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March Construction Climbs 8 Percent

By Mark S. Kuhar

New construction starts in March climbed 8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $475.7 billion, it was reported by McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies. The gain for total construction in March followed two months of decline, and was led by a strong increase for the nonbuilding construction sector (public works and electric utilities).

Highway and bridge construction in March increased 28 percent. At the same time, March witnessed slightly reduced activity for both housing and nonresidential building. During the first three months of 2013, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis came in at $100.5 billion, unchanged from the same period a year ago.

“After the slowdown in early 2013, the March improvement for total construction is in line with what’s been seen over the past year – that being, an up-and-down pattern around a gradual rising trend,” stated Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction.

“The support for total construction in March came from public works and electric utilities, which bounced back from a particularly weak February. Still, both segments are not expected to register much growth for 2013 as a whole, as public works construction is facing federal budget constraints while electric utility construction is pulling back from the record high achieved in 2012. Residential building in March paused from its steady increases over the past year, with growth likely to resume in coming months. The modest decline for nonresidential building in March was consistent with its struggle to establish upward momentum, as the gains for commercial building stay tenuous while institutional building remains in the process of bottoming out.”

Nonbuilding Construction

Nonbuilding construction in March jumped 42 percent to $139.9 billion (annual rate). Electric utility construction in March advanced 122 percent from its depressed February amount, helped especially by the start of a $940 million solar farm in Texas, in combination with such smaller-scale projects as a $90 million biomass-to-energy power plant in Hawaii.

The volume of electric utility construction in March was still low by 2012 standards, down 64 percent from last year’s average monthly pace. The public works categories overall in March were up 36 percent, rebounding after a 25 percent decline in February. Water supply construction surged 111 percent, reflecting the start of six water main replacement projects in Chicago totaling $506 million, as well as the start of a $125 million water treatment plant in Colorado.

The miscellaneous public works category, which includes such diverse project types as pipelines and rail work, climbed 106 percent in March. Helping to boost the miscellaneous public works total were such projects as a $710 million natural gas pipeline in Texas and Oklahoma, a $360 million natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and a $167 million subway upgrade in New York.

Highway and bridge construction in March increased 28 percent, strengthening after a weak February, with the help of a $488 million highway project in California, a $188 million bridge replacement project in Minnesota, and a $125 million bridge replacement project in Missouri.

Murray noted, “The federal-aid highway program was largely exempt from the impact of the sequester, and the start of several major projects in 2013 should make it possible for highway and bridge construction to register a full year gain.” Two public works categories experienced declines for March – sewer systems, down 14 percent; and river/harbor development, down 16 percent.

Residential Building

Residential building, at $199.6 billion (annual rate), slipped 1 percent in March. Multifamily housing pulled back 2 percent after a strong February, which still kept the level of construction for this category 20 percent above its average monthly pace reported during 2012. Large multifamily projects that reached groundbreaking in March included a $192 million apartment complex in Long Island City, N.Y., the $125 million condominium portion of a $210 million hotel/condominium tower in Chicago, and an $83 million apartment tower in Los Angeles.

Through the first three months of 2013, the top metropolitan area in terms of the dollar amount of new multifamily starts was New York, followed by Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Miami and Washington, D.C. Single-family housing in March held steady with its February volume, while maintaining a 22 percent lead over its average monthly pace reported during 2012. The regional pattern for single family housing in March showed gains for the Northeast, up 7 percent; and the West, up 2 percent; but declines for the South Central, down 1 percent; the South Atlantic, down 2 percent; and the Midwest, down 4 percent.

Nonresidential Building

Nonresidential building in March dropped 2 percent to $136.2 billion (annual rate), as the commercial categories generally fell back from recent gains. Office construction in March retreated 34 percent after its improved February amount, even with groundbreaking for such projects as a $90 million office tower in McLean, Va., and a $72 million office and research campus in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Store construction in March fell 19 percent, and hotel construction dropped 18 percent despite the start of the $69 million hotel portion of the $210 million hotel/condominium tower in Chicago.

Warehouse construction was the one commercial category to register a March gain, climbing 45 percent with the boost coming from the start of a $130 million Amazon distribution center in New Jersey.

The institutional categories were mixed in March. Education-related buildings improved 4 percent, helped by the March start of a $68 million primary school in Queens, N.Y., a $66 million high school in Wilmington, Mass., and a $65 million academic building for the University of Massachusetts in Dorchester, Mass.

Healthcare facilities in March climbed 21 percent, reflecting groundbreaking for a $110 million hospital in Braselton, Ga., and a $90 million medical center in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

On the negative side, declines were reported in March for amusement-related projects, down 5 percent; public buildings (courthouses and detention facilities), down 21 percent; and transportation terminals, down 23 percent. The manufacturing plant category in March provided support to the nonresidential building total, jumping 175 percent after a very weak February, with the lift coming from the start of a $500 million blood plasma fractionation plant in Georgia.

The “no change” for total construction starts on an unadjusted basis for the first three months of 2013 relative to last year was due to varied behavior by the major construction sectors. Residential building registered healthy year-to-date growth, climbing 33 percent with similar gains for single family housing, up 33 percent; and multifamily housing, up 32 percent.

Nonresidential building in the January-March period of 2013 dropped 9 percent, reflecting an 18 percent decline for the institutional categories. On the plus side for nonresidential building, the commercial categories were up 2 percent year-to-date while manufacturing plant construction grew 20 percent. Nonbuilding construction in the first three months of 2013 fell 23 percent, as a 75 percent plunge for electric utilities outweighed a 19 percent gain for public works.

The year-to-date decline for electric utilities reflects the comparison to a robust amount of electric utility starts in first three months of 2012, which included $8.5 billion for Units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle nuclear power facility in Georgia. If the electric utility category is excluded from the year-to-date comparisons, then total construction in the first three months of 2013 would be up 14 percent.

In terms of geography, total construction starts in the January-March period of 2013 showed gains in three regions – the Northeast, up 20 percent; the South Central, up 14 percent; and the West, up 3 percent.

Year-to-date declines were reported in two regions – the Midwest, down 1 percent; and the South Atlantic, down 22 percent (which was due to a steep reduction for that region’s new electric utility starts compared to last year).

Added perspective comes from looking at 12-month moving totals, in this case the 12 months ending March 2013 versus the 12 months ending March 2012. On this basis, total construction starts were up 6 percent, as the result of a 32 percent increase for residential building combined with 5 percent declines for both nonresidential building and nonbuilding construction.

By region, the 12 months ending March 2013 showed this pattern for total construction – the South Central, up 16 percent; the Northeast, up 11 percent; the Midwest, up 8 percent; the South Atlantic, up 1 percent; and the West, down 2 percent.

Monthly Construction Starts

(Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rates, In Millions of Dollars)

                                                 March 2013     Feb. 2013     % Change

Nonresidential Building      $136,185          $139,665      -2

Residential Building            $199,629          $201,341       -1

Nonbuilding Construction  $139,866           $98,200         +42

Total Construction                $475,680          $439,206       +8