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Key Projects Drive February Construction Starts

At a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $724.3 billion, new construction starts in February advanced 16 percent compared to the previous month, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. Much of the lift came from three massive projects valued each in excess of $1 billion that were included as February construction starts.

Highway and bridge work advanced 12 percent.

The nonbuilding construction sector was boosted by an $8.4 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in Louisiana and a $1.2 billion solar power facility in California, while nonresidential building registered a sharp gain partly as the result of a $3.0 billion petrochemical plant in Texas.

Residential building also strengthened in February, as growth for multifamily housing outweighed a loss of momentum by single-family housing.

“Due to the presence of several unusually large projects, the first two months of 2015 witnessed an especially elevated level of activity that’s exceeded the underlying trend for construction starts,” stated Robert A. Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “Some pullback can be expected in coming months, since there are only a limited number of LNG-related projects that may reach the construction start stage and petrochemical plants are not likely to match the exceptional amount that was reported last year, particularly with the recent decline in oil prices.”

“At the same time, the first two months of 2015 have shown several noteworthy features that point towards the continued expansion for overall construction activity,” Murray continued. “For commercial building, both office buildings and hotels are continuing to track upward, supported by the increasing amount of private financing directed at real estate development. For institutional building, school construction is now seeing the benefits of large school construction bond measures that were approved in recent years, while healthcare facilities registered an unexpectedly strong performance in February. For residential building, multifamily housing continues to show brisk development activity in major cities. One area of concern for overall construction activity in 2015 relates to single-family housing – will it be able to move beyond the extended plateau that took hold in 2014? Another area of concern relates to public works and specifically highway and bridge construction – will Congress be able to reach agreement on a new multiyear federal transportation bill by the end of May, or at the very least a continuing resolution that shores up the depleted Highway Trust Fund?”

Nonbuilding construction in February increased 9 percent to $253.8 billion (annual rate), which followed its substantial 92 percent hike in January. The electric utility and gas plant category in February topped its heightened January amount by 17 percent, with the inclusion of the Sempra LNG export terminal in Hackberry, La., at an estimated construction start cost of $8.4 billion. (In January, two segments of an LNG export facility in Freeport, Texas, valued at $6.0 billion were included as construction starts.)

Other large projects that lifted the electric power and gas plant category in February were the $1.2 billion Stateline Solar Farm in California, a $675 million natural gas-fired power plant in Maryland, and another solar power facility in California valued at $450 million.

Public works construction as a group improved 2 percent in February, with a substantial push coming from highways and bridges which advanced 12 percent. Large highway and bridge projects in February were led by several in the New York metropolitan area – a $283 million tunnel rehabilitation in Brooklyn, a $213 million toll plaza rehabilitation at the RFK Bridge in the Bronx, and a $96 million toll plaza improvement project on the New Jersey Turnpike in Bayonne, N.J.

The environmental public works categories in February were mixed, with river/harbor development, up 29 percent; sewer construction, up 4 percent; and water supply construction, down 3 percent. The miscellaneous public works category, which had been boosted in January by the start of the $350 million Sun Life Stadium modernization in the Miami area, fell 33 percent in February.

Nonresidential building, at $224.9 billion (annual rate), surged 42 percent in February after a relatively weak performance in January. The manufacturing building category was a major contributor, soaring 663 percent in February with $3.0 billion for the estimated construction start cost of the Formosa ethane cracker and propane dehydrogenation plant in Point Comfort, Texas.

The next largest manufacturing building starts in February were considerably smaller in scale – a $169 million manufacturing research lab in California and a $43 million carpet manufacturing plant in Georgia. If the manufacturing building category is excluded, nonresidential building in February would still have registered a 19 percent gain.

The commercial building group grew 19 percent in February, with a varied performance by project type. Hotel construction bounced back 83 percent after a depressed January, led by $138 million for the hotel portion of the $400 million Four Seasons mixed-use tower in Boston and $108 million for the hotel portion of the $245 million Stadium Towers mixed-use project in Seattle.

Office construction in February climbed 19 percent, featuring groundbreaking for these projects – a $400 million office building at the Hudson Yards development site in New York, a $150 million office building in Seattle, and $112 million for the office portion of the Stadium Towers mixed-use project in Seattle. Both stores and warehouses registered a slower pace for construction starts in February, with stores, down 9 percent; and warehouses, down 15 percent.

The institutional side of the nonresidential building market rebounded 20 percent in February after a lackluster January. Educational facilities, the largest nonresidential building category by dollar volume, grew 14 percent as it regained the upward momentum that was established in 2014.

Large educational facility projects that reached groundbreaking in February included a $133 million high school in Spring, Texas; a $67 million public safety training facility (for fire and rescue personnel) in Gaithersburg, Md.; a $61 million high school in Maywood, Calif.; and a $60 million business school at the University of California Berkeley. Healthcare facilities in February jumped 92 percent after a weak January, reflecting the start of these hospital projects – the $540 million Methodist Hospital North Campus Tower in Houston, the $228 million Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest, Ill., and the $165 million Cambridge North Tower in Kansas City, Kan.

The smaller institutional categories in February were mixed, with gains reported for transportation terminals, up 27 percent; and public buildings, up 22 percent; while declines were reported for churches, down 26 percent; and amusement-related projects, down 45 percent.

Residential building in February grew 5 percent to $245.7 billion (annual rate), making a partial rebound after an 8 percent decline in January. Multifamily housing registered a strong February, jumping 46 percent. There were nine multifamily projects valued in excess of $100 million that reached groundbreaking in February, led by the following – the $500 million Flushing Commons apartment complex expansion in Queens, N.Y., a $300 million apartment high-rise in New York, and the $262 million condominium portion of the Four Seasons mixed-use tower in Boston.

Single-family housing in February slipped back 7 percent, as severe winter weather in the Northeast led to 24 percent plunge for that region. Single-family declines were also reported for the South Atlantic, down 12 percent; the South Central, down 10 percent; and the Midwest, down 1 percent; while the West posted a modest 3 percent gain.