For the builder of single-family houses, there is a sweet-spot compromise between finding and keeping competent yet economical subcontractors, and maintaining a crew of in-house, self-performing tradespeople.
I once worked, in my middle twenties, for a home remodeling contractor in a thriving beach community.
This general contractor employed a full-time crew of six people including himself, and a part-time employee doing occasional rough cleanup. He engaged 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 worked for a large single-family homebuilder doing a mix of “spec” and custom homes in an upscale, economically high-end location.
This builder employed a self-perform workforce 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 scheduling and coordination of these varied work crews, some having 4 or 5 people and others having crew-sizes of 10 to 12 people, resulted in several projects sitting empty and unmanned for days as crews were shifted daily in the reactive mode of “putting-out fires.”
The primary challenge for this builder was to keep each person within this 50-man crew busy for a full 40-hour work-week. This establishes the stability of the workforce. It reduces the turnover that would otherwise occur if employees could not depend upon full-time paychecks.
The problem with this approach is that building trades have different lengths of time for each activity during the housing construction.
Plumbers may be needed at the jobsite for one house for 20 separate periods of time, with crew sizes ranging from one to four plumbers, from the ground up over a 9-month construction schedule.
Four plumbers may be needed for the under-slab work, three plumbers for the rough plumbing water, gas, and waste & vent, and two plumbers installing the finish plumbing.
These activities can last one week, four weeks, and one week respectively.
But in-between these larger activities are 12 or 15 smaller activities of one or two-day durations requiring one or two plumbers.
All of this has to be coordinated with the other in-house building trades, each having different activities of different length times and crew sizes.
By employing 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.
The logistics problem of balancing different activities, different crew sizes for each activity, different lengths of time for each activity, and the efficiency requirement of keeping every tradesperson busy and productive over a 40-hour workweek, exposed the downsides of the self-perform approach.
This becomes more complicated in terms of manpower scheduling when a builder has projects with 9-month, 10-month, and 12-month construction durations for houses ranging from 4,500 to 8,000 square foot size.
Absent a sophisticated computer program and flawless, two-way communication between the field and the office on a daily and hourly basis, the practical realization was that there always had to be more houses under construction than workers to fully man each jobsite.
This meant that some or all of the houses took longer to complete than they otherwise should have.
This meant that homebuyers could not move into their new homes on time.
If every person within a large self-perform crew of diverse specialty trades must be kept busy, then what has to expand as a variable is the construction schedule.
In the three-way relationship between the project budget, the construction schedule, and quality…if the economics of maintaining an in-house, self-perform crew predominates…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.