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Construction is an industry field that includes the erection, maintenance, and repair of buildings and other immobile structures, and the building of roads and service facilities that become integral parts of structures and are essential to their use. Construction includes structural additions and alterations but excludes the building of mobile structures such as trailers and ships.

Words to Know

Environmental impact statement: A report, often required by the Environmental Protection Agency, prepared to determine how proposed construction will affect the environment, including wildlife and natural resources.

Feasibility study: A report prepared by cost estimators to determine whether proposed construction is economically viable.

General contractor: The person or firm entrusted by the site owner with overall responsibility for building construction; see also Subcontractor.

Geographic information systems (GIS): A combination of digital computer technology and mapmaking techniques that stores data in the form of a map instead of a list.

Photogrammetric surveying: The process of taking reliable measurements from photographs, usually aerial photographs.

Quantity surveying: The process of financially managing proposed construction by evaluating and advising on economic, legal, and scheduling concerns.

Subcontractor: The person or firm entrusted by the general contractor with responsibility for one particular aspect of building construction, such as roofing or plumbing work.

Most of the earliest buildings have not survived to this century because they were made of nonpermanent materials. However, some structures that were made of stone and baked brick have survived. The 3,000-year-old Egyptian pyramids are assembled from mammoth stone blocks; the 2,500-year-old Mayan temples in Guatemala are hand-carved stone.

As builders began to understand the physics of a building, they were able to modify the structure to stand taller, have wider and more open rooms, and have windows to allow in light. Pillars allowed more open windows and wider rooms. Arches and vaults allowed buildings to have higher roofs. Two thousand years ago, the Romans developed a mix for concrete that was extremely strong and long lasting. In fact, today there are innumerable Roman structures still standing and some that are still used. The Romans built international roads, laying stones down for thousands of miles, to facilitate the movement of troops. They built aqueducts to move water hundreds of miles. They developed the first pipelines to move wine and olive oil from the villages to the shore where the products would be loaded on boats.

For the next 1,500 years, buildings and roads improved with new understandings of physics and new mixes of concretes and cements. The buildings remained brick, stone, concrete, wood, or other natural products. It was not until 1796, with the first iron-frame building in England, that the next major breakthrough in building design occurred. Cast-iron pillars allowed architects and builders a chance to construct buildings higher than 10 stories. By the turn of the century, buildings were being constructed that were 14 and 15 stories high. These were the first skyscrapers. The new mechanical elevator allowed people to use floors too high to climb to by stairs.

Metal as a building material changed bridges, buildings, tunnels; almost every structure was affected in design. Bridges could be designed to span across much larger waterways. Buildings eventually reached more than 100 stories. Tunnels could cross miles under rivers, even under the English Channel.

Today, the construction industry is still testing new materials and new methods of building with metals and synthetic products. Lighter, stronger materials allow the construction of larger, more open structures with less support. These new products are designed to withstand natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

The other major shift in the construction industry is the movement away from building new structures and toward repairing, expanding, and maintaining old structures. Almost 50 percent of construction work in the United States is in renovation and repair. As cities become saturated with buildings, renovation and restructuring will become the most common part of the building trades. Also, as the U.S. road and bridge system ages, repairs are needed to keep the vast transportation network in a usable condition.


The construction industry is one of the largest industries in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it employed 7 million wage and salary workers in 2004. There were approximately 818,000 construction companies in the United States in 2004. Approximately 62 percent of these companies were specialty trade contractors, 30 percent were building construction contractors; and 7 percent were heavy and civil engineering construction or highway contractors. More than 65 percent of construction companies employ fewer than five people.

Construction is a detailed and complex industry, dealing with all aspects of building a structure, whether it’s a skyscraper or a highway. This includes clearing sites and developing structures. Construction also covers service equipment that, when installed, becomes an integral part of the structure, such as plumbing, heating, central air-conditioning, electrical wiring, lighting equipment, elevators, and escalators.

In general, the first step in construction involves bidding for a project. It is not true that the contractor who bids the lowest price is always awarded the contract. Bids are judged on several points: experience of the contractor, designs submitted for the project, proposed time schedule, recommendations from previous customers, and cost. The winning contractor then hires subcontractors to perform selected projects, such as laying the foundation, fireproofing the structure, and installing the ventilation system. After all of the tasks have been coordinated with the subcontractors, the structure is ready to be built.

Construction takes many forms, and its products vary widely in size, appearance, composition, character, and purpose. These products are divided into major groups or categories according to their principal characteristics, and each of these is further divided into subcategories. The categories apply to new construction as well as repair and renovation work.

The largest single category of construction is residential building construction, which includes structures ranging from small homes to huge housing developments, and usually amounts to about one-third of the total annual dollar volume.

Another major category is nonresidential building construction, or general building construction. It includes industrial buildings, such as plants and factories; commercial structures ranging from small stores to great skyscrapers; and institutional and other kinds of nonresidential structures, such as schools, churches, and hospitals.

Highway and heavy construction is another principal category. Highway work embraces not only networks of interstate highways, but also bridges, local roads, and streets. Airport runway construction is largely done by highway contractors, since runways and highways involve much of the same methods, materials, machines, and skills. Typical heavy projects include dams, big bridges, tunnels, railroads, missile bases, refineries, and waterways such as the Panama Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and river channels. Similar equipment and construction methods are employed for highway and heavy construction. Earthmoving, for example, may be done for a highway project or for an earth-fill dam.

Finally, municipal utilities construction encompasses the essential services for counties, towns, and cities. Such projects include sewage treatment plants, water purification projects, water and sewer lines, underground utilities, street resurfacing, park and playground construction, as well as sidewalk construction and maintenance.

Construction activity is divided into two broad classifications: private and public. Private construction is construction work performed for private owners, whether individuals, corporations, or other business firms, organizations, or institutions of a nongovernmental character. It is usually paid for out of private funds. Public construction is construction work performed for federal, state, or local agencies of government and usually paid for out of tax money, bonds, or other public funds. However, the governing distinction between private and public construction is the ownership of the project at the time of construction and not the source of funds used to pay for the project.

Construction sites can be dangerous places to work, so safety regulations must be followed at all times.

For most of the trades involved in construction, the workers do not start at the beginning of the building process and work until the building is complete. Workers come in for the portion of the job that involves them and then move on to other projects. So, an electrician comes in to wire a house and then moves on to another construction site. He or she may have to come back to do more electrical work, but it is not essential to have an electrician at a job site every day. Because workers come and go, it is important to have a project supervisor, or job foreman, who knows all the phases of the work being done.


Construction accounts for approximately one-tenth of the U.S. annual gross national product. Physical facilities built by the construction industry include homes, stores and buildings, mills and factories, highways and streets, bridges, railroads, airports, wharves and docks, pipelines, tunnels, dams, power plants, irrigation projects, public works, and defense installations.

Whether it is the life savings of one family buying a home or the investments of a corporation to finance the erection of a skyscraper, it all adds up to a substantial yearly increase in national investment. The nation’s banks, insurance companies, pension plans, and other financial institutions have a big stake in construction, for they finance most of it.

In the 21st century the nation will be forced to make major repairs to its infrastructure—highways, tunnels, bridges, dams, schools, power plants, water and sewer systems, subways, and airports—which will generate the need for all kinds of people employed in highway and heavy construction work. In addition to the increased numbers of projects, the construction projects themselves will grow in both size and complexity. New laws setting higher standards for building and construction materials, worker safety, energy efficiency, and pollution control will need to be addressed by skilled professionals with expertise in construction science, engineering, and management.

Residential construction should continue to grow, although the demand for remodeling and repair work is likely to be stronger than the demand for new housing. The remodeling trend will also take place in nonresidential construction as aging industrial plants, schools, hospitals, and other large buildings need alteration, expansion, and repair. Employment growth is expected in highway, bridge, and street construction, as well as in repairs to prevent further deterioration of highways and bridges.

Employment of construction managers, who oversee projects and ensure that laws are upheld, is expected to grow as fast as the average through 2014. Managers with a bachelor’s degree in construction science and work experience with a construction management services firm should have plenty of job opportunities.

Job growth also will occur in most of the skilled construction trades, especially for electricians. They will be needed in greater numbers not only to replace old wiring in existing facilities but to keep pace with the continuing growth in telecommunications and computer equipment now used in many new structures, including, for example, electronically operated “smart” buildings.

Employment of tile and marble setters, construction and building inspectors, and heating, air-conditioning mechanics and installers should grow faster than the industry average. Employment of carpet installers, construction laborers, floor sanders and finishers, insulation workers, paperhangers, plasters and stucco masons, and tapers is expected to grow more slowly than the construction industry as a whole because of the development of new materials and equipment that increases productivity with less labor.

All these factors point to a steady expansion of the market for construction services. Although further technological improvements in construction methods and equipment is expected to raise the productivity of workers, the volume of activity will require substantial numbers of craft-workers in the various building trades, mostly as replacements for those who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.

Although prospects look promising, the construction industry is very sensitive to fluctuations in the national economy. These fluctuations usually affect part-time and seasonal workers and lower-skilled workers the most. Skilled, artistic tradespeople are almost always in demand, even during economic downturns.

For More Information

For information on training programs and accreditation, contact

American Council for Construction Education

1717 North Loop 1604 East, Suite 320

San Antonio, TX 78232-1570

Tel: 210-495-6161

Email: [email protected]

For information on careers and training, contact

Associated General Contractors of America

2300 Wilson, VA 22201-5424

Tel: 703-548-3118

Email: [email protected]

For information on college student membership, scholarships, certification, and education programs, contact

Construction Specifications Institute

99 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 300

Alexandria, VA 22314-1559

Tel: 800-689-2900

Email: [email protected]

For information on training and job listings, contact

Home Builders Institute

1201 15th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20005-2800

Tel: 800-795-7955

For industry information, contact

National Association of Home Builders

1201 15th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20005-2800

Tel: 800-368-5242

For information on apprenticeship training programs for construction industry workers, visit

Employment & Training Administration

U.S. Department of Labor

See Also

Architect; Asbestos Abatement Technician; Bricklayer and Stonemason; Carpenter; Cement Mason; Civil Engineering Technician; Civil Engineer; Construction Inspector; Construction Laborer; Cost Estimator; Drafter; Drywall Installer and Finisher; Electrician; Elevator Installer and Repairer; Floor Covering Installer; Glazier; Heating and Cooling Technician; Ironworker; Landscape Architect; Lather; Marble Setter; Tile Setter; Terrazzo Worker; Operating Engineer; Painter and Paperhanger; Plasterer; Plumber and Pipefitter; Roofer; Sheet Metal Worker; Stationary Engineer; Surveying and Mapping Technician; Surveyor; Welder; Welding Technician

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