June 15, 2022

The 5 Different Types of Commercial Contractors

If you want your own project to be successful, you should understand the role different contractors play in the process. From general contractors, specialty contractors, and more, there are what seems like dozens of different types of commercial contractors out there.

Two contractors look over a job site
Photo by Joe Holland on Unsplash

If you need a commercial design project that needs doing, a new property developed, or an existing one renovated, you’ll need a good contractor to get the job done. But which one is “right”? There are so many different commercial contractor types out there that it can be difficult to know which one you need for your project. And choosing the wrong one is not an option, not with the serious repercussions that a poor choice can have on the overall success of a large-scale project!

If you want your own project to be successful, you should understand the role different contractors play in the process. From general contractors, specialty contractors, and more, there are what seems like dozens of different types of commercial contractors out there. The truth, though, is much simpler: there are really only five different types of commercial contractors. Even highly specialized contractors that perform a niche service can ultimately be sorted into one of these five categories. Let’s look at each one in turn.

The Big Five

Selecting the right commercial contractor goes far beyond simply choosing the one that has the best reputation or offers you the most affordable bid. The scope of the project dictates the type of contractor you require, which means that it’s crucial to understand which contractors perform which kinds of specific tasks. This process can be complicated if you lack the sufficient knowledge or experience to make specific determinations.

However, when you get down to it, there are only a handful of commercial contractor types. These include general contractors, specialty contractors, design-build contractors, engineers, and architects. Each one plays a crucial but separate role in the process of real estate development. Depending on your specific project, you may need to hire just one type of contractor, or you may need several.

General Contractors

Professional general contractors are usually large companies that have high levels of experience in shepherding entire construction projects from beginning to end. General contractors both manage and coordinate every aspect of a project themselves, starting from the permitting process through designing and building on the property. Many even provide ongoing facility maintenance services as well.

A general contractor is responsible for hiring and supervising all staff involved in a construction project. This can include direct employees like laborers and construction workers, but they also often make use of subcontractors such as roofers, plumbers, and electricians if they don’t have internal crews capable of doing the work in-house. General contractors, therefore, spend much time coordinating subcontractors.

Specialty Contractors

Specialty contractors, such as the roofers, plumbers, and electricians mentioned in the above example, are contractors who specialize in a specific skill, industry, or trade. It’s not uncommon to have several different specialty contractors working together as subcontractors on a large-scale project, while the overall project is overseen by a general contractor. Each specialty contractor is responsible for whatever part of the project they have been hired for.

These types of contractors don’t always work as subcontractors for a general contractor, though. They can also be hired directly if there’s a smaller-scale or self-contained project you need done. If you can imagine a specific niche or industry, there is likely a specialty contractor for it. Swimming pool construction and maintenance, landscaping, patio and porch specialists, gutter installers, and even lawn irrigation experts are all further examples of specialty contractors.

Design-Build Contractors

Design-build contractors function similarly to general contractors. Like general contractors, they work directly for the project owner and oversee the entirety of the project themselves, but there is one major difference between a design-build contractor and a general contractor: the former rarely subcontract out portions of a project to specialty contractors. Instead, every aspect of the project is taken care of by the contractor directly using direct employees working in separate divisions.

Design-build contractors offer some major advantages for developers, as there is a single point of contact for every aspect of a construction project, no dangers of shared responsibility, and possible cost savings for project owners. With no subcontractors at play, there are fewer potential points of failure for a project. Conversely, this requires a design-build contractor to be extremely good at every aspect of what they do or risk not meeting project goals. 


Engineers are construction industry professionals that undergo formal training and certification processes. They play an important role in construction projects as they are responsible for design, building, and testing buildings and facility systems. An engineer must ensure that whatever they design, build, and test meets certain functional objectives that differ from project to project.

While engineers are not quite as common as other “boots on the ground” commercial contractors, they routinely spend time on project sites overseeing the implementation of their designs, answering questions, making recommendations to other contractors, and even adapting their original designs due to changing real-world conditions of the project site.


Like engineers, architects are also professionals that receive formal training and that need to maintain certification to work in the construction industry. Almost exclusively concerned with the initial design process, architects work closely with the project owner and the general contractor designing the core functionality and aesthetics of the grounds, buildings, and complexes on any given property.

Architects also may spend time on-site to ensure a project is proceeding properly regarding design implementation as well, especially to ensure that all construction is meeting any relevant state and federal building codes. Architects can be involved in large-scale projects as well as small ones. A renovation, a conversion, or a remodel project benefits from an architect as much as a project that begins with an empty, ungraded lot and requires complete design from the ground up.

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