How is industrial construction different from residential construction?

Industrial construction projects like this one share some commonalities with residential construction sites, but really, the two fields are as different as night and day.
Industrial construction projects like this one share some commonalities with residential construction sites, but really, the two fields are as different as night and day.

I am the Grouch Marx of home improvement, the fourth Stooge who doesn't know tile from linoleum, dry wall from plaster. When a contractor knocks on my door, their eyes flash lighted dollar signs, just like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

OK, I'm exaggerating a bit. I just fixed the outside faucet (sort of) and there's no stopping me when it comes to using my 24-inch (61-centimeter) chain saw (let's not talk about the two chains I broke in the same day). But, oh, how cool it would be to run an excavator or a bulldozer. If you want to get me something for Christmas, just put a Bobcat with all its attachments under the tree. Awesome!

There's been a lot of construction work going on at my house lately. First, the chimney guys came. Then the roofers, then my contractors, Jim and Francine, made my garage look like a New England barn with 21st-century siding. Today's project: land clearing and driveway re-grading.

Unfortunately, I cannot participate in these activities -- except to write the checks -- for I am all thumbs (if I'm not trying to cut one off), an OSHA official's nightmare. Don't believe me? A few years ago, I tried to fix a vacuum cleaner, only to end up with a screw driver in the eye. Yeah, it hurt!

Perhaps that is why I look on those in the construction industry with reverence. To me, they're not cigar-chomping, blue-collar Joes or Janes, but artists. For a couple of weeks now, I've watched from my writer's garret as my landscape architect, Brian, transformed my property into a work of art. He's taken a rock-strewn, heavily wooded piece of land and sculpted it like Michelangelo. He's doing the driveway as we speak.

Brian and others in the construction industry are vital to the world economy, contributing one-tenth to the world's Gross Domestic Product. In fact, construction workers make up nearly 7 percent of the world's workforce [source: Economy Watch]. Some work in residential construction. Others work on the industrial side. What's the difference? Go to the next page and find out.

Industrial Construction

Hydraulic machines like this excavator are essential tools in industrial construction. Learn more in these videos from Discovery Channel's "Mega-Excavators."

When you think of industrial construction, don't think about my driveway, or my roof or even the building of a new house up the road. Think big. Think massive. Think industrial-size like the big cans of tomato juice at Costco. Those in the industrial construction business design, install and maintain titanic structures including power plants, skyscrapers, warehouses, factories and other larger-than-life projects [source: IDS]. The work can be as varied as working on a bridge, a dam or an oil refinery.

Industrial construction is a specific form of building that requires expert training and highly experienced workers who can multi-task. Many industrial construction companies are large, multi-national firms. Projects are run by a bevy of managers, engineers and architects.

To get a better handle on what this industry's workers do, let's take a trip to the world's largest industrial construction project, the Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia. Located in the eastern part of the country, the Jubail project began in 1975 as the Saudis sought to expand their petrochemical industry [source: Betchtel].

Not only did workers build towering petrochemical and fertilizer plants, an industrial port and a steel works, they also built homes and shops for more than 100,000 people. Jubail City includes two dozen schools, 14 shopping centers and a golf course. At peak, the workforce reached 50,000 at a cost of more than $40 billion [source: Betchtel]. And it's getting bigger. Currently, the second phase of the project, Jubail II, is under construction. Workers are building 22 new industrial sites, including the world's largest desalination facility. They're also building roads, wastewater treatment plants and expanding King Fahd Industrial Port. The total cost of the second phase of the project is $3.8 billion [source: Betchtel].

Let me say it again -- industrial construction means gargantuan. And there's nothing more extreme than the tools they use. For some projects, some lucky drivers get to motor around in a 45,500-ton excavator, the largest in the world. This baby can literally move mountains [source: Technology Digest]. If you loved to play with Tonka trucks in the sandbox as a kid (I certainly did) then you'll love the T-282, the planet's largest dump truck. Empty, the T-282 weighs 465,000 pounds (210,920.42 kilograms) and stands 24 feet (7.32 meters) tall. It can carry 400 tons of material. Drivers often compare the truck to driving a four-bedroom house [source: History Channel].

Most of us, however, have little contact with industrial construction projects. Residential construction projects are another matter.

Residential Construction

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in February 2012, the U.S. spent $253 billion on private residential construction, and nearly that same amount in January.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in February 2012, the U.S. spent $253 billion on private residential construction, and nearly that same amount in January.

It was late in 2011, and my garage was looking, well, like a garage. Squirrels had eaten holes in the clapboard. The door jamb to the woodshop was rotted. The paint was awful. Finally, I'd had enough. I told my go-to contractors Jim and Francine that I wanted this sorry structure to have a makeover. Let's side it, I said, in barn-red clapboard.

The pair enthusiastically took the job. They did amazing work. Then I had a vision. I always have visions when it comes to home improvement. I'd wanted a small porch attached to the shop. (The shop is just a shop in name only, but let's just go with it.) I was low on cash, however. Then I had an idea. Jim's truck died the week before. I had an old 1993 Ford Ranger sitting in the driveway. It needed a new set of springs. I made a proposition: Build the porch and I'll sign over the truck. Jim and Francine finished the job in three days.

Jim and Francine are contractors, the backbone of the residential construction business. Contractors build and repair houses. Carpenters, plumbers, masons, electricians and others are all part of the residential construction trade [source: Allen and Thallon]. Some contractors won't do the work themselves. Instead, they'll hire subcontractors. That's because general contractors are the big idea people. They'll work with you from beginning to end. Subcontractors are specialists. Some are heavy equipment operators, others masons. They'll work until their particular task is finished.

Important parts of the residential industry are the builders and developers who hire the general contractors. Builders are people that coordinate a residential building project in the hopes of selling or renting the structure. A builder will buy the property and seek financing to fund the project. Builders hire the designers to sketch the project, and the contractors to put it all together. Builders can work on one property or multiple properties at the same time [source: Allen and Thallon].

Developers are builders on steroids. They'll buy large tracts and divide the property for sale as building lots. They'll make sure the roads and utilities are in place. Developers build private and public housing [source: Allen and Thallon].

The residential construct industry is an important part of the U.S. economy. The building industry as a whole suffered enormously during the Great Recession. Fortunately, in 2011, the industry added nearly 100,000 jobs. In February 2012, spending for private residential construction was $253 billion, nearly the same as January [source: U.S. Census Bureau].

I like to think I did my part to contribute to that figure. In fact, as I look out my garret again, I see the garage needs a roof. Let's make it hunter green, just like the new one on the house.

Author's Note

I've learned over the years that contractors are a lot like freelance writers. If business is slow, and they need the work, they'll give you a good price. But if they're busy ... ka-ching. Oh yeah, sometimes you have to pester them to make deadlines.

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More Great Links


  • Allen, Edward and Thallon, Rob. "Fundamentals of Residential Construction." (April 26, 2012).
  • Bechtel. "Jubail Industrial City." (April 25, 2012).
  • Economy Watch. "Construction Industry Trends." June 30, 2010. (April 25, 2012).
  • History Channel. Modern Marvels: Machines. (April 26, 2012).
  • IDS Contractors. "What is Industrial Construction Anyway." (April, 25, 2012).
  • Technology Digest. "World's Biggest Excavator." April 13, 2007. (April 25, 2012).
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "February 2012 Construction at $808.9 Billion Annual Rate. April 2, 2012. (April 26, 2012).