New Construction Starts Show Ups and Downs in July

At a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $629.4 billion, new construction starts in July were essentially unchanged from June’s pace, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. By major sector, nonresidential building showed slight improvement following its lackluster June performance, while residential building maintained the strengthening trend witnessed over the past several months.

Highway and bridge construction retreated 19 percent in July.

At the same time, nonbuilding construction in July continued to slide back from the exceptional activity witnessed earlier in the year that reflected the start of very large projects, including several massive liquefied natural gas terminals. Through the first seven months of 2015, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis were $397.0 billion, up 19 percent from the same period a year ago.A Leaving out the volatile electric utility and gas plant category, total construction starts during the first seven months of 2015 would be up a more moderate 10 percent from the same period a year.

“The first half of 2015 showed wide swings in the pattern of total construction starts, affected by the presence or absence of unusually large projects,” stated Robert A. Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “Amidst these top-line swings, the underlying trend of activity has been generally upward relative to last year. For nonresidential building, support has come primarily from its institutional segment, including educational facilities, transportation-related buildings, and amusement and recreational facilities. The commercial categories showed some deceleration during the early months of 2015, but positive real estate market fundamentals are expected to encourage renewed growth. Residential building has benefitted from this year’s heightened amount of multifamily starts, and even the single family side of the market is showing some hesitant signs of strengthening. The nonbuilding construction sector experienced robust activity during the opening months of 2015, for the most part related to the start of unusually large projects, and it now appears to be settling back to a more sustainable pace. The improved performance of the U.S. economy in the second quarter of 2015, with GDP rising 2.3 percent after a very weak first quarter, should help both nonresidential building and housing going forward. Nonbuilding construction will be helped in the near term by Congress recently passing a stopgap, three-month $8 billion surface transportation extension.”

Nonresidential building in July increased 2 percent to $194.0 billion (annual rate). The commercial categories as a whole bounced back 12 percent in July, after retreating by the same percentage amount in June.

Office construction climbed 7 percent in July, reflecting groundbreaking for several noteworthy projects. These included the $232 million Bridgestone Americas office tower in Nashville, the $150 million Seaport Tower in Boston, a $100 million data center in Lowell, Mass., and a $100 million portion of the Toyota Corporate Campus in Plano, Texas.

“During the first half of 2015, office construction appeared to level off after its substantial 35 percent gain in 2014,” noted Murray. “On the positive side, office vacancy rates continued to recede through this year’s second quarter, the volume of office construction is still quite low by historical standards, and the July pickup in construction starts may well be an indication of renewed growth to come.”

Store construction in July improved 6 percent, helped by the start of the $40 million Wade Park Shopping Center in Frisco, Texas. Warehouse construction in July rebounded 28 percent after a weak June, and included groundbreaking for a $48 million Home Goods distribution center in Tucson, Ariz.

Hotel construction, which has been the one commercial property type to register healthy year-to-date percentage growth, slipped 4 percent in July. The latest month still included the start of several large hotel projects, such as the $79 million phase 2 of the Kalahari Resort and Water Park in Pocono Manor, Pa., the $76 million renovation to the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel in Atlanta, and the $75 million hotel portion of the $175 million Hilton Statler Hotel and Residences in Dallas.

New manufacturing plant construction starts were generally subdued in July, falling 39 percent from June, and substantially lower than the elevated amounts back in February and April that featured the start of several huge petrochemical plants.

The institutional building group in July eased back 1 percent, receding for the second month in a row after improved activity earlier in 2015. The educational facilities category dropped 20 percent after strengthening during the previous three months. Even with the decline, July included the start of such projects as a $162 million research and development building in Cambridge, Mass., and a $112 million elementary and middle school campus in Seattle.

Healthcare facilities in July fell 15 percent, maintaining the up-and-down pattern that’s been present in 2015, even with the July start of a $250 million hospital tower in Provo, Utah.

The smaller institutional categories all registered gains in July. Transportation-related buildings jumped 120 percent, helped by the start of a $200 million rail service facility in Croton On Hudson, N.Y. The amusement and recreational building category climbed 49 percent, helped by the start of a $130 million student center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., and a $123 million music hall renovation in Cincinnati.

Both the public buildings category and churches rebounded from very weak activity in June, posting respective gains of 58 percent and 32 percent. The public buildings category was supported by the July start of a $275 million detention center in Indio, Calif.

Residential building, at $288.5 billion (annual rate), advanced 4 percent in July. In similarity to recent months, the main residential push in July came from multifamily housing which surged 21 percent. July included the start of 16 multifamily projects valued each at $100 million or more, led by the following – a $468 million apartment building in Long Island City, N.Y., a $445 million condominium building in New York, and a $358 million multifamily building in Miami.

Nonbuilding construction in July dropped 9 percent to $146.9 billion (annual rate). The decline came as the result of diminished activity for most of the public works categories, which fell 13 percent as a group.

Highway and bridge construction retreated 19 percent in July, making it three out of the past four months that weaker activity has been reported, which follows the surprisingly strong pace in early 2015. “The uncertainty arising from the expiring extension of the surface transportation legislation on July 31, along with the depleted Highway Trust Fund, likely played some role in July’s pullback for highway and bridge construction,” Murray stated.

Despite the decline, there were several large highway and bridge projects entered as July construction starts, including the $429 million Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway in Portsmouth, Ohio, the $264 million Belt Shore Parkway Mill Basin Bridge replacement in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the $187 million Interstate 85 widening and reconstruction in North Carolina.

The environmental public works categories in July all reported a diminished volume of construction starts, as follows – river/harbor development, down 20 percent; water supply construction, down 23 percent; and sewer construction, down 27 percent. The “miscellaneous public works” category (which includes such diverse project types as site work, pipelines, and mass transit), ran counter in July with a 29 percent gain. Large miscellaneous public works projects that reached the construction start stage in July included the $700 million expansion of the Creole Trail natural gas pipeline in Louisiana, a $495 million oil pipeline replacement in Illinois and Indiana, and a $195 million Northeast Rail Corridor project in Connecticut. The electric utility and gas plant category in July increased 9 percent, due to the start of several large power plant projects – an $850 million natural gas-fired power plant in Maryland, a $420 million wind farm in Maine, a $337 million wind farm in Texas, and a $191 million solar power facility in Colorado.

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