A graduate’s guide to the construction process

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Allan Ruddy
Allan Ruddy
Team GradAustralia
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Is that company you want to work for the client, contractor, subcontractor or a consultant?

All construction projects involve several different parties. Here’s your guide to the main players to help you decide where you want to apply and how your potential employer fits in.

The client 

i.e. the party that needs something built

Every construction process begins with an individual or organisation deciding to create something that doesn’t currently exist.
The client decides what it wants to build, when they need it completed by and how much money they have available to realise their vision. Even at this early stage, the client is already beginning to engage other parties, such as consultants to provide design options and generate cost estimates. The client, or another party acting on its behalf, will also have to obtain planning permission for the project. It may need to purchase land or enter legal agreements with other interested parties.

Once construction commences, the client pays contractors, as well as the other parties involved, for the work they have done. The client will also make arrangements to take over the finished project and, for instance, move occupants and furniture into the completed building. Complicating matters somewhat, some clients also can do design work, and some even have contracting capability, so some aspects of the process can be carried out in-house. That noted, typically clients just convey what they want done and pay the bills, leaving other parties (see below) to execute what has been conceived. Almost any individual, business or government department can find itself in the client role. However, in Australia, it tends to be the federal and state governments, multinational corporations and mining companies that commission large construction projects. A topical example at the moment is the Crown Sydney project at Barangaroo, where the client is Crown Resorts.     

The consultants

i.e. the parties that design, cost and help manage the project

A company like Crown (that specialises in managing casinos and resorts), for example, is unlikely to have the expertise to construct the Crown Sydney Barangaroo Project. So it will typically employ consultants with deep knowledge of planning regulations, project design, health and safety procedures and costing. While consultants have historically been employed directly by clients, increasingly consultants are engaged by contractors as part of their design team. Some specialist consultants employ only a handful of people, whereas others have thousands of staff working in different offices across the globe.

Consultants involved in construction projects include the following.

  • Architects. They determine the aesthetics of the building and the way internal spaces are arranged to fulfil the functional requirements of the client. The architect will often lead and co-ordinate the activities of the other consultants. They will typically be responsible for ensuring that the building complies with the conditions of planning permission.
  • Structural engineers. They are responsible for designing the structure and foundations that support the various loads on a building, such as furniture, fittings, vehicles, machinery and tenants. They also ensure that the building can withstand the elements.
  • Building services engineers. They design the systems within the building that control the internal environment. These include heating and ventilation, water supply and drainage, lighting, power supplies and telecommunications.
  • Cost consultants (aka quantity surveyors). They prepare estimates of how much projects will cost to build and monitor the actual costs during construction. They also review the tenders from contractors and advise the clients on which contractor should be employed for the construction work. 

There are many companies that work as consultants in the construction industry. Some of the big names that you may be familiar with include Arup, Atkins and Mott MacDonald.

The contractor 

i.e. the party that does most of the actual construction

Once a design has been settled on, the client’s consultant team will issue tenders to contractors, who then submit a price or bid for building the project.
The successful contractor’s main task is then to complete the project as it has been designed in the time allowed and for the agreed price. The contractor also assumes responsibility for the safety, health and welfare of the project’s workforce, as well as any members of the public in the vicinity of the project. It is also expected to minimise the disruption caused to others by the construction and ensure all environmental regulations are adhered to.  
The many organisations involved in the construction of a large-scale project are usually coordinated by the contractor. The contractor creates and oversees the construction team. This includes the client (many clients now employ a specialist project management consultant to handle the day-to-day issues), the design consultants, specialist subcontractors and suppliers, the local council, the OHS team, the relevant state’s Department of Environment and Department of Roads, emergency services and utility companies. Contractors can be small local firms or globe-spanning multinationals. Some big contractors operating in Australia include AECOM, Downer Group, Ecoworld, Lendlease, Mainbrace Constructions, Multiplex, Probuild and Stockland.

The subcontractor

Smaller parties that perform specialist work

Contractors are responsible for the entirety of a project but rarely directly employ all of the many specialists necessary to build every aspect of today’s technologically advanced buildings. So subcontractors are almost always engaged by the contractor to look after things such as reinforced concrete works, structural steelwork, foundation piling, roofing, cladding, plumbing and electrical work. Many subcontractors have specialist knowledge and will be given some autonomy, with the understanding that their handiwork will integrate appropriately with the other parts of the project’s design.

Subcontractors are usually smaller in size than contractors and may just be a single tradesperson. However, there are some larger subcontractors, with substantial workforces and revenues, such as Georgiou Group, which does a lot of subcontracting on stormwater, sewerage and water components on WA construction projects.