Often people use these terms interchangeably. Knowing the difference between the two can be the difference between success and frustration in a construction project. A carpenter is an individual with unique skills in building with wood. A contractor, (General Contractor) on the other hand is an individual who is essentially a manager of people who build. So to boil it down to two simple words, a carpenter builds while a contractor manages. Why, you might ask, is this difference critical. To avoid frustration in a construction project it is essential to match the skills to the task, or quite simply, the task will not get done properly … or worse yet, not get done at all.
Some carpenters can function as contractors. Some contractors can function also as carpenters. Even if an individual can indeed wear multiple hats, as a project gets bigger, that becomes too many hats to try to wear at once. That is where the challenges can begin. When a project is small, such as a bathroom or kitchen renovation, it is possible to wear both hats effectively and not compromise quality or lose efficiency. As a project gets larger, such as a whole house renovation, or a new house, it is unrealistic to expect both responsibilities to be served well by one individual.
Many times, as I have helped someone embark on a new project, I have heard “oh, he is an amazing finish carpenter. His work is beautiful. We should hire him to build our house.” This is equivalent to saying “oh he is an amazing chef. His meals are delicious. We should hire him to organize our 2,000 person awards banquet.” While it is true that at an awards banquet you do value, and tend to remember, good food. But do you want a chef in charge of organizing scheduling, venue selection, promotion, tickets, parking, directions, security, decorations, awards, guest speakers, timing, emcees, lighting, audio, recording, ushers, serving, clearing, cleanup, etc,? Even if the chef had all these skills, when would there even be time to cook. Obviously you would hire an events coordinator, not a chef. This sounds like an absurd example but it is really not that different from hiring a carpenter to build your house. The management component of this size project precludes ever picking up a hammer. So then what difference does it make what his actual finish carpentry skills are? A more effective pre-qualification is to evaluate management skills that might include the following:
- Communication abilities
- Bookkeeping skills
- Organizations skills
- Ability to price out a complex project
- Ability to schedule a complex project (and stay on schedule)
- Ability to understand a complex process and visualize 20 to 30 steps ahead
- Ability to settle misunderstandings in a calm and neutral manner
- understand the technical and scheduling interdependencies of 20 to 30 different sub-trades as they collaborate on a single project
- know when to ask you as the owner about a judgement call versus make his own judgement call.
- Understand building codes and other regulatory requirements
- Ability to solve technical problems within all the different sub-trades
- Ability to maintain a safe and clean job site with all the sub-trades at work in one space
- Sensitivity to your design priorities
- Oh… and if he is a great finish carpenter, and actually has the time … do a couple carpentry tasks along the way.