Tower Crane Numbers Across North America Holding Their Own

The second half of 2023 saw a 10-percent drop in the total number of working tower cranes across North America. That decrease is tied to rising interest rates and projects nearing completion.

Mon December 04, 2023

The number of cranes at work during the second half of this year has decreased approximately 10 percent. That decline is attributed to rising interest rates and the fact that projects are nearing completion. Of the major cities surveyed, six saw drops of 20 percent while in two areas the number of rigs at work went up. Six other cities maintained their numbers.

"The residential sector continues to see the most consistent growth, along with mixed-use projects," said Taryn Harbert of Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB).

Referring to RLB's biannual Crane Index of North America, she said residential makes up 72 percent of the overall crane count.

"We anticipate the number of cranes to be steady for the remaining of 2023," she added.

RLB's survey found that Boston and Toronto are the only cities reporting an increase in crane numbers. Cities holding steady were Calgary, Honolulu, New York, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle.

Decreases greater than 20 percent were seen in Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

"Despite some signs of a slowing market, construction activity in Boston remains strong, with several new cranes erected in the city," reported RLB.

Publishing its Crane Index for North America biannually, the global construction and property consultancy tracks the number of tower cranes at work in 14 major cities. The survey results are a measure of the current state of the construction industry's workload in those major cities.

For the first quarter of this year, survey results were upbeat, showing an all-time high in North American crane counts. Numbers exceeded 500 rigs at work.

Of the 14 major cities surveyed, eight experienced an increase in early 2023; two saw a decrease and four stayed the same.

The firm's overall assessment at the time was positive: "We anticipate the number of cranes to remain high into 2023," RLB said. "Despite uncertain market conditions, construction projects will continue to break ground, albeit at a cost."

Healthy Crane Picture

In fact, Boston's hopping construction market brings the crane count significantly higher than in the first quarter of 2023.

Mixed-use continues to dominate crane demands there, tapping 65 percent of the total working rigs. The remainder are on multi-family developments.

"Seven new cranes have been erected for mixed-use developments in the Allston/Brighton and Fenway neighborhoods alone," said RLB. "Fenway is expected to ramp up over the next six to 18 months as new, large-scale developments start breaking ground later this year."

In Calgary, the crane count dropped by one this year. RLB reported the total value of construction work increased by 13 percent during the first half of 2023.

"Construction demand has been high, [with] 55 percent more requests to redesignate land in Q2 than in the same quarter last year."

Year-over-year, Calgary's 13-percent increase came to almost $3 billion. Strongest growth was in housing projects. Five new downtown office-to-residential conversions were being completed, and approximately 45 percent of new housing starts were in multi-unit buildings.

"Many of which are designed specifically for rental purposes," RLB found in its twice-yearly survey. "With sustained residential construction growth, Calgary has seen a significant increase in non-residential building value in 2023."

With $936 million reported, those numbers are up 22 percent from $767 million reported for the previous year.

Chicago's skyline is broken by nine rigs — that's one less than RLB's previous count. And the majority is at work on North Chicago residential projects. The mixed-use residential buildings will hold from 18 to 75 stories with parking structures.

"Most of the building structures are concrete with glass curtain walls making up the facades," according to the survey.

Residential Projects Dominate

In Denver, the crane count dropped a bit, from a high of 36 to 24 at present. The reduction was mostly attributed to housing projects approaching completion.

"However, with the residential sector slowing, contractors and subcontractors will look to other sectors for gains," said RLB. "As interest rates have continued to rise, private-sector construction shows signs of slowing."

In fact, the survey found the construction market in Chicago may look to the public sector for future relief, in the form of federal IIJA and IRA dollars.

Honolulu is down two tower cranes, though several new-builds are at or nearing completion and rigs are being lowered.

"Despite the reduced overall count, a robust pipeline of work remains," said RLB. "Since January, four new cranes have been erected at the Kakaako-Ala Moana neighborhood of urban Honolulu for mixed-use residential towers."

Each of those projects exceeds $250 million in construction value. Renovation jobs going to bid in the hospitality sector are driving machine demand.

"The increasing volume of renovation and mixed-use development is anticipated to keep general contractors busy for the next 12-24 months," reported RLB.

In Las Vegas, many large construction projects are "coming to fruition this year," reported RLB, "and there are also several new projects in the planning phases."

A new baseball park is teased, while new office and warehouse space and a 125,000-sq.-ft. healthcare and medical office space are among anticipated projects. Plus, two major projects are set to start in 2024: The Majestic Las Vegas hotel and a $600 million renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"The number of cranes in Los Angeles has sharply declined in the second half of 2023, partly due to the lack of major office developments coming online," said RLB. "With the region's low occupancy rates and many residential and mixed-use projects on hold, the tight lender market is having an impact on construction."

But infrastructure projects are on the rise, and construction-in-place value is up as a result.

"Looking forward to the next few years, we expect an uptick in cranes with the upcoming terminal works at LAX and Burbank Airport, among other projects," said RLB.

A 20-percent drop in crane numbers was tracked in New York City. That marks a drop from 10 to eight since early in the year. One rig is up at a Hudson Yards development that is close to completion 10 years in. Seven more big machines are at work in the city.

In Phoenix, the total number of cranes at work has decreased slightly overall this year, said RLB.

With several major projects completed come several new start-ups. "Two major projects in the healthcare sector were completed," the firm said. "But six new cranes have now been erected since the previous count. Notably, two of those new projects are residential high-rises."

The survey found that the crane count in Portland has stayed the same since the year opened. As the most active market sector, mixed-use projects continue to make the biggest demands for machines.

"It's worth noting there are several transportation projects in the region whose mobile cranes are not included in this count," said RLB.

In San Francisco, a "significant" decrease in crane activity was reported. Down to just 11 rigs at the most recent count, contractors closed out several projects. Completed projects so far has been mainly mixed-use, education and commercial. Residential construction in San Francisco continues to see an upswing. The industry anticipates a housing shortage in the Bay Area.

As a result, six rigs are taken for these new residential projects. The remainder are at work on the Southeast Treatment Plant project.

"The decrease in the number of tower cranes erected and the filing of crane permits underlines the general slowdown in construction investments," said RLB.

The firm also attributed the drop to "a more conservative approach to building projects in San Francisco."

Though overall the crane count in Seattle is down to 45, the survey found ups and downs in crane demand there in the past six months.

"There has been an increase in cranes on commercial projects," reported RLB, "but it's been offset by decreases in mixed-use and residential projects."

The result is a blanket decrease of six cranes, and Rainier Valley saw the biggest drop.

The survey noted that of the 45 machines currently at work, 36 are brand new since the last count six months ago.

In Toronto, crane numbers remained consistent throughout the year. In fact, just a one percent increase of two cranes was noted since the year opened.

"The residential sector continues to see the most consistent growth in crane count, up seven more cranes this quarter," reported RLB.

The survey found, however, that the hospitality sector has dropped by four cranes in the past six months.

"It's worth noting that behind the relatively consistent crane counts, there's been a very active ongoing construction scene," the firm said.

The survey counted more than 50 new projects that launched cranes in the past six months. Of those, 41 are residential, seven commercial and three institutional.

"The construction industry in Washington, D.C., is thriving, with numerous residential projects under way," said RLB.

It said the NoMA and Union Market neighborhoods, as well as the Navy Yard, are seeing significant growth.

"Watch for continued development in the Buzzard Point neighborhood near Audi Field." CQ