Construction output forecast to grow to €32bn this year, fast approaching the heights of the Celtic Tiger era of €38bn. AECOM predicts 2022 housing output will exceed the government’s own forecast, while cost inflation and labour shortages continue to challenge the sector.

An annual construction industry review, published by infrastructure consulting firm AECOM predicts that the value of construction output will grow by 18.5% this year, from €27bn to €32bn.

Annual house completions

This is just €6bn short of levels recorded at the height of the Celtic Tiger. However, when inflation is accounted for the volume of output remains behind what it was 15 years ago, evident by employment figures and annual house completions.

The firm said it was hopeful there would be no further lockdowns resulting in construction site closures in 2022 and that unlike the past two years the industry would have a full year of activity.

AECOM said the planned capital investment by the government of more than €11bn, as included in Budget 2022 and Ireland’s 2040 update of the National Development Plan, should provide a strong backbone for the industry to grow to such levels. However, it warned that there would be some significant challenges ahead for the industry. 

The firm predicted that the residential sector, driven by strong public expenditure, is on track to significantly increase completions this year and should well exceed the government’s ‘Housing for All’ target of 24,600 units coming off the back of 32,000 commencements in 2021. This compares with 21,068 in 2019, 20,500 in 2020 and what is expected to be a similar level in the 2021 outturn figures. This is well short of what the market needs.

It said cost and tender price increases in 2021 saw many residential projects come close to the viability tipping point and warned that this would continue to be the case if the industry does not return to more balanced increases this year. Strong investment in the pharmaceutical, medical devices and data centre sector also looks set to drive increased activity over the next 12 months.

Rapidly expand output

AECOM said there has been significant pressure on the construction sector to rapidly expand output to meet targets in terms of housing and infrastructure delivery.

A critical issue is providing the necessary skills for the sector given the pipeline of work to transform and transition the Irish economy as outlined in the National Development Plan and the Climate Action Plan. 2021 saw AECOM’s tender price index increase by 10% due to a combination of material price and labour cost increases.

A shortage in skilled labour for key trades is a problem that pre-dates the pandemic but has been exacerbated by Covid-19. The average number of people employed in the industry in the first half of 2021 was around 125,000 which was 16.5% less than the pre-pandemic high of 150,000 in the third quarter of 2019.

There are some signs of improvement with the number jumping by 15% to 146,000 in the third quarter of 2021. AECOM warned that there was no room for complacency as the industry must continue to attract more workers to meet demand and achieve its full growth potential.

Director of AECOM Ireland John O’Regan said: “Resilience and recovery have been recurring themes in the economy over the past 12 months and despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, overall, 2021 was a stable year for the construction sector.

"While output for 2021 is broadly in line with 2020, the figure masks the fact that outputs varied across different sectors with increases in some balancing out decreases in others. When it comes to construction costs and tender prices, the outlook for 2022 remains uncertain because of continued volatility in the market and the potential unknown impacts of another Covid-19 wave.

Key materials

"2021 saw the rate of increase in material prices increase higher than at any other time in recent history with the cost of key materials like steel, timber and electrical fittings increasing significantly.

"Due to increasing energy costs and logistic supply chain issues, it is unlikely that material prices will reduce or remain stagnant. Taking all of this into consideration, we expect construction cost inflation of approximately 3% this year and tender price inflation of approximately 5%.

"Overall, we are hopeful, albeit with an element of nervousness about the year ahead, but we can’t ignore the fact that we are facing a number of significant challenges particularly in relation to the supply of labour which must be addressed to make sure we can meet demand.”

The report also references the commitment made by government to achieve carbon neutrality and promote sustainability across the industry, and how supports and grant assistance will be required for the private sector to come on board and effect transformational action.