So Many Choices
Finding a Favorite Decking Material Among Countless Options
By Samantha Carpenter and Megan Headley
Deck builders have more options in materials today than ever before. The look of woodgrain can be found in composite materials, vinyl and plastic. Low maintenance properties mean homeowners can delight in an additional room without any of the extra work. And inventive ways of using wood can result in steep curves and angles to create a unique look. However, part of the deck builder’s job is guiding the customer into a choice for materials, and even with endless options, research and experience typically lead builders to one preference.
“They [manufacturers] all have good products but you can’t go to a customer and offer them 68 different products—their heads would spin,” says Norman Boell, a deck designer/builder and the owner/operator of Knock on Wood Construction in Nazareth, Pa.
It’s a good point. So how do deck builders keep their heads from spinning with all the options available? How do they narrow down the options to just one?
What’s Out There?
The look of wood can be an important part of a deck—it’s proof enough that manufacturers aim to make even plastic decking materials imitate the natural grain look of wood.
“There’s no doubt people like the grain pattern and the look of wood,” says Huck DeVenzio, manager of marketing communications for Arch Wood Protection.
But proponents of using wood say that other characteristics make wood superior to alternative materials.
“The exotic hardwoods and all of the plastic or composite products are leaps and bounds more costly than Western red cedar,” says Paul Mackie, Western area manager for the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association. “Western red cedar is the second most affordable deck choice in the market. The most affordable is treated lumber.”
“[With treated wood] you are going to get more deck for your money,” says
Lankford Smith, a deck designer/builder who co-owns, with his wife Linda, Woodscapes Inc. of Chesapeake, Va., says that the labor cost is about the same whether he is using composites or wood materials. For composites, he agrees, “the material cost is almost 2 ½ times the cost of wood.”
Still, he adds, “I use the expression … ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ If you get composites, you pay me now and you don’t have to pay anybody later to pressure-wash it and stain it for the next 25 years.”
Tero Pitkanen, North American product manager for Weyerhaeuser, agrees that the cost of composites starts out higher than for wood.
“You have to look at the life-cycle cost. It [cost of composites] comes out equal to or less expensive in the long run than the wood decking,” says Pitkanen. “When you figure in the labor and framing, the actual decking cost is a very small portion of the cost of an installed deck. Maybe it’s $200 more on a $5,000 job. It becomes insignificant.”
In addition to cost comparisons, there is the increasing importance of green building.
“Wood is a green building material,” says Mackie. “It comes from a renewable resource.”
Making the Case for Alternative Materials
Manufacturers of alternate decking materials are just as quick to point out the benefits of their products when it comes to creating a deck that lasts, however.
“The low-maintenance aspect is the primary sell for composite decking. Cedar decks require a lot of maintenance over their life cycle,” says
Maintenance-free is a big buzzword for most customers.
“These days people … have a limited amount of time, so the materials tend to get pushed toward things that are maintenance-free,” says John Breiling, a master deck builder and owner of Northwest Exteriors by John Breiling in Beaverton, Ore.
“The consumer wants something they can enjoy but they don’t have to spend a lot of time maintaining,” says Smith. “They’re looking for a long range, ‘I don’t have to mess with it’ application.”
Occasional scrubbing or power washing are typically all that’s recommended for composite, vinyl and plastic decking.
“Standing water should be removed to prevent mold, mildew and dirt build up,” says Bob Borkoski of VEKA marketing.
DeVenzio acknowledges, “Wood does deteriorate. We’ve seen wood out for 15 years. You do need some maintenance with wood.” However, he adds, “We haven’t seen composites out for that
long. Homeowners shouldn’t be fooled that there won’t be any maintenance with a composite. There are coatings made especially for them, too.”
Smith says, “Suntan lotion, ketchup and mustard will stain some of the composite decks.” He adds, “Most of the composites that are used from plastics or wood materials—they will scratch.”
Customers Ask All
Deck builders have noticed that these days, their clients don’t only know that they want a deck, but they also know what they want it made of, how it should look, what characteristics it should have and so on. In other words, homeowners are doing their homework to find out what’s out there.
Boell says that many of his customers will mention a product name specifically, such as Trex or ChoiceDeck, and that his company will cater to that. Other times the homeowner will describe the characteristics they seek.
“A lot of times they’ll go in, they’ll say they’re looking for … something with no maintenance, and you sort of tell them about different products,” says
“It’s customer driven,” agrees Breiling. “Typically my clients that want cedar, they already know it, they’ve seen it in person.”
Smith can relate. He is currently working on an aluminum deck in Virginia Beach along the Atlantic Ocean.
“That’s something that the person I’m doing the project for requested,” he says.
On a 90°-plus July day, the aluminum was still cooler to the touch than composites or wood, Smith reported—showing once again that the homeowners know something about the products they’re choosing.
“Today’s consumer is very Internet-smart,” says Smith. “It used to be ‘what kind of deck do you want; I recommend you use this.’ Now they say, ‘we’ve researched this and that’ and they throw these folders down in front of you…”
Research tools such as Consumer Reports make it easy for homeowners to learn about the qualities of deck building materials on the market today.
“It happened about five years ago; all of a sudden boom! ‘This is what we want, thank you very much,’” says Smith.
As Breiling notes, that kind of involvement can be a good thing.
“My best jobs are the ones where the clients are the most involved,” Breiling says. “My clients know their homes best.”
“I’m pretty good at listening to the things they want and embellishing on it,” says
And the embellishing is key, because while homeowners may think they know what they want, it’s still the deck builder’s job to guide them through the decision making process and then create a deck that lives up to their ideas.
As Steve Esponaste, owner of Esponaste Building in Philadelphia, notes, “They have an idea [of what they want] but they still ask me what I think.”
Working with the Lumberyard
As important as it is to work with the customer, these builders say they purchase their materials from distributors and lumberyards that are willing to work with them.
“What’s driven my love of cedar is the hands-on help of my local lumberyards,” says Breiling. “I’ve always taken that to the distributor level, to take it almost to the mill level, and specify it at the lengths I need.”
“I get all my lumber from 84 Lumber,” says Boell. “I shop there because … they take care of me, they have great service. If I need something, they bring it in.”
Smith finds his lumber from Commonwealth Lumber in Hampton, Va.
“I prefer them because they are a lumberyard, and I’ve tried other companies and I didn’t get the quality of decking,” says Smith. “I’m more interested in my decking. Framing lumber is framing lumber, and no one sees that.”
Smith adds that he never purchases wood from big box retailers, because in those stores customers are able to pick through the lumber for the best pieces, leaving the rest for the store associate taking care of his order.
“When I order 150 pieces of decking, I don’t want to take 20 to 30 percent of them, turn them over to the side and say these aren’t up to my standards,” says Smith.
However he adds that with Commonwealth Lumber, he feels confident that should such a problem occur the company would be quick to rectify it.
When you find a company you like, Smith says, “They go that extra mile.”
For these builders of custom decks, going that extra mile is a matter of course. They are finding more and more that materials exist that are able to live up to the demands of their unique decks.
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