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Construction Starts Dip in February

Total construction starts lost 1% from January to February dropping to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $767.5 billion. Large projects in the office and healthcare sectors provided a boost for overall nonresidential building, while residential and nonbuilding construction starts moved lower.

Highways and bridges were down 17%.

With only two months of data available for 2020, it is difficult to ascribe a 2020 trend. However, some perspective can be gleaned by examining a 12-month moving total. For the 12 months ending February 2020 total construction starts were 3% higher than the previous 12-month period. By major category, nonresidential building starts were 3% higher, while residential starts were up 1%, with nonbuilding starts increasing 7%.

In February, the Dodge Index moved lower to 162 (2000=100) compared to the 165 posted in January.

“The good news is that heading into the coronavirus pandemic, construction starts were stable. The economy was healthy fueled by continued steady job growth,” stated Richard Branch, chief economist of Dodge Data and Analytics. “Of course, the pandemic’s effect on future starts is as yet unknown. Construction firms will need to deal with multiple issues including supply chain disruptions, workforce constrictions due to the outbreak, and an economy that has moved from a pace near its long-term potential to a virtual stall within the space of a week. Over the next few months, many construction projects could see delays in start or longer times to completion based on shortages of supplies from China or a reduction in available labor due to spread of the virus. Still others may begin to see projects cancelled outright due to a sudden circumstantial change in demand. Planning data as reported to Dodge Data & Analytics will be watched closely to see if fissures are developing in the construction sector.”

Nonbuilding construction starts moved 9% lower from January to February, dropping to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $148.8 billion. The drop in February was the result of a 17% decline in the highway and bridges and a 22% drop in the utility/gas plant category. However, gains were seen in the miscellaneous nonbuilding category and environmental public works, which rose 14% and 1%, respectively.

The largest nonbuilding construction project to break ground in February was the $531 million Juno Solar Project in Borden County, Texas. Also starting in February was the $500 million Big Raymond Wind Farm, which is spread over Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron counties in Texas as well as the $406 million Pryor Mountain Wind Farm in Bridger, Mont.

For the 12 months ending February 2020, total nonbuilding starts were 7% higher than the 12 months ending February 2019. Starts in the utility/gas plant category were up 92% and environmental public works starts rose 3%. However, street and bridge starts were 8% lower and miscellaneous nonbuilding was down 14% for the 12 months ending in February.

Nonresidential building gained 7% in the month of February to $285.9 billion on the back of several large projects getting underway in the office and healthcare sectors. February’s commercial construction starts rose 7%, while institutional starts moved 13% higher. Manufacturing starts by contrast fell 27% in response to several large projects that broke ground in January.

The largest nonresidential building project to break ground in February was the $1.3 billion Two Manhattan West Office Building in New York. Also breaking ground during the month was the $800 million New Valley Hospital in Paramus, N.J., and the $760 million Disney/ABC Headquarters complex in New York.

On a 12-month basis, nonresidential building starts were 3% higher in the most recent 12 months than during the 12 months ending in February 2019. Commercial starts were up 7% in the past 12 months, while institutional starts were less than 1% lower. Manufacturing starts were down 2%.

Residential building starts moved 4% lower in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $332.8 billion. During the month, single family starts dropped 7%, while multifamily starts increased 3%.

The largest multifamily structures to break ground during in February were the $150 million Cambridge Crossing in Cambridge, Mass., and the $150 million 44 East Condo Tower in Austin, Texas. The $140 million Armature Works mixed-use project in Washington, D.C., was also one of the largest residential projects to break ground during the month.

For the 12 months ending in February, total residential starts were 1% higher than in the 12 months ending in February 2019. Single-family starts were up 3%, while multifamily building starts were 2% lower.