The economy is currently in a steep but short recession according to Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics, who hosted a webinar updating Dodge’s construction forecast for the year. In the webinar, titled “The Potential Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Construction Starts,” Branch said Dodge expects an economic rebound by the second half of 2021.

He pointed out that Dodge’s economic forecast was made using current assumptions. In this case, the forecast was made with the assumption that there would be 3-8 million confirmed U.S. infections, around 60,000-80,000 deaths and that infections would peak in May and abate by July.

“With a 1.5% fatality rate we’re expecting about 4 million confirmed infections, which is on the lower end due to physical distancing. But it comes at the cost of the economy,” said Branch. “Our usual data points haven’t captured the extent of the stoppage fully. The shear drop-off makes the drop in 2008 look somewhat gradual … We’re in a recession, full stop. We are trying to figure out the depth of the recession and what a potential recovery looks like.”

In January, Branch forecasted that the U.S. economy would grow 1.7% in 2020, a slowdown from the 2.3% growth in 2019. However, that forecast has been updated to a decrease of 2.2% in 2020, with a 2.5% decrease in the first quarter, an 18.3% decrease in the second quarter and a boost in the second half of the year assuming COVID-19’s peak is in May. Dodge expects the economy to grow 2.7% in 2021 with most of that growth in the second half of the year.

Residential Starts

Dodge had originally expected a 2% decline in 2020 for single family construction starts, but first quarter data was strong. However, Branch said that physical distancing and declining consumer confidence will erode the single family sector, leading to home sales crashing.

“Second quarter home sales could decline 50% to levels we saw in the Great Recession,” he said. “The spring and summer selling season is gone and this weakness might continue into the third quarter. As the virus recedes, we’ll start to see construction pick up but the economic damage will take time to repair and heal. We’ll also likely see a stronger exodus of millennials into the suburbs rather than urban settings.”

Branch expects strong single family growth in 2022 and 2023 but forecasts a -19% decline in 2020 starts and a 2% decline in 2021 starts.

Multifamily construction had been strong but Branch expected a 13% decline in that segment in 2020. However, he said that as the economy starts to recover it will take time for renters to repair their balance sheets.

“The multifamily market will contend with strong growth on the single family side going into 2021 and we’re expecting strong growth in the single family side to erode multifamily starts in 2021,” he said, adding that Dodge expects a 10% decline for multifamily starts in 2020 and 5% growth in 2021.

Commercial Starts

Heading into 2020 Dodge expected that commercial starts would decline 8% in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a more negative adjustment, but not to the same level as during the Great Recession since there wasn’t as much overbuilding as the pre-recession period of 2006-2007, according to Branch.

“The fundamentals for vacancy and occupancy rates have been very healthy. The federal government has been aggressive in the front side of this crisis in its attempts to insulate the markets which is overall good news for the commercial sector,” said Branch. “… Second quarter starts will be rough. For some markets, Q2 activity could decline as much as what we saw peak to trough in 2008-2009. The difference is the bounce back. By the time we get to the fourth quarter the level of starts activity should begin to return to normal.”

Dodge now forecasts a 16% decrease in commercial starts in 2020 and a 6% increase in 2021. However, there are winners and losers within the commercial sector.

Retail and Warehouse Starts

Retail has been declining in recent quarters due to online sales. Branch described it as one of the markets that gets hit hardest during recessions.

“This crisis accelerates the speed of permanent closings,” said Branch, adding that what’s bad for retail is generally good for warehouse construction.

While Dodge expects a hard hit on physical retail starts, it expects warehouse starts to remain strong.

Dodge adjusted its forecast for retail starts to a 33% decline in 2020 and an 8% increase in 2021. Dodge expects a 1% decline in warehouse starts in 2020 and a 7% increase in 2021.

Office Starts

The office sector has three segments: speculative offices, dedicated corporate headquarters and data centers. Overall, Branch said the office segment is less exposed than retail or hotels but more than warehouses.

“The speculative side is the weakest and most exposed, especially in large metro areas such as New York City. Big headquarter projects such as Amazon HQ2 in Arlington, Va., are well planned and unlikely to be pulled back,” he said, adding that there should be significant growth in data centers.

Branch expects the office segment to be a bit slower in its recovery due to the speculative side. Dodge forecasts a 13% decline in office starts in 2020 and an 8% increase in 2021.

Hotel Starts

Branch said that hotel starts have been highly impacted by the pandemic. He believes people will be hesitant to travel until a vaccine or treatment is available, impacting the segment’s recovery. Hotel starts saw an 8% decline in 2019 and Dodge expects it to decline another 31% in 2020 before increasing 4% in 2021.

“Beyond 2021, the market is primed to get back into the large territory it was in during the 2014-2017 period,” said Branch.

Manufacturing Starts

Manufacturing starts reached 85 million square feet in 2018 and declined 21% in 2019 to 67 million square feet. However, Branch said there aren’t a lot of large projects in the pipeline to suggest that it will get back to the 2019 level.

“Will we see manufacturing come back to the United States? I’ll say a hesitant yes. We could see high-value manufacturing come back but there are many issues to deal with such as a shortage of skilled, high-tech manufacturing employees. These are similar workforce issues as faced in the construction industry,” said Branch. “Supply chains take a long time to recalibrate and normalize … the industry will likely hit an equilibrium in the mid to high 60 million square feet level past 2021.”

Dodge expects manufacturing starts to fall 22% in 2020 and fall another 2% in 2021.

Institutional Starts

The institutional market usually lags behind the overall business cycle. Institutional starts saw a decrease of 3% in 2019 and Dodge now expects a 7% decline in 2020 and a 3% increase in 2021.

Education makes up over half of the total institutional market. Branch explained that Gen Z and the younger generation are smaller than the millennial age group, and so Dodge doesn’t expect to see the same growth rate as prior to the recession.

“Many states and local areas will suffer revenue shortfall at the same time that costs in terms of social programs increase which could undermine the market,” said Branch.

Dodge expects education starts to fall 2% in 2020 and increase 3% in 2021.

Branch explained that in the healthcare sector there had been a greater shift from traditional hospitals to outpatient facilities and urgent care clinics, which have proved inadequate in the COVID-19 situation.

“The construction has not kept up with population growth,” said Branch, who expects to see investment in the healthcare industry grow.

Dodge expects healthcare starts to increase 5% in 2020 and 8% in 2021.

Recreation starts, which include sports arenas and casinos, will be hit hard by COVID-19. Dodge expects to see a 30% decrease in starts in 2020 and a 4% increase in 2021.

Transportation starts, which include airport projects, are expected to fall 13% in 2020 and a further 6% in 2021.

To conclude, Branch told the audience to be prepared for a painful second quarter, that 2021 will be better than 2020 and that 2022 will be better than 2021.


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