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Main Contractor or General Contractor?

Contractors are companies or individuals that carry out civil engineering, building, and engineering construction work.

On smaller construction projects, such as domestic projects, a single contractor will manage to complete all the construction works. However, on more complicated projects, it is not possible that anyone contractor will have all the required skills essential to complete every aspect of the construction works by themselves, and they will generally not wish to take on direct workers for one project that may not be needed for the next. Under such conditions, therefore, contractors appoint others to carry out particular fundamentals of the works.

In such a situation the contractor may be described as the 'prime contractor,' 'main contractor,' or 'general contractor' sometimes, while the companies they appoint to carry out specific projects of the works are called 'sub-contractors' 'subbies,' or simply as 'suppliers.'

General contractors are often selected under a traditional contract to construct a project for which the design has already been finalized by consultants appointed by the client. The works required are set out in detail in tender papers, for which the main contractor offers a fixed price, and if selected by the client, they carry out and completes the construction works.

They may also be hired in other ways, such as completing the design and then carry out the construction works, or to manage trade contractors or works contractors to undertake the construction works on behalf of the client – although these contractors may sometimes be given various names, such as design and build contractor, management contractor, construction manager and so on.

The term 'general contractor' may also be used to mean a contractor who has general buildings skills, allowing them to perform a range of common building works, as opposed to a specialized contractor, who may only undertake certain aspects of projects, such as; piling work, cladding installation, lift installation, and so on. The term 'prime contractor' may sometimes apply to refer to a long-term multi-project affiliation between a client and a contractor, typically where there are very large clients such as the Ministry of Defense.
The term principal contractor is common in the CDM regulations, referring to the contractor with overall responsibility for coordinating planning, managing, and health and safety while construction work is being undertaken.

According to the Civil Engineering Procedure, 7th edition, published by the Institution of Civil Engineers, 'general contractor' is defined as 'a contractor who oversees the whole of the construction of a project, but usually, in turn, sub-letting parts of his work to specialist or trades contractors and others as sub-contractors.' It defines 'main contractor' in the same way but with the prerequisite that this is distinct from a managing contractor or construction manager.

NRM2, RICS' new rules of measurement, Detailed measurement for building work, defines the main contractor as '...the contractor accountable for the total construction and completion process of the building project.'

NB: The term 'builder' is generally used to refer to a house builder or an organization that directly employs workers to undertake all of the roles necessary to undertake construction works, rather than subcontracting trades. This role is associated with domestic construction.