Difference Between General Contractor, Design-Build, and Turn-key Construction?

January 19th, 2022

Constructing even the smallest and simplest of buildings will typically require multiple subcontractors and include a lengthy list of details. And let’s not forget a complicated and potentially expensive permit process, current building code and safety issues, and a slew of visits by your favorite building inspector. So, before you begin dreaming about that new, beautiful view from the window or what to do with all that extra space, your first decision has nothing to do with the building itself. Your first decision is about you - how much do you want to be involved in the construction process?

Your building contractor can help you in 1 of 3 ways - as a General Contractor; as a Design-Build Contractor; or they can provide a Turn-key solution. We will break each of these down, one at a time, but now, back to your first decision and level of involvement.  Ask yourself a few questions: How much time do you have to commit to this project?  How much do you know about construction? What is your aversion to risk? Where are you currently sitting on your “stress meter?” A little reflection on these questions will help you determine your level of involvement and subsequently your building contractor’s role in the process.


How much do you want to be involved in the construction process?

Before we explore the potential role of your contractor, understand that there is always some involvement on your part – it becomes a question of “how much.” This is your project and your new building. Also note that the distinction between General Contractor, Design-Build, and Turn-key can get a bit “blurred” and often mis-stated. A professional, experienced contractor with a focus on customer service will help you understand the differences on your specific project. And more importantly, eliminate those ‘little’ surprises – “Oh! I thought you had that in your bid!”

The Role of a General Contractor

Let’s start by exploring the builder who is acting as a General Contractor. In this case, you as the Owner, provide detailed drawings showing all the rooms, sizes, and layout; concrete foundation design and details; elevations showing what the exterior will look like; and written specifications describing the required materials and finishes. These are generally provided by an Architect or building design specialist (that you contract with).    The key point is that you, the owner, provide the detail (in the form of drawings and specifications). You or a third party provide the design for the new structure. The builder then constructs the building based solely on your provided information and includes the scope of work as shown in these documents (i.e. concrete, steel, plumbing, electrical, paint, etc.).

Design-Build Construction

Our second example is a Design-Build. The primary difference from a General Contractor arrangement to Design-Build is that the contractor is now responsible for the design. You as an Owner do not have to contract with an architect, or an engineer, or a design or building specialist. You work directly with your contractor, and they provide those services. Many Owners make the mistake thinking that they can save money by working with a 3rd party and providing the drawings and specifications or they have been told that it is important to separate these functions from the builder. That is incorrect and simply not true. No one knows more about your building than the folks in the field piecing it together. The contractor has the hands-on experience and knowledge, and Owners should take advantage of this. And when your contractor has a hand in the design, good things happen. It affords the opportunity for value engineering and a more common-sense layout or design.

Turn-key Construction Solutions

And now a Turn-key solution. The term “turn-key” originated from the image of a building contractor turning over (or handing) the Owner the key to their new building. The Owner simply had to turn the knob, open the door, and enjoy the new building in its complete finished state. The Contractor handles every detail – from the ground up, all sitework, excavation, finish grading and exterior amenities to include walks and patios, drives and parking areas, fencing, landscaping, etc. On the inside – all floor coverings; trim and wood finish; paint and wall coverings; window coverings; cabinets and tops; fixtures and appliances; toilet and bath accessories; light fixtures and bulbs, furniture; electronics to include security cameras, internet, computers, & television. Completely finished - all the Owner needs to do is move in.


The Role of Your Building Contractor Explained in Layman’s Terms

If there is still a bit of confusion differentiating between these three roles, let’s try another example, more simplified. Say you want to get a puzzle and hang it on your basement wall. You go to the store or online and pick out the puzzle (size, number of pieces, and picture or design). It comes in a nice box and then you give it to someone else to put the puzzle together for you. That is a General Contractor.

Or maybe you want a puzzle, and you know how big it should be and what different colors you want included, and a general idea about the picture, but it is not cut in stone. You hire someone to create the image you have in mind, with the colors you like, and in a size that you like. They do the legwork, design the puzzle, then put it together for you. That is a Design-Build.

And finally, you have someone take that puzzle from the Design-Build contractor and provide a backer panel, construct a wood frame around it with a glass facing. Then they hang it on the wall for you. That is a Turn-key solution.

So give a little thought to your role in the construction process and the relationship with your builder that works best for you. Then pick a good one. Select a contractor that has the track record and horsepower to complete your project on time, on schedule, and below budget. Pick a contractor that has an attitude and an eye for safety. Someone who focuses on quality and has a company culture that puts the customer first. And then sit back and relax – your new building or facility will be ready for you in no time.


Since our inception in 1956, it is Marcus Construction’s mission to build successful projects for organizations across the United States and Canada. As a leader in commercial and agricultural construction, Marcus has 65+ years of experience working with organizations in whatever way makes their project most successful. Whether that be a turn-key project for your new dry fertilizer storage building, liquid chemical warehouse and agronomy office project, or being the general contractor for your restaurant, senior living facility, or retail building construction project. Our focus is to work side-by-side and develop an approach that meets your needs, your budget, and your timeline while delivering quality and safety that exceeds your expectations.


If you want us to show you what that looks like, contact us today to learn what approach fits you best. If you want to see how we have partnered with companies across the United States and Canada, the projects below highlight our depth and breadth of completed work.

Difference Between General Contractor, Design-Build, and Turn-key Construction?

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