Wood Decks Naturally Appeal

At first glance, the introduction of composite decking materials during the past several years seems to have overshadowed wood, the traditional decking material. Decks and outdoor living as a concept and a market have grown significantly along with new materials and related accessories. A consumer preference for low-maintenance products has no doubt cultivated interest in composites.

So, is wood passé? One might think so from the lack of response from major lumber producer associations asked to comment for this article. A closer look suggests that natural cellulose fiber is still of interest to some homeowners.

Wood decking will continue to account for the majority of decking demand in volume and value terms through 2014, according to the most recent forecast by Cleveland-based Freedonia Group. However, demand for wood decking is forecast to rise only one-half of one percent annually to 2.7 billion lineal feet in 2014. Although gains will be restrained by competition from composite and plastic decking materials, interest in tropical hardwoods, such as ipe, will provide growth opportunities in the residential building and nonbuilding construction markets.

Although wood currently maintains a solid share of the market, composites are gaining ground. “Wood-plastic composite and plastic lumber decking materials are expected to experience double-digit demand gains through 2014,” the Freedonia report says. “Composite decking will account for nearly 70 percent of demand growth in lineal foot terms through 2014.”

Composites Come On Strong

“Composites have come on very strong in the last few years, and they are making some headway,” says Lisa Ayala, North American sales manager for Accoya, an acetylated wood modification process that its maker says adds durability and stability to lumber products, “but what I’m really seeing is a trend back toward wood because of its organic properties and the fact that it’s a natural resource; people are looking for that,” she says.

“Wood still has a stake in the ground,” agrees Kelly Lusa of The California Redwood Co., Arcata, Calif., who notes that she sees three primary categories in the wood market: cedar, redwood and Southern Pine. She sees demand for the different species somewhat dependent on geographical proximity. “If you’re closer to the redwood growing area, that’s the primary market for redwood; if you’re closer to the cedar zone, that’s your market.”

Lusa also notes that homeowners, instead of expanding the footprint of their homes, are expanding the footprints of their decks, thus expanding the total living space and increasing the value of their homes. “It gets people out there engaging with their families, their yards and their neighbors and communities,” she says.

Ayala says she has seen the same thing and feels the trend is growing. “People are done remodeling the inside of their homes and are now moving outdoors and want to spend more time around the house,” she says. The question now is, “How can we make our outdoor living space more desirable and more entertainment-ready? You see outdoor kitchens popping up, and people are really doing different things to their decks. I think that trend is here to stay, and I think it’s going to evolve even more,” she adds.

Composites have gained market share because of their promise of low maintenance, Ayala acknowledges. She contends, however, that a process such as Accoya offers a wood deck product homeowners also won’t have to spend as much time maintaining. “I think we’re a strong competitor to the composites,” she says.

Ayala emphasizes acetylated wood is not the same as pressure-treated lumber. “It’s not really a treatment; it literally is modifying the wood by stabilizing the hydroxyl group of molecules,” she says.

“It is a more expensive process than typical pressure-treated wood,” she acknowledges, “but the process offers lower maintenance, and it’s going to last a lot longer without rotting and decaying.” The price point is about the same as a tropical hardwood such as mahogany, she says.

As for pressure-treated lumber, there are a number of treatment methods and some amount of confusion surrounding them. It is conceivable this has had an impact on consumer perception of wood as a deck material, although it nevertheless is a viable choice for many homeowners.

Natural Products Have Appeal

That aside, Claudia Schmutzler of Windsor Decks and Gardens in Corona del Mar, Calif., prefers wood. “I’m a purist; I like a natural product,” she says, noting that her clientele is primarily high-end homeowners. (One of her projects appears on our cover.)

She recounts she has built composite decks at the request of clients; one deck was quite substantial and involved an architect and structural engineer.

“When I’ve been successful in steering them toward natural wood, in the end they say they’re so glad they went with wood; they like it so much,” she adds.

Like Ayala, Schmutzler sees a movement back toward wood. “The trend I’m seeing is people coming back to the natural wood. I think that’s a good thing.

Schmutzler also notes that composites can be more expensive in initial cost, and dump fees are higher because it is generally a heavier product.

“If you scratch a redwood deck or if you spill something on it, you can sand it out and re-stain it. You can change the color, or you can paint it, so you’re not stuck. That’s something the average homeowner doesn’t stop to think about,” she says.

No More ‘Landing Strips’

Deck design, like materials, has come a long way from the “landing strip” decks of just a few years ago. “I’m not just a contractor; I am a designer, so I think out-of-the-box and am very creative in my designs. I try to always utilize the space in the yard to its maximum — every inch of it, especially here in Southern California where we pay so much money for every inch of property,” Schmutzler says.

“I always maximize the deck as much as I can. I like sometimes to do multilevel decks; that way you could have a dining area on one level and a seating area on another with a fire pit. I like to incorporate built-in benches and I like to incorporate lighting in my railing posts that I put on dimmer switches. My signature is a wall of floating windows that I will incorporate if I can as a divider between spaces on the deck,” she continues.

“I like to deck around an element like a fire pit or kitchen or pizza oven. I’ll build those first and then deck around them. People always seem to want to build an outdoor kitchen and push it up against the wall. Why don’t you put it in the middle so it becomes a focal point when you’re cooking and entertaining? Placement is very important,” she says.

Asked about the market share of wood, Schmutzler replies, “I do ask that question of my suppliers where I buy all my lumber, and they say definitely wood.”

The Green Factor

Composite manufacturers point out the relative green merits of their products, citing, among other things, the use of recycled materials. Lumber suppliers, for their part, say that wood is renewable, biodegradable and sustainably harvested.

“Consumers are really interested in getting authentic environmental messages about the products they are using, and they’re very wary of greenwashing,” Lusa says. The Pleasant Hill, Calif.-based California Redwood Association has launched a website (Rootedintruth.org) to promote the eco-friendly qualities of natural wood. Industry insiders say the association also sponsored a soon-to-be-released life-cycle assessment study of redwood versus plastic composite decking. Those with knowledge of the report say the results are “astounding” and “unexpected” in the degree to which they favor redwood. The results are to be released in the first quarter of 2013 on the rootedintruth.org website.

Aside from the environmental benefits of redwood, Lusa contends that for a deck builder redwood is “an enjoyable species of wood to work with; it’s easy to cut, finishes nicely, and takes paint and stain very well. There is a wide variety of grades to choose from whether you want the character of having knots and heartwood/sapwood combinations or a beautiful red hue; there is a lot of variety in the different grades of redwood available” to the homeowner and deck builder.

Give the Customer What He or She Wants

Paul Kish of Orlando, Fla.-based Kish Builders believes in giving the customer what he or she wants but raises the point that different decks for different folks might be a wise philosophy to pursue when meeting with clients.

“My experience has been that people who are handy and enjoy working with wood, but don’t really have the skill set to put a deck together, are nevertheless able to paint and finish it and enjoy doing it. They like working outside; it’s fun for them. They have little wood shops, and they’re very clean. These are the kind of people who will keep up a wooden deck. It could last a long time if you seal it periodically,” Kish says.

“Then there is the other type of person who will just leave a wood deck alone, not pay any attention and just let it fall apart,” he says. “Composite decks are the best choice for homeowners like that. Composite decks may require minimal cleaning, but I’ve never sealed one,” Kish states.

Kish doesn’t see a lot of difference between working with wood or working with composites. “Composites might be a little bit tougher to cut, and you’re really thinking you don’t want to have any waste,” he relates. “That’s kind of an issue, but there’s not much difference, really, though you really can’t rip it with a circular saw.”

His own preferences aside, Kish feels it’s best to steer customers to the product that’s best for them.