What Is the Architecture Billings Index (ABI)?

The Architecture Billings Index (ABI) is a leading economic indicator of demand for non-residential construction activity. This includes both commercial and industrial buildings. A positive ABI can be a sign of strength or recovery in the broader economy, while a negative ABI can signal weakness or a coming downturn.

Key Takeaways

  • The Architecture Billings Index (ABI) is an economic indicator that offers a nine- to 12-month glimpse into the spending and demand for non-residential construction activity.
  • Commercial and industrial building activity includes the construction of hotels, office buildings, multi-family residences, schools, hospitals, and other institutional buildings.
  • A score of 50 and above indicates an improvement in levels of construction in the non-residential sector but it does not necessarily indicate stronger demand because the index does not quantify responses from firms.
  • It is used in combination with other economic indicators, such as New Home Sales, in order to make sense of the overall economic picture.
  • A positive ABI can be a sign of strength or recovery in the broader economy, while a negative ABI can signal weakness or a coming downturn.

Understanding the Architecture Billings Index (ABI)

The Architecture Billings Index (ABI), produced by the AIA Economics & Market Research Group, is based on responses to the American Institute of Architect's (AIA's) monthly Work-on-the-Boards survey, which asks the principals and partners of AIA member-owned architectural firms whether their billing activity for the previous month grew, declined, or remained flat.

With headquarters in Washington, D.C., the AIA has been collecting data from its members through this survey for over 20 years. The ABI offers an approximately nine- to 12-month glimpse into the future of nonresidential construction spending activity. Commercial and industrial building activity includes the construction of hotels, office buildings, multi-family residences, schools, hospitals, and other institutional buildings.

Monthly results are seasonally adjusted to allow for comparison to prior months. The regional and sector data are formulated using a three-month moving average. The change in billing activity provides insight into the level of demand for design services from architectural firms, which in turn provides insight into the level of interest in constructing new buildings.

The ABI provides insight on a national level as well as a regional level and is broken down by sector. In the U.S., in January 2020, before the recession due to the pandemic, the national ABI stood at 52 for billings and 56 for design contracts. As of November 2020, the latest information provided, the ABI has decreased since then and stands at 46.3 for billings and 48.6 for design contracts.

What Do the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) Scores Mean?

A score of 50 indicates a balance between positive and negative reports, while a score of 100 indicates all firms reported improvements. A rise in the index above 50 means that more firms reported an increase in demand for design services than reported a decline in demand.

It's important to note that a rise in the index above 50 is not a direct measure of the rise in demand, because the survey does not ask firms reporting stronger demand to quantify the level of increase in demand, nor does it provide information on the size of those firms. That being said, higher readings in the ABI generally coincide with growing demand.

The ABI affects numerous types of businesses, from architecture firms to reprographics companies to contractors. Design and construction firms consult ABI when doing strategic planning and determining business-cycle shifts as it is a good indicator of market fluctuations and construction trends. The AIA also offers an Inquiries Index, which measures potential business as opposed to actual business.

Benefits of the Architecture Billings Index (ABI)

Financial experts and advisors look at the ABI in combination with other economic indicators such as New Home Sales, lumber futures prices, and gross domestic product (GDP) data, to help understand the state of the economy and to help with investment decisions.

The ABI also helps companies involved in the design and construction process in a variety of different ways. For example, it can help architectural firms with budgeting, identifying opportunities, resource management, hiring and payroll management, and share guidance.