There is a sweet-spot compromise between finding and keeping competent yet economical subcontractors…and maintaining self-performing tradespeople…for the local builder of single-family houses.

I once worked…in my middle twenties…for a home remodeling contractor in a thriving beach community…who maintained an in-house, self-perform crew of six people including himself…with a part-time employee doing occasional rough cleanup…and the usual specialty subcontractors…plumbing, electrical, HVAC, cabinets, drywall, etc.  Our crew did the demolition, concrete, framing, and finish carpentry.     

            The challenge for this remodeling contractor was to always keep enough work out in front of us so we were busy five days a week and occasional Saturdays.  This locally popular remodeling contractor would tell new prospective clients he would accept their project…but it would take three months before the start date.  The other balancing act was to get the subcontractors to show up on time and with full-size crews…as they also had their own challenge of keeping their workforce busy.

Later in my career, I also worked for a large single-family homebuilder doing a mix of “spec” and custom homes in an upscale, economically high-end location…who employed a self-perform crew of 50-plus people in eight specialty trades…plumbing, electrical, finish carpentry, painting, low-voltage, concrete flatwork, tile, and general labor.  This homebuilder subcontracted the other major trades.

The problem for discussion in this post is that the scheduling and coordination of these varied and different sized work crews…some have 4 or 5 people and others having crew sizes of 10 to 12 people…all having different length durations of time to perform their work on each project…resulted in several projects sitting empty and unmanned for days as crews were shifted daily in the reactive mode of “putting out fires”…in response to never having enough people to go around according to the absolute and overriding imperative of keeping everyone busy.

By employing numerous diverse specialty trades…in order to be both economical and have control over the quality of the work…the builder in this example in essence supervised and managed eight disparate in-house subcontractors with the requirement to give every worker a full-time, 40-hour workweek…otherwise people would leave and find work elsewhere.

The cost for this approach was the loss of overall time.  The number of small clusters of two days here and three days there of projects sitting empty and unworked-on waiting for crews to arrive…added up to most or all of the projects being completed late as much as three to six months.

This particular homebuilder was so committed to this approach that it was unwilling to change…and over time developed a reputation within the community of not being able to deliver their projects on time as promised.

If every person within a large self-perform crew of diverse specialty trades must be kept busy…then what has to give in this arrangement is time.  In the three-way relationship between cost, time, and quality…if cost and quality predominate…then time suffers.

Using subcontractors can be frustrating in terms of controlling manpower and production rates…and in maintaining consistent quality.  But expanding into multiple diverse specialty work crews in-house is not the panacea that it might appear at first glance.