The ability to kick back on the back deck with a fresh glass of lemonade, unwinding under the stars, or enjoying the early morning rays with a steaming mug of coffee is a wonderful home amenity. Homeowners appreciate the extended living space and the bump in housing value decks can can bring.
Today, an increasing number of professionals are going green when it comes to building decks. Of course, just about every decking product claims to be green whether it is sustainably harvested lumber, wood composites made with recycled plastic, or aluminum decking and railing, so a careful review of product and material choices is essential.
“Direct product comparisons are a very complicated matter that varies by expectations, needs, budget, and location,” cautions Ryan Winchester, who runs his own deck building company, Winchester Decks, out of Vancouver.
For example, a great long-term decking choice might be aluminum, as its longevity and end-of-life recyclability may outweigh the fact that it is manufactured from non-renewable resources with high embodied energy. However, if the deck is likely to be replaced within 12 years, then building with local, renewable lumber might be a more reasonable option, says Winchester.
Although the time-honored all-wood deck is gradually losing market share—mostly to wood-plastic composites—it still remains the most popular decking choice. Locating Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative stamped lumber, is quite doable in many areas of the country, but there are still regions where those products are hard to find..
The other green-related issue is the fact that the wood must be treated for protection from termites and rotting. While the industry has definitely progressed from toxic chemicals to non-metallic preservatives for deck boards, all the environmental kinks have yet to be worked out. Purchasing kiln-dried lumber and coating it with low-VOC waterproofing is another way to extend wood life, but it’s not clear whether the intense energy used to heat the wood cancels out the environmental gain of abandoning the chemicals.
In terms of viable choices, a number of contractors recommend Ipe lumber. It’s a denser, more durable hardwood, sized specifically for deck construction, thereby reducing wood waste. Because it is so strong, Ipe is milled at 3/4”, instead of 1” to 1 1/2” of typical decking. In addition, it has the same ASTM flame spread rating as steel or concrete and has a longer life span than other decking materials, claims John Wilder, a Jacksonville, Fla.–based home builder.
In addition, cypress and cedar, at a lower price point, are also good quality options.
To protect the wood against water damage, Wilder recommends Anchor Seal to prevent the lumber from cracking over time. “The seal will literally add years of life to the wood without having to recoat,” he says.
Incidentally, Anchor Seal’s latest product AS2, which is a hybrid of polymers and petroleum wax, is advertised as non-toxic and made from renewable, natural ingredients with less petroleum-based raw material than the first-generation sealer.
While the U.S. demand for wood decking is predicted to remain flat through 2013, wood-plastic composites are expected to grow 9.5% annually, according to a 2009 report published by the Cleveland-based market research company, The Freedonia Group. In addition, another 2009 study by the University of Washington’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products discovered that while pressure-treated lumber is predominantly used for substructure applications, wood-plastic composites are now the market leader in deck surface applications across the United States, excluding the South.
While these composites got off to a rocky start as they weren’t quite as mold resistant and maintenance free as originally touted, the second- and third-generation product introductions are currently offering improved functionality and aesthetics, reports George Nader, owner of Nader Homes in Whippany, N.J. In particular, these newer “capstock” boards are coated for better durability, color retention, stain and scratch resistance, and often have a 25-year warranty.
Manufactured from wood fiber and varying amounts of recycled plastic, the first-generation composites were relatively green. However, it’s not clear if the newer products are being coated with eco-friendly materials. And while the durability of the composite’s core is a most desirable feature, environmentally, for some brands, it’s a con because the wood and plastic cannot be easily separated, and the scraps may end up in a landfill.
That said, builders do have many good quality composite products to choose from. For example, Trex, one of the oldest solid composites on the market, manufactures its most recent offering, Transcend, with 95% recycled content. And competitor Certainteed’s latest capstock product, EverNew, comes in natural-looking woodgrain embossed patterns and exotic hardwood tones.
In the hollow composites market, Keith E. Moore, vice president and director of construction of Burlington, Mass.–based Northland Residential, recommends Fiberon Premium Grade Decking as a great middle-of-the road price point for good quality. Meanwhile, Nader is optimistic about Azek’s newest lightweight decking product, which is a lot easier to work with and offers a number of attractive options.
TimberTech is another popular choice, recently intro-ducing its capped Earthwood Evolutions product, claimed to be the industry’s first fully capped plank. “What makes Earthwood Evolutions unique is the use of TimberTech’s HydroLock Technology, which fully encapsulates the board, minimizing the opportunity for moisture absorption, which causes warping. This translates into better capstock adhesion and reduces the need for aggressive embossing that creates crevices to trap dirt and debris,” explains Carey Walley, TimberTech’s director of marketing.
Moving on to railing systems, low-maintenance options and customized, decorative products are gaining traction.
“Trademark and Azek corner the market, while Fiber One is the up and coming player,” reports Moore. “All three are considered green building products.”
Another attractive offering to consider is TimberTech’s new Mix-and-Match selections for its RadianceRail line. With dozens of color combinations and different metal and glass balusters, the deck railing can easily be customized.
In addition, the individual components can be purchased separately as opposed to a complete kit, so builders can create shorter railing runs without buying unneeded parts, says Walley.
Also known for its decorative appeal is a full range of railing system offerings from Universal Forest Product’s Deckorators. In addition to balusters, post caps, post covers, post sleeves, and post base trim, some of the glass and metal post caps incorporate energy-efficient LED lighting for illumination and aesthetics.
The company also offers a neat interactive desk visualizer tool enabling users to build their own “virtual” deck.
Although made of a controversial plastic, PVC railings from companies such as Fypon and Fiberon are also popular choices, but Nader recommends looking at actual samples, as opposed to pictures, “because the touch and feel vary; some products can be easily spotted as PVC from a distance, while others are taken for wood.”
Not to be left out, old-fashioned wood, particularly cedar, offers much appeal and is competitively priced.
“Although wood railings require some maintenance, compared to the man-made alternatives, they continue to be the right choice for the consumer whose home styles and personal preferences demand natural products,” states Nader.
While there is a wide cost range when it comes to deck fasteners, experienced builders agree that you get what you pay for. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is basing decisions solely on sticker price and ending up spending a dollar to save a dime,” laments Winchester.
The least expensive and lowest quality option is galvanized fasteners, followed by pre-painted coated Zinc on the next rung of the price and quality ladder. Although stainless steel fasteners are the most expensive, builders recommend them for their durability and resistance to corrosion.
Stainless steel is well worth the cost, in Nader’s opinion. “Contractors should learn to charge premium for all stainless steel fasteners and hangers, especially in the case where deck manufacturers require them,” he says.
Although Moore is also a proponent of stainless steel, he says that many people aren’t crazy about the look, particularly the screw’s shiny head. Consequently, this is where hidden fasteners come into play.
Delivering a clean deck surface, the fasteners ease the installation process due to their compatibility with prefabbed, grooved planks.
In addition, with some products, it’s possible to secure a floor joist with just one fastener—as opposed to two traditional face screws—thereby saving on both labor and materials.
Another benefit is the fact that the fasteners do not come in direct contact with the elements, so the risk of nails popping up from the deck surface is eliminated.
At the same time, one concern about these systems is their ability to remain secure if the deck boards begin to warp or twist. As such, it’s important to use the fasteners with premium decking products, which are known for their dimensional stability. Another fastening option, and an affordable one, is adhesives, which both rot-proof the joints and permanently weld the wood together.
“Adhesives have the beauty of being an invisible fastener method, which is cheaper for material costs and actually saves on construction labor by more than 60%,” says Wilder.