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February Construction Unchanged from Prior Month


Bridge Construction Down 14 Percent, Highways Down 21 Percent.

By Mark S. Kuhar

At a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $486.7 billion, new construction starts in February were essentially the same as January’s amount, according to McGraw Hill Construction, a division of McGraw Hill Financial. After the strong finish to last year, the construction start statistics have shown lackluster activity during the first two months of 2014.

The flat pace for total construction starts in February was due to a mixed performance by major sector – less nonresidential building, but more housing and public works. For the first two months of 2014, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis were reported at $66.7 billion, down 3 percent from the same period a year ago.

“While construction activity has generally trended upward over the past two years, the monthly pattern has frequently been hesitant, and early 2014 has turned out to be one of those hesitant periods,” stated Robert A. Murray, chief economist for McGraw Hill Construction. “To some extent, the harsh winter weather has played a role in dampening construction activity, particularly as it relates to single family housing. At the same time, multifamily housing in early 2014 has been able to strengthen further. For nonresidential building, the upturn so far has been much more gradual and subject to setback, such as what took place in this year’s first two months. Still, the commercial building sector is seeing rising occupancies and rents, and the improved fiscal health of states and more financing from bond measures should help the institutional building sector stabilize, which would enable nonresidential building to soon regain upward momentum. For nonbuilding construction, the prospects for renewed growth in 2014 are more limited, given the comparison to 2013 which included the start of several massive public works projects, in combination with the continued retrenchment for new electric utility starts underway after the record high reached back in 2012.”

Nonresidential Building
Nonresidential building in February dropped 9 percent to $141.9 billion (annual rate), sliding back for the third month in a row after the heightened volume registered last fall. The volatile manufacturing plant category, plunging 75 percent, was responsible for much of February’s nonresidential building decline. If manufacturing plant construction is excluded, then nonresidential building in February would be up 4 percent.

January’s manufacturing plant amount had been boosted by the start of a $1.2 billion propane dehydrogenation facility in Texas; in contrast, the largest manufacturing project reported as a February start was a $143 million medical products plant, also in Texas.

Commercial building in total climbed 10 percent in February, helped by gains for offices, warehouses and hotels. Office construction advanced 17 percent, helped by groundbreaking for several large office buildings, located in Albany, N.Y. ($103 million), San Antonio ($92 million), and Waltham, Mass., ($50 million). Warehouse construction jumped 43 percent, lifted by the start of a $79 million Nordstrom fulfillment center in Elizabethtown, Pa.

Hotels rose a moderate 8 percent, aided by the start of a $40 million Hyatt hotel in Denver. Store construction, receding 1 percent, was not able to contribute to February’s commercial building gain.

The institutional categories on balance in February held steady with the prior month, due to mixed behavior by project type. Educational facilities retreated 9 percent, although the latest month did include the start of a $136 million high school renovation project in Long Beach, Calif.; an $85 million research lab in Maplewood, Minn.; and a $68 million high school in Cambridge, Mass. Healthcare facilities fell 5 percent in February, despite the start of a $118 million ambulatory care clinic in Minneapolis.

The smaller institutional categories in February were led by an 86 percent jump for miscellaneous nonresidential buildings, reflecting the start of a $146 million renovation project at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, N.Y. Gains were also reported for churches and public buildings, each up 12 percent from weak January activity, although amusement-related work slipped 5 percent.

Residential Building
Residential building, at $213.8 billion (annual rate), increased 3 percent in February, as 17 percent growth for multifamily housing outweighed a slight 1 percent drop for single-family housing.

The February gain for multifamily housing was led by three large projects in the New York City area, with two in Manhattan ($425 million and $322 million), and one in Brooklyn ($240 million). Additional support came from the start of a $198 million apartment building in San Francisco.

During the first two months of 2014, the metropolitan area with the largest dollar amount of new multifamily starts was New York, followed by Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco and Denver. The slight 1 percent decline for single-family housing in February, compared to a steeper 4 percent drop in January, suggests that single-family housing may now be starting to stabilize after showing decreasing activity during the three previous months.
In February, the single-family declines by region were shown by the Northeast, down 8 percent; the Midwest, down 2 percent; and the South Atlantic and West, each down 1 percent; while the South Central managed to edge up 1 percent. Murray noted, “The most recent weakness for single-family housing can be attributed to tough weather conditions in parts of the U.S., and it’s expected that single-family housing will regain its previous upward track very soon. Still, the demand for single-family housing arising from potential first time homebuyers may be restrained going forward, due to such factors as continued tight bank lending standards for mortgages and the high student loan debt faced by many in this group.”

Nonbuilding Construction
Nonbuilding construction increased 8 percent in February to $130.9 billion (annual rate), making a partial rebound after the steep 33 percent decline in January. The public works sector overall improved 12 percent, due mostly to a 146 percent surge for the miscellaneous public works category, which includes such diverse project types as mass transit and pipelines.

Large mass transit projects entered as February starts were the $1.3 billion Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project in Los Angeles, plus two highway guideway projects in Honolulu valued at $444 million and $362 million, respectively. A $345 million oil pipeline in Michigan was also entered as a February start. Water supply construction in February registered a moderate 6 percent gain, helped by the start of a $78 million water treatment plant in Lake Forest, Calif.

The other public works categories fell back in February, with river/harbor development, down 10 percent; bridge construction, down 14 percent; highways, down 21 percent; and sewers, down 39 percent.

Electric utility construction in February dropped 25 percent, although the latest month did include the start of two large wind power projects located in New Mexico ($450 million) and Nebraska ($145 million). 

 


Year-to-Date

The 3 percent decline for total construction starts on an unadjusted basis during the first two months of 2014, compared to 2013, was the result of a varied performance by major sector:

  • Nonresidential building, down 12  percent.
  • Residential building, up 5 percent.
  • Nonbuilding construction, down 2 percent.

By geography, total construction for the January-February period of 2014 revealed this behavior compared to last year – the South Atlantic, down 8 percent; the South Central, down 7 percent; the Midwest, down 4 percent; the West, unchanged; and the Northeast, up 8 percent.

Useful perspective is also obtained by looking at 12-month moving totals, in this case the 12 months ending February 2014 versus the 12 months ending February 2013, which lessens the volatility inherent in comparisons of just two months. On this basis, total construction starts advanced 6 percent, as the result of the following performance by sector – nonresidential building, up 5 percent; residential building, up 20 percent; and
nonbuilding construction, down 10
percent.

By geography, the 12 months ending February 2014 showed this pattern for total construction compared to the previous 12 months – the Northeast, up 14 percent; the West and Midwest, each up 9 percent; the South Central, up 3 percent; and the South Atlantic, down 5 percent.