Decked out with composite wood

Americans are looking for long-lasting, low-maintenance deck materials

With Des Moines, Iowa, warming up, Joan McCloskey looks forward to relaxing outdoors when she gets home from work at Better Homes and Gardens magazine. A senior executive building editor, she often heads for a backyard deck that may, at first glance, look like wood. It isn't entirely. The planks are a composite of scrap materials - waste wood fibers and recycled plastic grocery bags.

"Anybody who has ever had to replace a rotten deck usually thinks twice about how they will gain outdoor access without having the same problem arise," Ms. McCloskey says. Her personal choice was Trex Easy Care Decking, made by Trex Co., the largest manufacturer of nonwood decking materials in the United States.

These materials, which resist moisture, ultraviolet damage, and insects, accounted for only about 5 percent of the $2.5 billion Americans spent on decks last year.

Interest in these hybrid products is growing, however, as homeowners look for long-lasting, low-maintenance alternatives to wood, and the wood industry looks for ways to save trees and still make sales.

Maureen Murray, a spokesperson for Trex, says company sales jumped more than 50 percent last year. And since Trex is popular with remodelers, the forecast remains promising despite a slowdown in the economy and a possible decline in new housing starts.

"With people thinking they're going to be in their homes for a while," she adds, "they may say, 'I might as well improve what I have with a surface that is splinter-free and doesn't take all that staining and sealing every year.' "

The absence of splinters and popped nail heads is appealing, yet composite decking is hardly maintenance-free.

"It's not like a self-cleaning oven," Ms. Murray says. "You have to clean it, just like any outdoor surface. We recommend the typical deck scrubs and cleaners."

In the Pacific Northwest, moss is a problem regardless of the decking material, says Jim Schott, a spokesman for Weyerhaeuser, the exclusive marketer of ChoiceDek, an engineered wood product. "You have to power-wash that to clean it."

Although Weyerhaeuser offers ChoiceDek, it also is the largest producer and marketer in North America of Western red cedar, a leading source - along with redwood - of untreated deck lumber.

These naturally rot-resistant boards account for about 7 percent of decking materials, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center.

"This wood has a certain look and richness to it that's hard to replicate with a man-made product," Mr. Schott observes.

Preservative-treated (i.e., pressure-treated) lumber constitutes 85 percent of decking material, probably because it is generally the least-expensive option.

"The better-quality composite decking products probably fall in the price category that's closer to cedar or redwood," Schott says.

A Trex deck, Murray says, is probably about 20 percent - or $500 to $600 - more for a typical deck than one made of pressure-treated lumber.

But these materials do offer savings over time, in the form of money not spent on finishing products.

Composite decks can be stained or painted to achieve a personal color preference, but this nullifies the low-maintenance advantage. Trex comes in four colors: Natural, which weathers to driftwood gray; Winchester Gray, which weathers to deep gray; Medeira, a reddish-brown that fades slightly; and Woodland Brown, which is colorfast.

While the composites don't have a wood grain, they look more natural than solid plastic. They also have woodlike properties and require no special tools or fasteners; nails and screws work just fine.

There is hollow-core composite lumber on the market, which, while sturdy, may require custom fasteners and may require installation by contractors who know to leave gaps between composite boards, which don't shrink like wood, to facilitate cleaning of debris.

For customers looking for a composite deck, the undersupports - the standard beams and joists - still must be made of wood. Composite lumber doesn't have the needed load-bearing capacity, says Ed Hudson of the NAHB Research Center. "The decking material is not required to be as strong [as the supports]," he says. "It's sufficiently strong to walk upon, but not strong enough to hold the weight of many people.

Trex, which insists on having its products approved by the three major national building-code organizations, has introduced a new rail post, the only load-bearing product it offers.

Although many entrepreneurs are trying to gain a foothold in the synthetic decking business, there are only about a dozen or so manufacturers with significant distribution or manufacturing capability.

While engineered wood brands such as ChoiceDek and Fiberon are available at local lumber dealers and some hardware superstores like Lowe's and Home Depot, Trex is sold exclusively through lumberyards.

New trends in decks

Decks are the favorite addition to the American home.

They beat out kitchens, baths, sunrooms, and a host of other projects in the latest Better Homes and Gardens home improvement contest for readers.

"We Americans just love being outdoors," says Joan McCloskey, a senior editor with the magazine. "We really want to make our yards as pretty as possible."

More than ever, perhaps, decks serve not only as another "room" of the house, they provide what Ms. McCloskey calls a "peaceful kind of retreat from the high-tech offices we work in."

When Better Homes and Gardens began using contest entries to track do-it-yourselfer trends about 20 years ago, decks were usually less eye-pleasing than they are today.

"They were helipads," McCloskey says, comparing their flat, elevated expanses with helicopter landing areas. "They often were tacked on behind two-story colonials. They were always built of treated lumber in those days, and probably had a Weber kettle [grill].

"Today they are much more compartmentalized. You've got a portion of the deck that will be for cooking, another for a hot tub, and maybe another for lounging in the sun, all on different levels."

Old railings can really date a deck, she says, adding that attractive new railings are improving the look and adding privacy.

"People don't want the neighbors looking in on their barbecue parties, so the railings [and balusters] have almost become fences - higher and more dense," McCloskey observes.

Although their reputation as affordable, doable projects continues to make decks popular, some homeowners are opting for patios, which sometimes blend better into the natural landscape.

According to the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, poured concrete accounts for 60 percent of patio/porch materials; with the rest in concrete pavers, bricks, stone, or slate over a sand or concrete base.

"Patios are a new trend, and something we should watch," McCloskey says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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