seen as a work tool by companies that allow their use at work
  • More than half of respondents use video
  • Usage of product directories is at a low level, as was the case in 2012.
  • Sample specifications and CAD images are important items for manufacturers to provide as technical support to Main Contractors
  • Downloadable PDFs are slightly more important than hardcopy brochures

“At the ECA we have experienced a number of interesting discussions between Contractors and Specifiers on forum based social media sites, such as LinkedIn. Social media enables more interactions between Specifiers and Contractors, so it is worth being present on these social media platforms so you can get involved.” Stefan Hay of the ECA

“More and more people are going to Google and search engines to gain product information. If they are not using the traditional product directories then they are using online equivalent and online databases and manufacturers own websites.”

“The younger generation particularly are capitalising on social media and being innovative in the ways they use it for work. They are driving behavioural change in the work place. Those that are not prepared to change will be left behind.” Colin Courtney then of Skanska UK, now with Murphy Group.


So when specification selling on a D&B or PFI project don’t just focus on the Architect. Find out who the Design Manager is and understand his needs. Then present relevant benefits and work to win his confidence. From there you can help the architect specify products that the contractor will want to use.

It is a common misconception that the contractor is looking for the cheapest product, but often a more holistic approach is applied when looking for best value. The Contractor is seeking the most effective solution for the project, he is looking for quality, price, availability and then technical support.

Value from a manufacturer or supplier could come from offering a comprehensive product range, good availability, technical support or easy installation. It is also achieved by providing support in meetings, developing new products or working to solve problems.

Further reading

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