Low-Maintenance Lifestyle Drives Decking Market

Variation in climate and conditions, lot size and zoning restrictions make it difficult to normalize decking trends; however, one driving force in all markets is maintenance.

April 30, 2006
Sidebars:Design Do's and Don'ts

Variation in climate and conditions, lot size and zoning restrictions make it difficult to normalize decking trends; however, whether a deck is 350 square feet or 1,500, there is one driving force in all markets, and that's maintenance.

Maintenance is the one common factor in decking projects for two key reasons:

The emergence of low-maintenance decking materials has meant a spike in outdoor living projects in colder, wetter climates.Photo courtesy of Archadeck
  1. The busy, multifaceted lifestyle of today's homeowner necessitates a virtually maintenance free deck. "The trend in society is less maintenance. There are so many things to do with your time, so for customers, it's like, why spend time on your deck when you could be doing something else?" says Pat Nicholson, CR, CEO of Deckmasters Technologies, which is based in Upper St. Clair, Penn., but has additional franchises throughout the state and in Ohio, doing close to 800 decks annually.

  2. With the emergence of the trend toward all-season, year-round usability, clients need versatile materials and applications that can successfully withstand multiple conditions.

A universal objective of good deck design is to balance the ability to accommodate larger groups of people while still being intimate and private enough to woo the homeowner outside even when there's no party. "The goal is to create a nine-month family room where you have both cooking, eating, entertaining, games, etc., but also have it so people just spend their weekend or evenings in the backyard," Nicholson says.

A Deck of a Different Color

Material choices obviously vary by region, availability and price, but with composite decking gaining market share (up to 20 percent a year over the last 3-4 years in some markets), the wood deck of yesteryear is not the only option for today's customers. Paul Vosen, CR, president of Degenhardt Home Improvement in Madison, Wis., and Bob Barker, owner of Archadeck of South Puget Sound, in Gig Habor, Wash., both confirm composites' increasing popularity, saying the material is used in the majority of their projects (each company does approximately 20 projects annually). "The only time we're pricing out wood is when people just want a comparison price," Vosen says. "They know the composites are much more expensive, but the main reason they're even redoing their deck in the first place is because they're tired of wood, so I can't remember the last time we did a wood deck. And the nice things about composites are that the colors still weather the way that wood would, and using a wood grain composite can keep the look authentic."

Adding visual interest to a deck is as simple as creating angled stairs or running decking horizontally. Photo courtesy of Deckmasters

In a rainy climate like Washington, customers often opt for the low-maintenance composites because they are thought to better withstand the elements. Barker says the variety in composite color is also a big part of the attraction for his clients, and it's usually their most difficult choice. Using composites also makes it easier to create a bold, innovative two-tone deck in a wide range of colors. While Barker says two-tone decks are not common in his market and are often cost prohibitive, his company has done some of them. "My customers love the idea of not having to refinish a wood deck and just being able to wash the composite off; it's a great benefit to people who just don't have the time," he says.

A greater variety of options isn't limited to composites, though; as new, "exotic" wood species become more readily available, they make viable choices, too. Dave Tibbetts, owner of Atlanta Decking & Fence Co. of Cumming, Ga., says around 80 percent of his company's approximately 500 annual projects are done in wood, mostly using the southern yellow pine that is readily available in his market. Tibbetts has also incorporated Brazilian Ipe wood and old-growth Siberian larch, noting their respective resistance to water and strength.

Decking That's Inside-Out

Kitchens are often viewed as the "status" project of choice, a chance for people to really show off to friends, family and neighbors; however, decks have an even greater potential to make a statement because they're outside and readily visible, automatically available for the "how does my deck compare to so-and-so's" scrutiny and jockeying that sometimes fuel remodeling projects. "You want to have a deck that's nicer or bigger than your neighbors; It's outside and everyone can see it, so customers really want to floss," Nicholson says.

In this vein, it's imperative that the same considerations given to the interior be adapted for a deck to successfully create the "9-month family room." "What I really try for, and what works for most people, is if you can give them a graceful transition from the deck to the house, where you never feel like you automatically hit a staircase and you cheat the height of the deck downward," Tibbetts says. "I like to concentrate on widening the steps and impacting or creating views — figure out where ugly views are and buffer those, but also find the pretty views and focus around them. With a decking project, you are trying to give customers solutions they didn't even know they needed."

Creating enclaves, such as pergolas, gazebos and nurseries, and incorporating focal point and signature structures like swings, firepots and fireplaces, also brings an inside-out feel to a deck. "Roofs, screenings, columns and glass enclosures all help to create specialized/designed spaces within a deck," Nicholson says. "The idea is to do the deck "stage-built," leaving room and options to add or adapt later on."

Lighting — elaborate in number and programming schemes or simple inset structures — is also a way to make an inside-out presence in a decking area; for example, Barker incorporates lighting in the floor and posts to create a mood befitting evening cocktails. Additionally, giving a deck multipurpose functionality by building an adjacent carport or storage barn or allowing for storage underneath a raised deck gives it relevance and practicality even in the off-season.

Customizing a decking project by adding specialized spaces gives the customer perceived added value.Photo courtesy of Deckmasters

All Decked-Out?

Unlike many other types of remodeling projects, which are driven by the technology and desire for the bells and whistles created by various shelter and appliance industries, decks shine when they are approached simplistically, with primary consideration for spatial relationships rather than features and functions. "A small deck doesn't have to be a crummy box," says Tibbetts. "It can be very cut up and interesting, with angles and such."

"Without a doubt, angles are the key to everything — octagons, clipped corners, diagonal flooring," Nicholson says. "For example, you make three octagons versus one big square."

Another trend that 's consistent across markets is that customers are opting to enlarge their decks during the remodeling process, making them 20 to 40 percent larger than the existing footprint. Even though most customers already have the space, it's also important to identify less obvious areas such as hillsides or portions of a driveway that can be converted into deck space, says Nicholson.

Maybe, then, the best test of a successful decking project is size over substance — though hot tubs and elaborate entertainment systems are great if the customer has the space and budget. At the end of the day, however, the deck is a gathering place — and the more, the merrier.
"A deck is primarily about access, outdoor cooking and entertaining," Vosen says. "It's that simple."

Design Do's and Don'ts

To keep the decking space unencumbered, straightforward and adaptable:

  • Keep decks to one level. Though it's tempting to think of multi-level decks as more sophisticated and clever, one-levels often best serve the client in terms of function and cost; unless the deck is quite sizeable, anything more than two levels becomes confusing and affects flow rather than appearing as a sharp and clever design.
  • Use built-ins smartly and sparingly. While they tend to be popular for some customers — Barker says many of his customers like built-in benches and planters because of the functionality and simplicity they bring — too many built-ins can look contrived and limit the homeowner's placement of furniture and accessories.
  • Reserve design statements for the augmenting structures, such as the railings, steps and balusters. Using a copper, aluminum or steel-framed cable rail systems or even glass produces a slick, inexpensive look that avoids the feel of what Tibbetts calls an "adult playpen." Trellises, decorative pickets and tree workarounds also help to individualize a space, and incorporating floor inlays, or waterfalls and fountains large or small, can also give a deck personality.

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