7 Things to Consider When Hiring a General Contractor

September 09, 2021
8 min read

Welcome to the second installment of our new interview series on building your dream home. This month FORMA Construction talks with two of their collaborators: Designer, Geoffrey DeSousa, and Architect Cass Calder Smith, to discuss what they find are the most important things to consider when hiring your Contractor. Let’s hear what the experts have to say!

Hillsborough Residence with Farro Essalat, built by FORMA.

1. Research the Team.

Geoffrey: I believe, first and foremost, do your homework. Ask neighbors and friends who they have used and what were the pros and cons of each. While putting together your team, architect, interior designer, and landscape designer, ask these professionals who they have worked with in the past, who they felt were team players, and how they understand the renovation or ground-up process in your neighborhood. Drive through your neighborhood and see whose signs are prominent or similar projects to the one you are undertaking. A construction project is a very intimate relationship for months — and maybe years — and should not be entered into lightly.

Victor: It’s essential to build a team that gels well together. When speaking with different collaborators, ask who they would like to work with and what’s appealing about each. A harmonious team of architect, designer, builder, and consultants can save a project time and create something more meaningful than imagined. Ultimately, a home is more than just a set of plans; it results from constant imagination, care, and collaboration. It’s crucial to find a team that just gets each other.

Cass: Building a home is a team effort, and so when selecting which builder to work with, this should be judged accordingly. An owner should look at this as team-building of the “brain trust.” Get to know the owner of the construction company, and even more so, the superintendent. Look for communication skills, problem-solving skills, and that they are good listeners. Since the day-to-day team effort will be between the architect and the builder, make sure it is solid. Teams collaborate and so zero in on this dynamic from day one.

SF Residence designed by Geoffrey DeSousa. Photo by Jose Manuel Alorda.
147 South Park. Designed by Cass Calder Smith, built by FORMA. Photo by Paul Dyer.

2. References, References, References.

Geoffrey: After you’ve narrowed down your choices to one or two contenders, reach out to their past clients directly.

Victor: it’s important to reach out to the references of each collaborator and any past collaborators that can be found on their website. I would focus on how problems were presented and resolved, how the various teams got along, and what they saw as areas for improvement. It’s not just how the home looks when complete, but also what the experience was like to get there.

Cass: Check references and do it with depth. This is pretty simple but takes time. Talk to homeowners and tour at least one house. Ask them about the contractors’ whole team plus their subcontractors. Talk to architects, designers, and owners reps.

Stinson Bungalow designed by Calder Smith, Interiors by Nicole Hollis. Photo by Paul Dyer.
San Francisco residence designed by Geoffrey DeSousa. Photo by Jose Manuel Alorda.

3. Compensation + Schedule.

Geoffrey: Understand the many different ways contractors can be compensated. Find the right fit for you and your tolerance for a moving number. Ask for the contractor’s views on the following contracts, fixed price, time and materials, or cost-plus. Suppose you and your team are fully prepared and have all of your choices and ducks in a row and don’t feel there will be many changes along the way. In that case, you might want a fixed price contract, but, and this is a BIG but, if there are any changes — be prepared for change orders which can be very costly and can add to your budget significantly. Time and materials are just that; this type of pricing is usually better on smaller projects where you have some idea of the contractor or the subs’ ability to manage their time appropriately, so costs don’t get out of control. Finally, cost plus, this seems to be the most common on most of the projects our firm is involved with. You and the contractor agree upon a set percentage that will be charged on top of the estimates provided by the subs. Typically in the 10–15% range.

Cass: Costs and time. If all of the contractors being interviewed are in the same league, then cost comparison is important, and so is the contract type they would like to use. Project duration is always a very topical subject and so compare those between contractors too. In construction, the saying “time is money” is more applicable than anywhere else, so the more confidence you can gain about a contractor’s ability to move swiftly, the better.

Victor: Things finish how they start, and often clients are in such a rush to get started they discount the value of proper planning. Our most successful projects begin with a great set of plans and specifications. Invest in your pre-construction process; we encourage you to spend more time upfront with the architect, designer, and contractor to develop the plans and budget so you can go into each project with clear expectations. Through this process, clients can sometimes feel like they are just buying paper but trust us, CAD is cheaper than wood! The more dialed in the plans are, the more accurate the budget, which allows for different approaches to billing. We typically see cost-plus contracts with a comprehensive control estimate; however, if the plans are thoughtful, other approaches like stipulated sum could be worth exploring.

Laidley Street Residence, with Cass Calder Smith and Subject to Change. Photo by Eric Laignel.

4. Be Hands-On.

Geoffrey: Depending on the scope of the project and your ability as a client to be hands-on and fully available during this process, you might want to consider working with an Owner’s Rep. Discuss this option with your chosen contractor and talk over the best way for you to communicate your choices. This additional team member helps add an additional layer between homeowner and GC and can be beneficial for communication on decisions and finances.

San Francisco highrise designed by Geoffrey DeSousa. Photo by Steelblue.

5. Get to know your Construction Team.

Geoffrey: Before making your final decision on a GC, it’s extremely important to meet the job Foreman who would be assigned to your project. This relationship is extremely important; this person must be easy to communicate with, have a positive attitude, and is a cost-efficient problem solver who will be on-site daily monitoring progress. Also, ask for any upcoming travel or vacations that could impede your completion date.

Victor: Meeting the proposed project team is a great way to ensure project fit. Understand who you will be working with as your superintendent is critical to the success of the project. I would also understand what deliverables are expected, how OAC meetings are run, what invoices look like, and how change orders are handled… at the very least. It’s important everyone is on the same page — clear expectations are one of the most critical parts of the process.

Cass: Problem Solver. Look to work with a builder that can solve problems. Things come up all the time during construction, and so you want the superintendent or foreman to have the depth of experience to solve things as they come up. Contractors who have done many complicated renovations are often the best problem solvers and best if they see this as the type of challenge they like. This ranges from constructability issues to resolving building inspector issues. Successful problems solvers keep things moving, and this tends to save time and money.

Northpoint Residence with SAW // Spiegel Aihara Workshop. Photos by Paul Dyer.

6. Craftsmanship.

Cass: make sure you are hiring someone with a “Builder mentality.” General Contractors are many, but Builders are not as common. Aim for creating your team with a Builder who not only can manage complicated construction, large sums of money, and schedules; but that has an appreciation for architecture, design, and craftsmanship.

Marina Residence, built by FORMA. Before and After.

7. Trust.

Cass: The mountain of trust: Making the contractor selection is huge. Most people spend more on a house than they will on anything else in their lives, so they really need to have an innate sense of trust. An owner will need to trust both good and bad news.

Hamptons Residence designed by Cass Calder Smith. Photo by Colin Miller.

A huge thank you to our contributors for taking the time to share their experience and beautiful work with us. Check out more of their projects at Geoffrey DeSousa Interior Design and Cass Calder Smith. We look forward to sharing more of our partner’s work and thoughts with you each month. Until next time, enjoy the week!