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RSMeans’ dollars-per-square-foot construction costs: four categories of primary and secondary school

09/28/2011 by Alex Carrick, RCD Canadian Chief Economist

Accompanying this report are tables based on RSMeans’ measures of dollar-per-square-foot construction costs. The results for 25 major cities are shown for four categories of primary and secondary school construction.

Ranking by expense

The difference in costs between the four types of structure set out in the accompanying tables and graphs is miniscule.

It is most expensive – on a dollar-per-square-footage basis – to build a junior high school.

There is a negligible drop to the next most expensive category, an elementary school.

Further minor declines lead to a high school and a vocational school.

Comparisons with other types of structure

According to RSMeans, the cheapest types of structure to build, after extremely low-cost parking garages, are factories and warehouses.

A convenience store also belongs in this low-expense grouping. Department stores and movie theatres are a little more expensive. 

In the mid-range for construction costs are office buildings, hotels and high-rise apartment buildings. Heights above ten stories tend to lower the dollar-per-square-footage cost.

Also in the mid-range for construction costs are elementary and secondary schools, along with institutions of higher learning.

By far the most expensive types of structure to build are hospitals, jails/prisons, courthouses and police stations. Some of these exceed $350 per square foot in the largest urban centers.

New York is the most expensive; cities in the South are least expensive

New York has the highest dollar-per-square-foot construction costs in the country. San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia hold the other four positions in the Top Five among major U.S. urban centers.

Relatively low-cost cities are mainly in the southeast and south-central. Included are Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston and Dallas.

Kansas City, San Diego, Detroit, St.  Louis, Pittsburgh, Portland and Cleveland are situated in the middle among the 25 cities set out in the tables.

Washington, Denver and Baltimore are in the low mid-range.

Minneapolis is the nation’s sixth most expensive construction-cost city. Los Angeles and Seattle on the West-Coast are in the upper mid-range.

Along the Pacific shoreline, dollar-per-square foot construction costs in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego are between 13% and 16% lower than in high-cost San Francisco.

Portland is nearly one-fifth (-18%) less expensive than the City by the Bay for building projects.

Some other city comparisons

In some other city comparisons, it costs 32% more to build in Chicago than in Atlanta and there is a 27% differential between higher-cost Philadelphia and lower-cost Miami.

The mark-up in New York, the most expensive city among the 25 shown, and Winston-Salem N.C., the least expensive, is nearly three-quarters (+73%).

Year over year construction costs

For the four types of structure and 25 cities set out in the tables and graphs, the year-over-year average changes in costs mostly ranged from approximately +2.0% to +3.0%.

That’s lower than the current rate of inflation in the United States. May’s year-over-year advance in the all-items Consumer Price Index (CPI) was +3.8%.

Baltimore and Kansas City ranked numbers one and two for year-over-year cost increases among the cities in September 2011.

Baltimore’s increases ranged from +3.2% for a high school to +4.2% for an elementary school.

Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas formed the next rung on the ranking ladder.

Cities with the lowest rates of construction cost increases were New York, San Diego, Seattle and Washington.

The outlook for construction material costs

A series of unique events this year has caused a reduction in the outlook for global growth.

Tsunami damage and ongoing containment troubles at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan disrupted supply chains in the electronics and automotive sectors.

Then the Arab Spring, while earth-shaking in importance for oppressed peoples in the Middle East and North Africa, caused a spike in world oil prices in its early stages.

There is also the ongoing Greek debt crisis that threatens to entangle other governments in Europe plus several of the continent’s largest banks.

Damaging to both consumer and business confidence has been the first-ever downgrade of U. S. debt in the aftermath of the deficit ceiling debate.

Finally, the Chinese government has been instituting measures to slow growth in that nation to bring inflation under control.

Beijing has been employing the instrument of tighter monetary policy.

The world-wide upshot has been a lowering in expectations for commodity prices. And that means a general pull-back in the outlook for construction costs.

Furthermore, demand for construction services in certain segments of the U.S. market remains very weak.

The prime example is housing, where lumber prices will continue to languish until there is a turnaround in home starts.

Commodities – a fancy term for raw materials – are the DNA of all building products.

While remaining relatively high on a historical basis, many commodity prices are currently retreating from their most recent highs.

This will take much of the pressure of construction material costs well into next year.

U.S. dollars per square foot construction costs –
By type of structure – September 2011
    MAJOR CITIES
(alphabetically)
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
2011 2010   % Change 2011 2010   % Change
1   ATLANTA $147.84 $142.95   3.4% $147.89 $142.91   3.5%
2   BALTIMORE 156.64 150.31   4.2% 156.69 150.26   4.3%
3   BOSTON 196.42 191.08   2.8% 196.48 191.02   2.9%
4   CHICAGO 194.95 188.52   3.4% 195.01 188.46   3.5%
5   CLEVELAND 165.12 160.38   3.0% 165.17 160.33   3.0%
6   DALLAS 142.46 137.83   3.4% 142.51 137.79   3.4%
7   DENVER 157.30 152.86   2.9% 157.34 152.82   3.0%
8   DETROIT 171.97 166.78   3.1% 172.02 166.72   3.2%
9   HOUSTON 144.58 140.39   3.0% 144.63 140.35   3.0%
10   KANSAS CITY 173.11 166.94   3.7% 173.16 166.88   3.8%
11   LOS ANGELES 179.14 173.65   3.2% 179.19 173.60   3.2%
12   MIAMI 150.12 145.83   2.9% 150.17 145.78   3.0%
13   MINNEAPOLIS 186.96 181.81   2.8% 187.02 181.75   2.9%
14   NEW ORLEANS 146.21 142.31   2.7% 146.26 142.27   2.8%
15   NEW YORK CITY 220.21 215.07   2.4% 220.28 215.00   2.5%
16   PHILADELPHIA 191.20 185.96   2.8% 191.26 185.91   2.9%
17   PHOENIX 147.03 142.63   3.1% 147.07 142.59   3.1%
18   PITTSBURGH 168.54 162.94   3.4% 168.59 162.89   3.5%
19   PORTLAND 167.24 162.62   2.8% 167.29 162.57   2.9%
20   ST. LOUIS 171.64 166.46   3.1% 171.69 166.40   3.2%
21   SAN DIEGO 172.13 168.05   2.4% 172.18 168.00   2.5%
22   SAN FRANCISCO 204.73 198.60   3.1% 204.79 198.53   3.2%
23   SEATTLE 174.74 170.29   2.6% 174.79 170.24   2.7%
24   WASHINGTON, DC 163.98 159.74   2.7% 164.03 159.69   2.7%
25   WINSTON-SALEM 127.30 123.28   3.3% 127.34 123.24   3.3%
MAJOR CITIES
(alphabetically)
HIGH SCHOOL VOCATIONAL SCHOOL
2011 2010 % Change 2011 2010 % Change
1   ATLANTA $144.85 $141.39   2.4% $142.44 $138.26   3.0%
2   BALTIMORE 153.47 148.66   3.2% 150.93 145.37   3.8%
3   BOSTON 192.44 188.99   1.8% 189.25 184.81   2.4%
4   CHICAGO 191.00 186.46   2.4% 187.83 182.33   3.0%
5   CLEVELAND 161.78 158.62   2.0% 159.09 155.11   2.6%
6   DALLAS 139.58 136.33   2.4% 137.26 133.31   3.0%
7   DENVER 154.11 151.19   1.9% 151.55 147.85   2.5%
8   DETROIT 168.48 164.95   2.1% 165.69 161.30   2.7%
9   HOUSTON 141.65 138.86   2.0% 139.30 135.78   2.6%
10   KANSAS CITY 169.60 165.11   2.7% 166.79 161.45   3.3%
11   LOS ANGELES 175.51 171.75   2.2% 172.60 167.95   2.8%
12   MIAMI 147.08 144.23   2.0% 144.64 141.04   2.6%
13   MINNEAPOLIS 183.18 179.82   1.9% 180.14 175.84   2.4%
14   NEW ORLEANS 143.25 140.75   1.8% 140.87 137.64   2.4%
15   NEW YORK CITY 215.75 212.71   1.4% 212.17 208.00   2.0%
16   PHILADELPHIA 187.33 183.93   1.8% 184.22 179.86   2.4%
17   PHOENIX 144.05 141.07   2.1% 141.66 137.95   2.7%
18   PITTSBURGH 165.13 161.15   2.5% 162.39 157.59   3.0%
19   PORTLAND 163.85 160.84   1.9% 161.13 157.28   2.5%
20   ST. LOUIS 168.16 164.63   2.1% 165.37 160.99   2.7%
21   SAN DIEGO 168.64 166.22   1.5% 165.84 162.54   2.0%
22   SAN FRANCISCO 200.58 196.42   2.1% 197.25 192.08   2.7%
23   SEATTLE 171.20 168.43   1.6% 168.36 164.70   2.2%
24   WASHINGTON, DC 160.66 157.99   1.7% 157.99 154.50   2.3%
25   WINSTON-SALEM 124.73 121.93   2.3% 122.66 119.24   2.9%
Data source: Tables were abstracted from RSMeans cost data publications for the A/E/C industry. For more information about RSMeans Square Foot Cost Guide and RSMeans CCI (Construction Cost Index), which indexes square foot costs for cities in the U.S. and Canada, visit the online bookstore at www.rsmeans.com and click on cost data publications (or call 1-800-448-8182).
Charts: Reed Construction Data – RS Means and CanaData.

Elementary school construction cost:
September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
Elementary school construction cost: September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
Junior high school construction cost:
September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
Junior high school construction cost: September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
High school construction cost:
September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
High school construction cost: September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
Vocational school construction cost:
September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
Vocational school construction cost: September 2011 ranking of major U.S. cities
These charts and tables were abstracted from RSMeans cost data publications for the A/E/C industry. For more information about RSMeans Square Foot Cost Guide and RSMeans CCI (Construction Cost Index), which indexes square foot costs for cities in the U.S. and Canada, visit the online bookstore at www.rsmeans.com and click on cost data publications (or call 1-800-448-8182).
Data source: Reed Construction Data – RSMeans (www.rsmeans.com).
Charts: Reed Construction Data – CanaData

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