Category Archives: National Economy

Construction Inflation Becomes a Problem

Prices for construction materials and products have been creeping up steadily for more than a year. Higher demand pushed supply lines to the limit of current capacity, giving manufacturers the opportunity to raise prices and regain some long-lost profits. Wages likewise have been creeping higher, outstripping the wage gains of the overall workforce. Creeping became “leaping” during the past two months. The first signs of sticker shock are beginning to appear.

All of the gradual price increases have been given a boost by the tariffs levied by the Trump Administration. While it’s worth noting that virtually all of the documented increases happened before the tariffs went into effect, the threat of tariffs gave manufacturers the room to push price increases into the market. That has applied to products that won’t be affected by the tariffs too. Surcharges were beginning to hit the market for tariff-affected items in June, and the impact on producer prices was immediate.

Analyzing the Department of Labor Statistics’ data for May, AGC Chief Economist Kenneth Simonson noted that “the producer price index jumped by 20.0 percent for aluminum mill shapes, 17.4 percent for copper and brass mill shapes and 12.3 percent for steel mill products between June 2017 and June 2018. Other construction inputs that rose sharply in price from May 2017 to May 2018 include diesel fuel, 52.8 percent; lumber and plywood, 18.3 percent; asphalt felts and coatings, 7.5 percent; ready-mixed concrete, 5.5 percent; and paving mixtures and blocks, 5.0 percent.”

The producer price index for inputs to construction industries, goods—a measure of all materials used in construction projects including items consumed by contractors, such as diesel fuel—rose 9.6 percent over 12 months. The year-over-year increase was the steepest since October 2008, Simonson noted.

ppi for construction

This kind of hyperinflation couldn’t come at a worse time for construction in Pittsburgh. Most of the anticipated boom in construction lies ahead. With labor nearly tapped out this summer, specialty contractors are beginning to price projects more cautiously and the result is stressing budgets. The upward pressure comes from several factors. Specialty contractors’ costs are roughly 50 percent labor. With the construction workforce at full employment in Pittsburgh, future work will be done with less people than necessary. Premium time and pay will be used to meet schedules. Contractors will be less certain about the productivity of the labor force. Uncertainty adds risk – and cost. Contractors will also begin to be maxed out on backlog (many already are), meaning that the projects they bid will have higher profit margins on their work. This isn’t greed; it’s simply the response to a shift to a seller’s market.

The results of this unexpected and steep jump in prices for owners will be higher costs for less program and the deferral of some projects for a time. That will chill the boom somewhat. The worse impact will be for contractors – and owners – that are locked into agreements before prices spiked and before projects were bought. If costs rise beyond what the contractors bid, disputes will increase and firms will do what is necessary to survive the inflation. None of those kinds of measures will make for better projects.

The many large private projects that will be built in Pittsburgh over the next 12-18 months have already begun to feel the impact on budgets. That hasn’t been the case in the public market, where bidding remains competitive. God bless the school district that signed big contracts based on bids taken in the past 90 days. They may want to wait until the punch list is complete to celebrate the great bids they received.

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Good News About GDP

On Friday, the Commerce Dept. released its first estimate on gross domestic product for the first quarter on 2018. The 2.3% increase was a pleasant surprise, coming on the heels of an upward final revision about the US for the 4th quarter to 2.9%. Recent history has shown weaker first quarters, especially following strong year-end finishes. The first quarter GDP gains came from consumer and business spending growth, although inflation had more of an influence in the growth than in many years. The more troubling data from the estimate was the fact that both consumer and business spending was beginning to trend lower. It remains to be seen whether the additional data gathered for the 2nd and final estimates reinforces that slowing trend in the next two months.

The General Contractors Association of Pennsylvania (GCAP) has published a transcript of its interviews with Gov. Wolf and all three leading GOP candidates for governor. GCAP asked each of the four about their proposed policies that will affect construction. Some of them sort of answered. Read the transcript here.

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University of Pittsburgh’s Medical School is planning a $100 million investment in the expansion and renovation of Scaife Hall. Rendering by Payette.

Project news is light. Pitt is seeking proposals for construction management at risk services for its $100 million expansion of Scaife Hall from PJ Dick, Gilbane, Mascaro, Skanska, Rycon, Massaro, Turner and Whiting-Turner. PJ Dick was selected as general contractor for Providence Point’s $40 million expansion in Scott Township. Cavcon Construction is about to break ground on $3.5 million new Youth & Family Center and Admissions buildings at the Adelphoi Village in Latrobe. NRP Group will be building the Pittsburgh Flats apartments at 23rd and Wharton Streets that was originally proposed by the Edwards Communities. NRP will build 330 units later this year.

Construction Inflation Jumps Again

Bureau of Labor Statistics released information on February’s producer price index (PPI), which showed construction outpacing the overall inflation rate by a considerable amount. Year-over-year (y/y) the PPI for all finished products was up 2.8%. For construction the PPI increase for final demand rose 3.5%.

The AGC’s Ken Simonson noted spikes (note: no declines) in a number of categories. “Materials important to construction that had notable one- or 12-month price changes include diesel fuel, down 2.0% in February but up 38% y/y; lumber and plywood, up 4.4% for the month and 13% y/y; aluminum mill shapes, 2.9% and 12%, respectively; copper and brass mill shapes, -0.9% and 10%; gypsum products, 7.2% and 8.0%; and steel mill products, 2.3% and 4.8%. Among services important to construction, the PPI for truck transportation of freight rose 0.6% for the month and 5.6% y/y.”

feb ppi

In local construction news, CMU’s $45 million Health & Wellness Center – a renovation of Skibo Hall – has gone out for RFP to Jendoco, Mascaro, Mosites, PJ Dick, and Rycon. Construction of a temporary helipad is getting underway as the first phase of the $21 million emergency department renovation. MBM Contracting is the project’s CM. Stantec is the architect. And nearly 20 years of trying, word is that the $40 million Shannon Transit Village is moving forward. The 152-unit apartment with ground floor retail and a 375-car garage is being developed by Jim Aiello (JRA Development) and built by Mascaro Construction. A schedule for construction is not set, however.

Tech Keeps Driving

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report on February’s job creation blew the doors off the forecast. Employers created 313,000 jobs in February, at least 100,000 more than expected. It’s a reflection of small business confidence in the economy and a reaction to the lower business taxes. Here in Pittsburgh, construction keeps getting a boost from the rapid growth in tech jobs.

job creation history

Rycon Construction was awarded the $7.9 million fit-out for Argo AI, one of Uber’s competitors in the autonomous vehicle game, which is going into 3 Crossings. Dick Building Co. got a contract for about $1 million in renovations for a company called Robotany at the M. Berger Industrial Park in South Side. Robotany grows greens hydroponically and is expanding to put robotics to work planting, feeding and harvesting. Turner is reported to have the $120 million Pitt/UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center, the conversion of the former Ford Building in Shadyside.

In more conventional construction news, Franjo Construction was awarded the $7 million A & L Motors BMW dealership in Monroeville. A permit was issued in McCandless to A. Martini & Co. for a $32 million McCandless Senior Living, being developed by CA Ventures at McCandless Crossing. Burns & Scalo Real Estate has its 150,000 sq. ft. , $34 million Riviera Office Building out to subcontractors for bid. And the $700 million UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital at Presbyterian is going out for CM proposals (along with the UPMC Hillman Cancer Hospital) to four teams: Clark Construction/Dick Building Co., Massaro/AECOM, PJ Dick/Whiting Turner and Rycon/Skanska.

Correction note:

In the Spring edition of DevelopingPittsburgh, there was an error in the feature article, p. 14. The quote from Mike Coonley should read, “When we have the opportunity we will still put our hat in the ring. We don’t have a lot of available buildings or but we do have lots of sites.” Armstrong County EDC has 20- and 12-acre pads along with several other smaller lots at the 925-acre Northpointe business park. West Hills Industrial Park, at the intersection of SR28 and 422, has 185 acres with multiple sites available. 

Starting to Heat Up in 2018

Bid boards have gotten very full very quickly for Pittsburgh contractors. Much of the work on the streets is small private stuff but there are a few meaty projects, with the prospects of some big projects (UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside Towers, CMU Skibo Hall, $75 million Altoona High) coming out within the next month or so. Among the projects being bid, the $43 million City’s Edge Apartments in the Lower Hill have gone out for competitive GMP proposals to PJ Dick, Rycon, Mosites.

The Murdoch Building, a 95,000 square foot office and retail building being built by Mascaro, broke ground this month. Fairchance Construction is about to start work on a 138,000 square foot expansion of COE Distributing at the Franklin Commercial Park in Fayette County, being developed by J D & D Enterprises. Dick Building Co. has started work on a new 42,000 square foot Rahal Land Rover/Jaguar dealership in North Strabane Twp. outside Washington PA.

Bobby Rahal Land Rover Jaguar building pad sitework

Dick Building has started sitework on Rahal Land Rover/Jaguar in Washington, PA.

In economic news, the Census Bureau reported that GDP growth was only 2.6% in the fourth quarter, a mild disappointment compared to expectations. For perspective, however, that pace of growth (which was the annual rate too) is an improvement over 2016 and about what could be realistically expected given the shortage of workers. It’s also worth noting that this is the first of three estimates. By the time the final estimate is reached in 2 months, the final figure may hit the 3% that economists expected.

us annual gdp

Slow Start, Big Promise

The unusually cold weather made for a slow start to the 2018 construction season. Bidding activity has been slow out of the gate too, but the momentum is building. There is news on a couple of large projects people have been keeping an eye on. Siemens Corp. is taking bids on early packages at the $600 million combined cycle plant at Hatfield Ferry in Green Co. Wesex Corp. has started work on the first building at Castlebrook’s million-square-foot industrial park in Big Beaver/Koppel area in Beaver County. The building is a 400,000 square foot warehouse called the Fairlane Distribution Center. Allegheny Health selected the Gilbane/Massaro team to build its new $200 million new hospital in Wexford. At Slippery Rock University, DGS selected the team of Mike Coates Construction, Renick Bros. and Blackhawk Neff to negotiate a final agreement for the new $22 million performing arts center at Miller Auditorium. In other commercial real estate starts, Jendoco Real Estate started work on Building 200 at Settlers Cabin Business Park.

job creation history

News on the economy has been very good to start the year. The government reported that 148,000 new jobs had been created in December, marking the 75th straight month of job gains. Pittsburgh’s job market remained in growth mode in November. The Department of Labor reported that 16,500 new jobs were added from November 2016 to 2017, a gain of 1.4%. Unemployment dropped to 4.8%.

News for the Long Weekend

Most years, the Labor Day weekend brings the realization that the building year is starting to wind down and there follows a flurry of activity. This year that realization either came early or else just the flurry. From amongst the RFP’s for CM services that have been bouncing around, Pitt selected PJ Dick to build its $26.5 million life sciences building at UP-Greensburg campus. PJ was also successful on the $16 million Vincentian Sisters’ independent living facility in McCandless. In Erie, AHN awarded a contract to Massaro Corp. for a fast-track renovation to its 40,000 square foot birthing suites.

This morning, the Census Bureau released two of its monthly economic indicators, both of which showed the economy to be helathy and steady. Construction spending in July hit $1.2 trillion, an increase of 1.8 percent over July 2016. Government data on employment growth was announced this morning also. Non-farm payrolls grew by 156,000 jobs in August. That was below the expected 170,000 jobs forecasted by economists but still a healthy increase given the tight labor supply. Since January 2017, job creation has averaged 177,000 monthly. That’s a sign of employer health and optimism, especially in light of how late in the business cycle the U.S. economy is.