Builders and Other Contractors
Builders and Other Contractors
Although there are many different professions and trades working within the building industry, in practice, for small domestic jobs, the only person you are likely to be dealing with is the builder himself. Even on larger jobs involving many other tradesmen and officials such as the Building Control Officer (BCO), the builder is generally the man who stands between you and them, unless you opt to employ another professional as project manager. This section is about identifying some of the people who might temporarily occupy your house if you decide to go ahead with your building project.
If you call in the builders you may be dealing with a single individual, or several on larger-scale projects involving a number of different trades. Building firms may directly employ the different craftsmen they require, or else will subcontract the work to other firms as the need arises. Good subcontractors tend to work together, and a careful builder will have a reliable team of people to call on who know the ropes.
Single operators or small firms make up the vast majority of general builders, constituting roughly 50 per cent of the membership of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) and, according to Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) estimates, 96 per cent of all construction firms in the UK. But builders are as different from one another as any other professional animal. There is no such thing as the average builder, but for most people employing a builder will mean dealing with a single operator — a man with a van or a lorry and a range of skills to suit most occasions.
A good general builder is like a good GP: multi-skilled and able to deal with most of the problems that walk through his door. His skills arc acquired and honed throughout his working life, and possibly one of the most important attributes will be his bedside manner. Although in the building trade they are no substitute for actual construction-industry prowess, a pleasant demeanour and the ability to explain things clearly will help to build good relations with clients, and ensure things go as smoothly as possible during the course of the job. You should not employ someone if they are sullen and uncommunicative, or attempt to browbeat you.
General builders come from many different backgrounds. Some become builders after helping others and learning on the job, or after working on a project of their own, such as doing up a flat. Others follow a formal apprenticeship, then branch out on their own or with a parther. Formal qualifications are not particularly important — if you can follow architectural drawings then you can build a house. It can be a demanding job, requiring the builder to have a vast working knowledge of different trades and building laws. He must also be able to supervise the quality of subcontractors’ work and deal with problems as they arise on site. Someone who has trained across many different areas will nave a more thorough understanding of all the processes involved, and be able to tackle certain jobs such as carpentry, roofing or tiling himself.
In an unregulated industry, it may not be possible to tell where or now builders acquired their ‘skills’. The construction apprenticeship system provided an enormous hinterland of experience for the working builder. It still exists today, but many young people are not prepared to put in several years on low wages in order to learn how to be a plumber, for example. A skills shortage has arisen — 72 per cent of FMB members reported difficulty obtaining skilled labour in the second quarter of 2003 — and the population of time-served builders has been gradually diluted by people drifting in from other professions. As older builders retire, it can be harder to find people who take a real pride in their work.
This has not always led to a lowering of standards, by any means, but it does mean that the man you are employing to reposition the load-bearing structures of your house may not have done it all that many times before. As with any profession, in general building you will find the incompetent and the super-efficient, the badly organised odd-jobber and the highly skilled, meticulous craftsman.
Most tradesmen are honourable, hard-working and handy to have around in a building-site situation. Unfortunately a substantial minority are irresponsible, something which greatly irks the straight-dealing, responsible majority who have to endure seeing their reputations slated in the media, and their profession viewed with almost the same distrust as that of journalists and politicians by the general public.
It is, however, possible to steer clear of shady characters who will rip you off. Later in this section we show how to be on the alert for the warning signs that a builder is not reputable, and how to find a reliable builder.
CASE HISTORY: Richard Richard is a general builder who started at the age of 13, doing odd jobs for pocket money. He says: ‘Dyslexic people like me tend to look for ways to communicate and express themselves through space rather than academia, and at its best this job gives you the chance to do that. I like to make homes that people want to go home to.’ During his varied experience of trades including painting and joinery, he has picked up valuable tips — such as learning not to cut corners after seeing other people being caught out. ‘You can tell when something is being done right, and that’s how I learned. Doing something properly is always the most economical way to do something. And you get a lot more job and customer satisfaction when you do it better than anyone else on the street.’
Whilst researching and preparing the launch of the Quality Mark scheme, the DTI drew up a list of 20 different skills which come under the heading of building trades. Many are often classed as specialities in their own right. It is not an absolute or definitive list, but it is a useful indicator of the kinds of task you might call upon a general builder to perform:
• general repair, maintenance and improvements
• masonry and blockwork
• carpentry and joinery
• pitched roofing
• flat roofing
• electrical work
• painting and decorating
• tiling (wall)
• floor covering
• hardscaping and tarmacking
• security (burglar alarm installations)
Which tasks a general builder will tackle himself, and which will be subcontracted out, will vary depending on the experience and abilities of the builder in question. Specialising in one trade — for example,fitting — is a lot more straightforward and predictable than general , with fewer surprises. People tend to take this route when they get older and want a reliable source of work which is less physically demanding.
Electrical work is one area that many D1Y enthusiasts prefer to leave to a professional. You may need an electrician either for a wholly electrical project, such as rewiring your house, or to carry out the electrical part of the work involved in another project.
You can get the names of qualified electricians from the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC), the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA), and SELECT. All three offer a complaints procedure and a completion-guarantee scheme.
although small plumbing jobs are often tackled by general builders, it makes sense to employ a professional specialist for major projects, such as installing a, or plumbing in a new bathroom.
It is generally accepted that there is a shortage of qualified plumbers in the UK. The Construction Industry Training Board predicts that by 2007 an additional 29,000 will be needed. Most plumbers are able to pick and choose their jobs, so that if you have a cramped bathroom which needs converting, or a cracked lavatory pan on the fourth floor, you may find it difficult to get someone even to quote for it.
Also, because of the fairly unpredictable nature of plumbing —pipes can be corroded or oddly laid out, or not up to Building Regulation standards; fittings don’t always fit, and leakages and accidents are always possible — the plumbing work on your job can become fractured and sporadic. The plumber might nave to leave the site quite often for equipment or materials, and ultimately may begin working on other jobs to fill in time.
Plumbing rates vary significantly nationally, and are most expensive in the south of England. Try not to get charged by the hour.
Most plumbers also tackle central heating work, and may be members of the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Mechanical Services Contractors, or of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association. You can get the names of registered plumbers from the Institute of Plumbing.
Always employ a qualified fitter — someone who is either registered with the Council for Registered Gas Installers (CORGI), or who works for British Gas — if the work involves any work on yourpipework.
Roofing installation work is generally best left to the specialists because of the need to make the structure weatherproof as quickly as possible. Be wary of a one-man band who readily takes on roofing as well as other general building work. He might be OK, but he might be winging it.
You can get the names of registered roofers from the National Federation of Roofing Contractors.