Construction Analytics

Home » Materials

Category Archives: Materials

How Much Does A Steel Cost Increase Affect Construction?


Recent articles suggest that steel cost is expected to increase and this will almost certainly affect the cost of construction. But just how much of an affect would a cost increase have on total building cost? The cost increase that is being talked about is the mill price cost of steel, not the producer price (PPI) and also not the total cost of steel installed. The PPI is the price after fabrication. Total cost is the contractor’s bid or selling price installed which includes all markups (or markdowns).


The questions we need to answer are:

  • How much of a cost increase will we see in the raw product, manufactured raw steel?
  • How much steel is used in a building?
  • What affect will a raw material cost increase have on the cost of steel installed?
  • How much does that change the cost of the building?

It might help to start with a basic understanding of steel manufacturing and use.

Basic Oxygen Steel (BOS) steel making uses between 25 and 35% recycled steel to make new steel. BOS steel usually has less residual elements in it, such as copper, nickel and molybdenum and is therefore more malleable than EAF steel so it is often used to make automotive bodies, food cans, industrial drums or any product with a large degree of cold working. Cold rolled steel is in this category which would include gypsum wall system steel studs.

Electric Arc Furnace (EAF) steel making contains more residual elements that cannot be removed through the application of oxygen and lime. It is used to make structural beams, plates, reinforcing bar and other products that require little cold working. EAF steel uses almost 100% recycled steel. Most steel that goes into a building is in this category.

Typically quoted benchmark steel pricing is based on cold-rolled sheet steel.  This is a type of BOS steel and is a common product used for the automotive industry, but not so much for the construction industry. Structural steel is nearly 100% dependent on recycled steel so is not as much affected by price changes of iron ore.

The United States produces approximately 100 million tons of steel each year. More than 40 million tons is used in the construction industry. The next largest industries, automotive and equipment and machinery, together do not use as much steel as construction. The U.S. imports about 30% of the steel it uses. Structural steel is the most widely used structural framing material used in the U.S. with nearly 60% market share in nonresidential and multistory residential buildings.

What affect might a steel cost increase have on a building project?  It will affect the cost of structural shapes, reinforcing steel, metal deck, stairs and rails, metal panels, metal ceilings, wall studs, door frames, canopies, steel duct, steel pipe and conduit. Structural steel and reinforcing steel are hot-rolled long products, EAF steel. All the others are cold-rolled flat sheet BOS steel.

Here are some averages of the percentage of steel material costs as related to total project construction cost.  For a building that is predominantly masonry, these percentages would be reduced considerably. For a heavy industrial building the percentages might be higher. Assuming a typical structural steel building with some metal panel exterior, steel pan stairs, metal deck floors, steel doors and frames and steel studs in walls, then all steel material installed represents about 14% to 16% of total building cost.

Structural Steel only, installed, represents about 9% to 10% of total building cost. If the structural steel subcontractor increases bid price by 10%, that raises the cost of the building by 1%, but if it is the mill price of steel that increases by 10% the increase to final building price is far less. It is the mill price of steel that is tracked by the producer price index (PPI).

The final cost of steel installed in a building is about four times the cost of the raw mill steel material used in making and installing the final product. Why so different? Well, for instance, structural steel cost includes: raw mill steel cost, delivery to shop, drafting, shop fabrication, shop paint, delivery to job site and shop markup. At the job site it includes: unload and sort, field installation crew, welding machine, crane and operator, contractor’s overhead and profit and sales tax.

Assuming a building as described above, a 10% increase in the cost of mill steel, which affects one fourth the cost of 16% of the total building cost, then a 10% increase in the cost of ALL mill steel may result in a composite price increase on a whole building of about 10% x ¼ x 16% = 0.4%.

So, if the mill cost of steel were to increase 10% from $500/ton to $550/ton prior to shop fabrication, that could add roughly 0.25% ($250,000) to the cost of the structural steel contract or roughly 0.4% ($400,000) to the total cost of all steel in a $100 million building.


update added link to relevant data article



Trump’s Wall


Trump’s Wall

Recently I received a call from a major national news source. They asked for help understanding what it would take to build “Trump’s Wall.” I’m an estimator, so I provided some realistic analysis of what it would take.

The border with Mexico is almost 2000 miles long. There is already about 700 miles of fence. This analysis makes an assumption it would be necessary to build only 1000 miles of wall. Also, this estimate is based on the type of wall you see along highways, precast concrete sound and site barrier wall. In reality it would need to be significantly more robust than the typical highway sound-barrier wall, and I’ve taken that into consideration in my estimate. So here goes.

(9-1-16 >>In some other recent articles I’ve read they have suggested a 40 foot high concrete wall. Well, I don’t think you can build a 40 foot high unsupported concrete wall (no bracing at sides) without getting into extremely massive volumes of materials. Such a high concrete wall would need to be much thicker at the base than at the top and the foundation to prevent overturning would need to be massive. Typical rule of thumb for foundation to prevent overturning is the foundation needs to be ~40% as wide as the height of the wall. The volume of concrete would be 4x to 5x what I’ve estimated for the wall I’ve defined here and the excavation, back fill and formwork would add considerable time to complete. Order of Magnitude I guess 40 to 50 million cubic yards of concrete for wall and foundation. I would roughly guess such a massive poured concrete foundation and wall, if it could even be built, would cost THREE TO FOUR TIMES what I’ve estimated here and would require substantially more labor and might take twice as long or more to build.)

This estimate is based on 8″ thick precast heavily reinforced  concrete wall panels set between steel columns 12’0 on center. Even if the concrete could be chipped away, the reinforcing bars would prevent passage. Columns are set in 6’0 dia. x 10’0 deep column foundations. Between column foundations under the wall is a continuous footing to help resist overturning of the wall. The wall extends 25 feet above grade and 5 feet below grade. Bottom of concrete footing under the wall is 7’0 feet below grade. Bottom of column foundations is 15’0 below grade. The wall would be much higher than the approximate 12′ shown in the representative photo.


The foundations included here are based on up-sizing components from a known design for a 15′ high prison un-climbable open-mesh fence. Even with an open mesh fence design, to overcome wind load, column footings were 2″0″ dia x 8’0″ deep concrete post foundations set every 8′ apart. This solid wall 25′ high would have enormously greater wind loads and it is the foundation that must be designed to prevent overturning.

Just to get quickly to the end, I calculated the final cost of a 25′ high precast wall, foundations, excavation and access roads in the vicinity of $25 billion (in 2016 $), $10 million per mile or slightly less than $2,000 per lineal foot of wall. I’m fairly certain this estimate is somewhat low and the actual cost due to the many unknowns would be higher. At the end I’ve pointed out some of the issues that could generate unknown costs.

One huge factor is inflation. The cost 5 years from now could be 20%-25% greater than the cost today. If the wall takes 10+ years to build, the cost could be $30 to $35 billion.

This is a summary of some of the results from the estimate.

130,000 man-years, or 130,000 workers if it is to be built in 1 year. Or it would take 10,000 full-time workers 13 years to build this wall.

If 1,000 men worked on the wall 5 days a week 8 hours a day, it would take 130 years to build it. Therefore, I made the assumption the project would be broken into 50 segments each 20 miles long. That will require 700 men AT EACH SEGMENT concurrently to complete the wall in 4 years. That’s 35,000 men working for 4 years. That is 35,000 trades-worker jobs which does not include Architect, Engineering, Testing and General Contractors management personnel.

200 million square feet of precast concrete panels = 5.2 million cubic yards of concrete
5 million cubic yards of cast-in-place concrete foundations
Total cement to make the 10.2 million cubic yards of concrete = 2% of annual US cement production.
1.5 million tons of steel = 1.5% of annual US steel production.

25 million cubic yards of excavation required.
6 million cubic yards of that excavated earth must be hauled away and disposed since that volume will be replaced underground with concrete. That’s more than enough to completely fill the Superdome. Or, it’s enough to build a 20 foot wide earthen embankment 20 feet high and 100 miles long.

Delivering the Materials
250,000 truckloads of precast wall panels,
500,000 truckloads of ready mix concrete
50,000 truckloads of steel

200,000 truckloads to haul away excess excavated earth.

This is far from a complete list of materials, because in addition to building the wall, in some places you first need to build a road. Assume about 500 miles of road. You can’t get 1,000,000 truckloads of 30-40 tons each, cranes, excavators and auger drills to a construction site without at least building a compacted gravel road to get there.

Adds 2 million cubic yards of stone for construction equipment road.

Adds 100,000 truckloads of stone

1,100,000 truckloads at 50 locations over 4 years is = 20 deliveries per day of 30 to 40 tons each at each of the 50 locations. That works out to 40 truck bypasses per day coming and going, so 30 ton trucks go by (some community) every 12 minutes at every one of 50 locations every workday for 4 years. It is very likely that heavy truck traffic will destroy many if not all the town roads used to access the 50 construction sites. The cost to repair/replace those existing roads is NOT included here, but I suspect it would be in the hundreds of millions.

Energy cost just to produce 1.5 mil tons of steel is enough to power 250,000 homes for 1 year. Energy to produce both steel and concrete probably more than doubles that number.
The money spent is enough to build 70,000 new homes or 500 new high schools.
Gasoline just for all truck deliveries is near 5 million gallons.

The concrete and steel materials gross to 2% of annual US cement production and 1.5% of annual US steel production, but that represents close to 3% of steel used in construction. About half of all US steel goes into your refrigerators, cars, etc., the other half goes into construction. The materials demand has far more affect than you might think on disrupting normal construction flow. Since it is all localized in one area of the country, the far southwest border, it could potentially represent 20% and 30% of the construction materials capacity in that area of the country, straining the capacity in that area and disrupting the normal volume of construction there for years. This would be detrimental to the rest of the construction industry growth in that area for that period.

This does not address the fact that manufacturing facilities to produce and fabricate the steel and deliver concrete needed at each of the 50 work sites ideally should be spread along this 1000-mile corridor, which is very unlikely. In fact, I suspect it more likely that some locations will not be in close proximity to a materials source, the result either driving cost up or extending duration beyond 4 years, or both. It could require building process plants along the path, for instance, ready-mix concrete batch plants and steel fabrication yards.

The time necessary for land acquisition, design, permitting, environmental study, mass material procurement, construction process planning and mobilization would be many months before construction begins. Although labor availability and the number of sites determines construction duration, 4 years would be a reasonable estimate for construction ONLY IF the 35,000 trades-workers needed can be mobilized simultaneously to 50 job sites, but that is not likely. The 4 years of construction starts when planning, design and permitting are complete. That might take 6 to 12 months.

Construction is experiencing what may be the tightest labor market in over 20 years. Since there are few if any available workers to shift to these new job site locations, we would need to assume much of this work is supported by creating nearly 35,000 new jobs. Several serious problems arise.

In this localized area of the country, that could potentially be 2% to 4% expansion of the construction workforce. The maximum historical rate of annual workforce expansion is 5% nationwide. Normal annual jobs growth is 3% to 4%. If one project were absorbing 100% of the jobs growth in an entire region, there would be no workers available for any other construction activity growth for several years.

Such an expansion would be extremely difficult to implement that quickly. The mobilization of 35,000 workers could take a very long time from initial ramping up to full employment, therefore extending the duration to complete the job. Many of these workers would be inexperienced adding further to the project duration. So reaching completion of this work would probably take much longer than 4 years. Adding time for planning and more time for ramping up labor, it could be 6 years.

Ramping up then down will soften the blow as the jobs begin to disappear at project completion. It could be pretty hard to generate enough new volume of work to keep all those men working. It will take new volume of $5 billion to $6 billion a year to keep all these workers working.

This brief analysis of cost and constructability does not begin to address issues such as, how would a wall be built anywhere along the 1,000 miles of the Rio Grande river, the border between Texas and Mexico, the 4th largest river in the United States. Assuming such a wall must be built on US soil,  a wall would then completely cut off river access from the United States? Or, how would a wall be built through the hundreds of miles of national parks and national wildlife refuges along the border without disrupting natural wildlife migration flow? And, how would it be designed along its 1,000 mile corridor to accommodate drainage across a solid impervious barrier? It seems impractical or at the very least massively environmentally disruptive.

You can see, the logistics would be enormous, impediments loom, adjacent communities would be adversely impacted, the cost is probably far more than the $25 billion estimated and it seems highly unlikely this could ever be completed during the course of a single president’s term.

Construction Expectations 2016


What should we expect in 2016 for construction spending, jobs and cost?

Nonresidential buildings starts (as reported by Dodge Data & Analytics) were well above average from March 2014 through May 2015 but since then have been below average. It takes about 24 to 30 months for nonresidential building starts to reach completion. The effect of below average starts will kick in at the end of this year after strong spending growth.

Non-building infrastructure starts jumped 50% above average from November 2014 to peak in February 2015, then settled back to average in July of 2015. Those very strong starts in early 2015 will be spread out over 4 to 6 years so will not cause spending to spike. They will help support a slow steady increase in spending over the next two years.

Residential starts averaged near 20%/yr growth for 3 years but dropped below average for the entire 2nd half of 2015. That late 2015 dip in starts may not slow residential spending too much until the end of 2016. Overall, the data shows another repeat year of growth similar to the last three years.

Construction Spending by Sector 2013-2016 Feb2016

2015 Construction spending finished the year up 10.6% over 2014. After 3 years of growth averaging 9%/year, 2016 total construction spending could climb 11% above 2015, the largest percent gain in over 10 years. Any construction spending slowdown is temporary, baked in from old uneven starts causing uneven cashflow, soon to be ending. By the 2nd quarter 2017 all sectors return to positive growth for strong spending in 2017.

Nonresidential buildings construction spending went from zero growth in 2013 to 9% in 2014 and took off to hit 17% growth in 2015. Nonres bldgs spending could reach 12% growth in 2016 and 7% in 2017.

Infrastructure spending will increase a little in 2016 but we won’t see a sizable increase of 8% until 2017.

Residential spending averaged over 15%/year for the last 3 years and could go over 15% growth in 2016, combining for the best four years of spending growth since 2002-2005.

Don’t be mislead by news that construction spending is close to reaching the previous highs. That may be true of spending, but spending is not the measure of expansion in the construction industry. The measure of expansion is volume, spending minus inflation.

Construction spending is up nearly 40% off the 2011 lows and within 5% of the 2006 highs. But after adjusting for inflation, volume is up only 22% from the 2011 lows and is still 17% below 2005 peak volume.  We still have a long way to go. While spending is predicted to reach over 11% growth in 2016 and may do the same in 2017, volume will increase only 5% to 6% each year. The rest is due to inflation.

Spend current vs constant2015 22pct volume growth

March 2016 construction jobs increase 37,000 from February and although up and down, have averaged 37,000 jobs per month for the last 6 months.  That is the highest 6 month average growth rate in 10 years. That certainly doesn’t make it seem like there is a labor shortage. However, it is important to note, the jobs opening rate (JOLTS) is the highest it’s been in many years and that is a signal of difficulty in filling open positions.

To support the expected 2016 volume growth we need an average 25,000 new jobs per month in 2016, 300,000 new jobs, reaching a three-year gain of nearly 1 million jobs for the period 2014-2016, the highest three-year total jobs growth since 1997-1999. The labor force hasn’t expanded this fast in over 16 years. That can have some undesirable consequences.  Rapid jobs growth may result in accelerating wages and lost productivity, compounding the cost to labor.


If we get a construction jobs slowdown in the next few months, it’s not all due to labor shortages and not being able to find people. Construction volume has been growing faster than jobs for more than a year. It means productivity in 2015 is up after several down years. But, while we’ve recorded consecutive years of productivity declines many times, we have not had two consecutive years of productivity gains in the last 22 years. So historically we should expect a decline,  not gains this year.

Material input costs to construction are down over the last year, but that accounts for only a portion of the final cost of constructed buildings. The cost of new residential construction is up 5% to 6% in the last year. Several nonresidential building cost indexes are indicating construction inflation between 4% and 5%. The Turner non-residential bldg cost index for 2015 is 4.6%. The 1st qtr 2016 is up 1.15% from the 4th quarter 2015. The Rider Levitt Bucknall nonresidential building 2015 cost index is 4.8% and the Beck Cost Report has 5.0% for 2015. I recommend an average 5.5% cost inflation in 2016 for residential and nonresidential buildings. Non-building infrastructure costs are unique to each individual infrastructure market, so average building cost indices should not be used for infrastructure.

Building Cost Inflation Index

%d bloggers like this: