New construction starts in March retreated 13% from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $633.3 billion, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. The decline followed strong gains in January (up 9%) and February (up 17%), when construction was lifted by the start of several massive projects valued each in excess of $1 billion, including four liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal projects, a petrochemical plant and a solar power facility.

While the March statistics did include the start of a $2.3-billion highway project in Florida, the boost coming from projects in excess of $1 billion was substantially less than what occurred during the first two months of the year.  By major sector, March showed diminished activity for nonresidential building and nonbuilding construction while residential building held steady.

For the first three months of 2015, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis were up 28% from the same period a year ago. If projects in excess of $1 billion are excluded, the result for total construction starts would be a 4% gain in March on a seasonally adjusted basis relative to February and an 11% gain for the first three months of 2015 on an unadjusted basis relative to the same period a year ago.

The March data produced a reading of 134 for the Dodge Index (2000=100), compared to a revised 155 in February and a 132 in January. For all of 2014, the Dodge Index averaged 124.

“The presence of unusually large projects will affect the month-to-month pattern for construction starts, and that’s certainly been true during the early months of 2015,” said Robert A. Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “The elevated activity in February exceeded the underlying trend for construction starts, and the March pullback returns activity to a more sustainable pace, at the same time showing an industry that’s still in the midst of expansion,” Murray said.

“While nonresidential building lost some momentum in March, the broad pattern over recent months reveals more growth for commercial building, combined with strengthening for several institutional structure types, most notably school construction. Although there’s concern that public works construction will be dampened by the uncertainty caused by the soon-to-expire federal transportation legislation, a healthy amount of highway and bridge work has reached the construction start stage so far in 2015.

“And while residential building still awaits renewed upward progress by single-family housing, the multifamily side of the housing market continues to strengthen, as low vacancies and rising rents in numerous markets provide the justification for more construction,” Murray said.

Nonresidential Building

Nonresidential building in March fell 19% to $183.5 billion (annual rate), after surging 43% in February. The manufacturing building category in March plunged a steep 57% from its elevated February pace. Although March did feature the start of several large manufacturing projects, such as a $751-million polyethylene plant and a $150-million cement plant expansion, both in Texas, the prior month had included the start of a $3.0-billion ethane cracker and propane dehydrogenation plant, also in Texas.

The commercial building group in March settled back 10%, after climbing 20% in February. Office construction registered a 20% slide in March, although the latest month did include the start of several noteworthy projects, including the $225-million expansion of the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.; the $120-million Bristol-Myers Squibb office building in Lawrenceville, N.J.; and the $82-million office portion of the $100-million Exchange Plaza mixed-use project in San Francisco. Also reporting a double-digit decline in March was warehouse construction, which fell 26%.

Hotel construction, down 1%, held virtually steady in March, as it benefitted from the groundbreaking of the $203-million Fairmont Austin Convention Hotel in Austin, Texas, and a $67-million Courtyard by Marriott hotel in New York City. Store construction was the one commercial structure type able to report a March gain, rising 13% after a lackluster February.

The institutional building group in March retreated 9% following its 20% jump in February. The health care facilities category plunged 40% after an unusually strong February, returning to a level more consistent with its sluggish performance of recent years. Educational buildings slipped 11% in March, although the latest month did include groundbreaking for Cornell University’s first academic building on Roosevelt Island in New York City, as part of the Cornell NYC Tech campus development.

Large public school buildings that reached the construction start stage in March included a $68-million K-12 facility in Brooklyn, N.Y.; a $66-million high school replacement in Federal Way, Wash.; and a $50-million high school renovation in Chicago. 
For the smaller institutional categories, weaker activity was reported by public buildings (courthouses and detention facilities), down 5%, while the remaining institutional structure types posted increases for March—transportation terminals, up 33%; amusement-related work, up 52%; and religious buildings, up 71% from a depressed February. Groundbreaking for a $78-million church in Leawood, Kan., helped to lift the religious building total for March.

Nonbuilding Construction