You are here

An Introduction to Contractors

Architect-author, Dan Maginn of El Dorado Inc., in Kansas City, Missouri, gives us the inside track on one of his favorite subjects: contractors. Learn what makes them tick, how to work with them, and how to keep all your fingers.

101 contractors illustration  woman

Contractors fascinate me. They always have. They are fundamentally different from other people. They have their own language of sorts and their own curious customs and mannerisms, like Klingons, or French people. They have cool belts and cool stuff (multitools, wee little anodized flashlights, and other things that would be handy to have) fastened to their cool belts. They look different, and they smell different. They smell like work getting done.1 In this perhaps, contractors are not so much like French people.

101 contractors illustration  toolbelt

Contractors think in numbers: in feet and inches. They are problem solvers. If you could have visual access to the chalkboards of their minds you’d see complex diagrams and critical path schedules projecting far into the future.2 They know stuff I want to know, like what a molly bolt is. I catch myself trying to impress them: Within minutes on a job site, I’m squinting and spitting and walking through mud puddles with a purposeful swagger, saying things like “At’ll do ’er.”3

Contractors are good with tools. They know how to store a power cord without getting it all Jackson Pollocky. They know how to use winches.4 And when they use their power cords and their tools and their winches, they wear fancy hats with stickers on them.

Contractors aren’t afraid of pain. They are thoroughly unimpressed with the finger-smashing potential of powder-actuated fasteners and nail guns and 16-pound sledgehammers wielded by guys named Kenny. In this, they are like Klingons. And also like Robert Duvall, strolling on the beach in Apocalypse Now. They are a tough people—–the progeny of simi- larly tough people who built things for a living, who in turn were the offspring of other toughies far into the past, back to the days of guilds and beyond, when we all had Sonny Bono hair.

101 contractors illustration  hard hat

You should consider becoming fascinated by contractors. Houses and buildings and bridges don’t just magi- cally appear. They are painstakingly crafted from chunks of formerly lifeless material by this clan of work-smelling problem solvers who can read floor plans and who can build what they read. Without them, we wouldn’t have places, and that would suck.

  1. Like WD-40 and sawdust and Lectric Shave. My race—–the architects—–smells like hotel shampoo and that ozoney smell that wafts up when you fiddle around with the back of your computer.
  2. Currently on my mental chalkboard is a list of my favorite Popsicle flavors and a crude sketch of a scene in the opening credits of Deadwood, when you can see the side part of a boob for two seconds.
  3. Perhaps I need to see a doctor about this.
  4. If I attempted to use a winch, it would not go well. Within ten minutes, you’d be able to hear the faint weeerrrrooorrr of an ambulance in the distance.

  • 101 contractors illustration jane

    Why Is Jane Smiling?

    So you’ve brought home an ebullient new contractor to turn your wreck into the Ritz. How to do it? Read on.

  • 101 contractors illustration just go for joe

    Why Is Joe Frowning?

    So you’ve brought home a bumbling new contractor who’ll turn your Ritz into a wreck. How to avoid it? Read on.

  • 101 contractors illustration thumbnail building tomorrow

    Building Tomorrow

    What will the future hold for contractors and builders? We asked three industry leaders for their prognostications. is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


This is really silly and not true. Sorry-I own a contracting company and a lot of this is sort of insulting and stereotypical.

Robin, I think it's meant to be light and funny!

Shame on Dwell. You are such a great magazine but to publish such a shallow article on contracting is regretful. While I think you MAY have been striving for humor but not only was the article not funny but frankly why bother. A lot of people renovate and turn to your magazine for information and ideas. Why not inform and inform with some levity by all means but not with the vacuous use of words chosen. Shame.

thought it was hilarious - i was laughing out loud!

Although - as an Architect myself - the author supposedly says he is an Architect - should know what a molly bolt is and be able to hold his own in conversation with a contractor as his client's representative, as well as understand all of the issues with the job just as the contractor does or else he/she/it is nothing but another computer jockey.

As a contractor and construction consultant. I think this article is not only super funny, but also spot-on in many cases. It is very informative to people who want to do work on their homes. It is necessary to actually get a good contractor, they are not all created equal. Sorry to those actually named Kenny (we have a great guy named Kenny), but there are a lot "Kennys" out there. Favorite quote: ""Having a contract" is to "not having a contract" as "family planning" is to "beer bong"". It is amazing how many people go into a construction project unknowingly in "beer bong" mentality.

I think better "How To Work with a Contractor" information would come from actual contractors.

The AIA contract and architects in general don't get it right. Their typical systems of multiple bid vs team building approach to design and build can make the whole processes take too long, cost too much, and become adversarial. Who wants to work like that?

While we are lucky to have some great architects we work with, it's always the case that we have to set the ground rules based on what we know we, the general contractor, need to have in order to do a great job for our customers.

Maybe DWELL could reach out to some of the great contractors out there via professional remodeling organizations like NARI or Remodelers Advantage to get the real scoop on "How to Work with a Contractor" tips.

Diane Menke
Myers Constructs, Inc.