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January Construction Recedes

The value of new construction starts dropped 2 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $402.2 billion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies. Both nonresidential building and housing settled back from December, while the nonbuilding construction sector managed to register a modest gain with the help of a rebound for new electric utility starts.

On an unadjusted basis, total construction starts in January were reported at $27 billion, down 14 percent from the same month a year ago. For the 12 months ending January 2012 versus the 12 months ending January 2011, which lessens the volatility present in one-month comparisons, total construction starts were down 3 percent.

Highway and bridge construction dropped 9 percent, continuing to see the reduced activity that was present for much of 2011, in which the annual amount dropped 5 percent after stimulus-supported gains in the prior two years.

“For construction starts, the year 2012 got off slowly, with activity retreating further into the lower half of its recent range,” said Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. “This is consistent with the view that construction is still struggling to achieve upward momentum, even with the recent improvement shown by the U.S. economy. There were some positive signs for construction during 2011, such as a stronger volume for multifamily housing, a record high for new electric utility starts, and even gains for a few commercial structure types (hotels and warehouses). However, these positives were offset by declines for single-family housing, public works, and institutional building. For 2012, both public works and institutional building will continue to be affected by diminished federal funding, as well as by tight state and local budgets. Single-family housing may draw some benefit from the recent federal-state agreement with major banks to rework troubled mortgages, but homebuyer demand will still be restrained by more stringent bank lending standards, which limits any construction upturn. While multifamily housing appears on the upswing and commercial building seems to be turning the corner, both will require more available bank financing. There were some signs that this was taking place during the first half of 2011, before concerns about the debt crisis in Europe during the second half of 2011 caused banks to adopt a more wait-and see approach.”

Nonbuilding construction in January increased 3 percent to $127.9 billion (annual rate). Much of the upward lift came from electric utilities, which jumped 36 percent relative to a lackluster December. The electric utility category for 2011 as a whole surged 46 percent, reaching a new high in current dollar terms, although activity did slide back during the final two months of last year. Large electric utility projects that boosted contracting in January were a $1.1 billion solar energy facility in California, a $680 transmission line project in California, and a $150 million wind farm in Indiana. The public works categories in January showed varied behavior.

Water supply construction in January was down 5 percent, while river/harbor development fell a more substantial 26 percent. January gains were posted by sewer construction, up 5 percent; and miscellaneous public works, up 18 percent. The miscellaneous public works category includes a diverse set of project types, such as site work and mass transit, and the January increase reflected these large projects – $406 million for site work at a mining development in Michigan, $234 million for a light rail project in California, and $157 million for work on a commuter rail corridor in Florida.

Nonresidential building in January slipped 1 percent to $139.9 billion (annual rate). On the institutional side, weaker activity was reported for most of the structure types. The educational building category, which fell 12 percent during 2011, dropped 3 percent in January relative to the previous month. There were several noteworthy education-related projects that reached groundbreaking in January, including three research and laboratory facilities in these locations – Baltimore ($144 million), Boston ($93 million), and Berkeley, Calif. ($86 million), but they were not enough to offset the downward trend for this category. In similar fashion, the public buildings category in January included the start of a large courthouse in San Bernardino, Calif. ($272 million) and a large detention facility in Detroit ($220 million), but for the month contracting was still down 23 percent. Amusement-related projects and churches in January were each down 6 percent, while transportation terminal work dropped 36 percent. The one institutional structure type that registered a January gain was healthcare facilities, which soared 105 percent due to the start of a $583 million replacement hospital in Denver.

On the commercial side, the recent upward trend for hotels and warehouses paused in January, with hotels down 16 percent and warehouses down 11 percent. The decline for hotels came despite the start of a $180 million resort hotel in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and an $87 million addition to a convention center hotel in Chicago. Store construction in January was able to move up 12 percent from its depressed December amount, and office construction advanced 20 percent with support coming from the January start of a $113 million office building in Cambridge, Mass., and an $85 million data center in West Des Moines, Iowa. The manufacturing plant category in January plunged 39 percent, sliding back from the improved activity that was reported during the fourth quarter of last year.

Residential building, at $134.5 billion (annual rate), dropped 8 percent in January. Multifamily housing fell 26 percent, retreating from the elevated volume reported in December. January’s amount for multifamily housing was still 5 percent above the average monthly pace for 2011 as a whole, a year in which the annual total for multifamily housing climbed 23 percent. The largest multifamily projects reported as January starts were the following – a $90 million apartment village in San Jose, Calif., a $78 million apartment building in Los Angeles, and a $73 million university-related apartment complex in Washington, D.C.

Single-family housing in January settled back 1 percent, as the result of this regional pattern – the Midwest, down 4 percent; the South Atlantic, down 3 percent; the Northeast, down 2 percent; the West, up 1 percent; and the South Central, up 2 percent. Single family housing was able to show some gains during the latter months of 2011, with the average pace in last year’s second half up 7 percent relative to the very weak first half, but Murray noted that “January’s essentially flat activity indicates that single family housing has yet to move from what is still a very depressed level to even a modest recovery.”

The 14 percent decline for total construction on an unadjusted basis in January 2012 relative to January 2011 was due to this performance by major sector – nonresidential building, down 16 percent; residential building, up 17 percent; and nonbuilding construction, down 30 percent. Last year’s January amount for nonbuilding construction featured several massive projects, including a $2.5 billion solar power facility in California and $2.1 billion for work on the LBJ Freeway in Dallas; the comparison to these projects contributed to the 30 percent year-over-year drop for nonbuilding construction. By region, total construction for January 2012 compared to January 2011 revealed decreased activity in the South Central, down 32 percent; the Northeast, down 28 percent; and the West, down 11 percent; while gains were reported for the South Atlantic, up 1 percent; and the Midwest, up 16 percent.

The 3 percent decline for total construction on a 12-month moving total basis, meaning the 12 months ending January 2012 versus the 12 months ending January 2011, was due to this pattern by major sector – nonresidential building, down 4 percent; residential building, up 4 percent; and nonbuilding construction, down 8 percent. By region, the 12 months ending January 2012 showed the following behavior for total construction compared to the previous 12 months – the Northeast and Midwest, each down 9 percent; the South Central, down 8 percent; the West, up 2 percent; and the South Atlantic, up 9 percent.