The numbers are in and they don’t paint the picture many had hoped. Has the U.S. construction market reached a tipping point? Is it headed for a recession? New market analysis suggests after a decade of uphill growth the number of total construction-starts are starting to dip downward and it looks like it will continue through 2020. Dodge Data & Analytics has just released the 2020 Dodge Construction Outlook this past week and while the market hit $815 billion in 2018, the report predicts it will decrease 1% before the close of 2019 to $809 billion and a further 4% in 2020 to $776 billion.

By sector, here’s what the Dodge report research reveals. The residential space hit a 3% decline in single-family housing starts compared to the previous year, and next year, the market will plummet as much as 5% more to 765,000 units (down from 833,000 in 2018). To make matters worse, multifamily housing, which peaked at 542,000 units in 2018, will nosedive in 2019 by as much as 11% this year and is predicted to plummet by a whopping 15% in 2020. Dodge’s analysis suggests an even steeper decline in multifamily housing is due to this sector’s more robust recovery since the last recession—particularly in the past eight years.

In commercial construction, Dodge’s research looks at segments like stores and shopping centers, commercial warehouses, office buildings, and hotels and motels. Overall, the commercial construction market will dip with starts dropping 2% before the end of this year. In 2020, commercial square footage and dollar value will decline 10% (to 670 million square feet) and 6% (to $119.5 billion), respectively.

Retail construction (stores and shopping centers) didn’t have a stellar recovery after the recession, according to Dodge, but that doesn’t mean this sector will escape the latest downturn. Dodge also anticipates retail starts to continue to fall through 2020 to $14.7 billion, which is down from $21.1 billion at its peak in 2016. The trend toward e-commerce continues to negatively affect the retail market as a whole, which has transferred to the retail construction sector.

A drilled-down look into retail construction provides even more insight. Only nine of the top 20 retail chains (based on largest dollar value) broke ground on new construction in the first half of this year. Renovations tended to take precedence over new construction this year, which reflects broader trends in the retail space. As e-commerce chips away at brick-and-mortar sales and investment remains heavier on the e-commerce side of the equation, physical retailers are looking for ways to create engaging in-store experiences that will keep customers around their existing stores, and they may be less likely to splurge on new retail space.

Commercial warehouse construction, on the other hand, fared well during the post-recession recovery period, increasing more than 500% between 2011 and 2017. It’s no coincidence that retail construction recovery was sluggish while commercial warehouse construction recovery boomed. Trends in the retail space—notably, e-commerce—have demanded a sharp increase in commercial warehouse square footage. Even this sector, though, is expected to begin to cool off, with a 13% decrease in square footage and a 10% decline in dollar value by 2020.

In office building and hotel/motel construction, Dodge anticipates similar downward trends. For clear reasons, office-building construction tends to mirror the overall economy. After one more year of gains (in 2019), office construction too will decline by 4% in terms of square feet and 2% in terms of dollar value in 2020. As business and leisure travel is expected to slow down, hotel and motel construction starts will feel the effects, with square feet dipping 15% and dollar value dipping 11% next year.

In contrast to the overall downward trend, the construction of education buildings and health facilities may modestly increase. Institutional building construction with the steepest expected drop in 2020 will be in the recreational building sector, and manufacturing starts is expected to take a big step backward in 2019 and another small step backward in 2020. And, interestingly, electric utilities and gas plant construction will do a flip-flop in 2020, dropping 27% after a huge 83% increase in 2019, due to several LNG (liquefied natural gas) construction and wind projects breaking ground.

Most indicators point to the fact that the U.S. construction industry has indeed reached its tipping point. While the downward trend anticipated by Dodge is nothing like the recession the construction industry experienced 10 years ago, industry players should be prepared for a period of slowed growth across nearly every sector. The bigger question is whether the construction industry is doing enough to batten down the hatches to prepare itself to survive the potential coming crisis.

Peggy Smedley
Peggy Smedleyeditorial director