Décor: Decks

Decks have come a long way since the early 1980s when the structures became a staple of American suburbia. Many of those early decks have reached the end of their lives, and replacements are in order. But don’t expect your clients to be content with the 20th century’s simple wooden rectangle.

Thanks to an outdoor-room trend in “hyper drive” and an explosion of options and possibilities, homeowners are now apt to ask for multi-level decks, separate living areas, storage space, color, intricate shapes and an array of materials, says former contractor Jeff Wilson, host of DIY Network’s “Build a Deck” and an advisor for Thompson’s Waterseal. While consumers are driving this development, “it’s important for landscapers to have a big arsenal of things to show them,” Wilson says. “Have some tricks up your sleeve; have some design ideas.”

Mixing materials and 50-year life spans
The majority of decks in the United States are built of treated pine, redwood or cedar, but synthetic materials and exotic hardwoods are gaining ground, Wilson says.

Ahmed Hassan, owner of Ahmed Hassan Landscaping in San Francisco and a contributor to HGTV’s “Landscape Smart,” says the trend in his area is toward ipe and synthetics, although redwood remains the dominant deck material.

Low-maintenance synthetic decking has changed a lot during the past decade, and now has a realistic wood-grain look, Hassan says. Manufacturers are generating a plethora of designs, patterns and colors. “I think synthetics are going to continue to grow and will eventually out-compete wood,” Hassan says.

Ipe, a South American hardwood, is sought after for its exotic look and incredible durability. Naturally resistant to insect and fungal attacks, ipe is six times harder than cedar and can last up to 50 years, although it costs about three times as much as treated pine. If you plan to start using ipe, be prepared to follow a different set of rules than you do for domestic wood products. Ipe quickly blunts cutting tools, and you have to wax the ends of cuts, Hassan says. Otherwise water will get into the grain and swell. “If you were used to redwood and didn’t know that, you’d be in for a bad surprise,” Hassan says. Because the wood is so dense, you have to pre-drill holes for nails and screws.

Mixing nontraditional deck material with wood is becoming common. Glass, iron, aluminum and stainless steel balustrades and rails are now pre-fabricated, making installation quick and lowering price by eliminating the need for custom work at a specialty shop. Wilson says there isn’t a particular alternative railing that’s more popular than others. “The trend is that there are more options, so people are going with something other than the standard wood railing,” he says.

Today’s decks often incorporate a host of other materials such as tile and stainless steel as part of an outdoor kitchen, clay or metal fire pits and ponds or other water features.

The ‘green’ factor
Hassan says synthetic products are the most eco-friendly because trees aren’t destroyed to make them. But Wilson says some synthetic products aren’t as good for the environment as most people think. When synthetic lumber was first manufactured, it was made of wood flour and recycled plastic. But during the past five to 10 years, because of high demand, some
manufacturers have turned from recycled materials to virgin polymer, Wilson says. Another drawback: as oil prices climb, so does the cost of composite materials made from these polymers. If green is important to your customers, Hassan recommends contacting manufacturers of synthetic decking to find out what portions of their products come from recycled sources.

Wilson says sustainably harvested wood is the most environmentally responsible choice for deck material. Treated pine, cedar and redwood sustainably harvested often carry a certification label from the Forest Stewardship Council (www.fsc.org). You can even find sustainably harvested ipe, which is particularly controversial because it grows in rainforests.

But Hassan counters that “sustainably harvested” usually only means a portion of the profits from the sale of the wood is used to support other forest growth. “Using ipe is not going green,” he cautions. Researching products and letting your clients decide what they’re comfortable with may be the best you can do.

Creating rooms
People whose five- or six-year-old glorified grill used to pass as an “outdoor kitchen” now want a larger affair with separate dining and living areas. Decks and deck-patio combinations can help delineate space.

Even a small elevation change – one step up, for example – can set off a room. Different materials on the ground also define space. Wilson, for instance, used flagstone in his kitchen and dining areas, breaking them up with brick pavers, and cedar decking for living-room-like space. Screening part of a deck also creates a separate room and allows homeowners to expand indoor space by leaving a door open.

Color and shape
Not long ago, there were only five or six wood-toned deck stains. Now there are hundreds if not thousands of options and the stains are combined with weather-proofing products.

The most common reason to use stains is still to make an old deck look new again. Hassan says he usually coats new decks with a clear weather-proofer, which enhances the wood’s color. Later, tinted products disguise discoloration or new wood used to make a repair, bringing back the deck’s original color and consistent appearance. If your clients like the weathered look of their deck and a repair ruins consistency, Hassan says there are tricks for disguising that as well. Allowing new redwood to soak up a mixture of baking soda and water, for instance, makes it turn gray.

Using less-neutral shades as accents also is becoming popular, Wilson says. These can go on railings, planters or furniture. Wilson used treated pine for the fascia and supports of his cedar deck and disguised them with a gray weather-proofing stain that tied in with concrete countertops and the flagstone patio.

With so many color choices, your clients could be overwhelmed. Wilson says contractors who refuse to help clients pick colors, fearing they’ll be blamed if the homeowner isn’t happy with the result, are short-sighted. “As color becomes more of a trend, a quick primer on the color wheel and color theory could be a huge help to their clients,” he says.

If construction is outside your company’s field of expertise, consider partnering with a deck builder. Hassan says he relies on a network of craft specialists, including one who focuses on deck building and accompanies him when he meets with clients who want decks. “When we as landscapers want to look good, we fortify our network with other professionals,” he says. “That way, we continue our education and do justice to the industry. That’s what it’s all about.”

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