Deconstructing decking material

Wood? Composite? Reclaimed materials? There are more options than ever — and more factors to consider.

Adding a deck is one of the easiest ways to increase a home’s living space and build a connection to the outdoors. For architect Gregg Hackett, adding a deck to his Linden Hills home was all about the enjoyment. “The value you get is from really using it,” he said. “Not everything comes down to dollars.”

But a deck can also add dollars to a home’s value if it’s done right, so it’s a good idea to think carefully about which decking materials to use and how they will look and perform over the long term.

Newer options — such as composites, plastic, aluminum and reclaimed materials — are challenging traditional hardwood’s rule over the decking world, but when balancing price, maintenance and sustainability, no single material comes out the clear winner.

Wood’s beauty requires work

For a long time, wood was the only real option when it came to decks, and despite a relatively recent surge of new materials, people keep turning to wood to build their outdoor living spaces.

Hackett opted to go with wood for his project. “I like the look of real wood, and I guess I’m just a traditional guy,” he said.

The authentic look and feel of real wood is a lure many homeowners can’t resist and keeps demand for the material high. The initial cost of a wood deck is also much lower than for other choices.

Like many people watching their pennies during this recession, Lynell Voigt, a Tangletown homeowner who recently rebuilt her 20-year-old deck, said “the price was right” for cedar.

The downside: Wood decks are relatively high maintenance. Colin Dickey from the Handy Pro Professional Handyman Service in Minneapolis said wood decks need to be cleaned and sealed once if not twice a year — especially horizontal surfaces, which are most likely to have snow or moisture resting on the surface.

“Wood is the most beautiful, but it’s definitely high-maintenance,” Dickey said. “It’s a lot of labor to properly clean and treat.” Without regular care, wood can easily crack, warp, become discolored, mold and rot.

The newcomer: Composites
Composite deck materials — relatively new in the decking world — are commonly made of a mixture of plastic and wood or other cellulose material, and are growing in popularity largely due to a surge in advertising boasting that the material is maintenance-free. But, as many Minneapolis contractors will tell you, not all composites are created equal.

Some composite decking manufacturers claim that their material will not rot or grow mold, but that is not always the case according to Luke Panek, president of All Decked Out in of Lakeville. Panek said composites do not need to be treated or stained like a wood deck, but that does not mean they are maintenance-free. Composites, especially those in shadier areas, are known to grow mold and should be cleaned about once a year with a deck cleanser.

Other factors to consider when looking into composites are the desired look and color. Composites come in an overwhelming array of colors, shapes, textures and sizes, including material that is embossed to simulate the look of real wood. But, like any material baking out in the sun, composites fade, Panek said, so homeowners need to be aware of how the color they choose will look in a few years after the sun has taken its toll.

Last, but certainly not least, composites are a much more expensive material and are trickier to install than wood. In fact, it’s almost double the price to install a composite deck, Panek said, partly because composites expand and contract, making installation a longer process. However, Panek said he feels the homeowner ultimately saves in down-the-road costs for sealers, treatments and maintenance that are required for a wood deck.

Other eco-friendly options

Beyond composites, eco-conscious consumers should consider entirely plastic, vinyl or aluminum decks, which are also low-maintenance, but may not have the look and feel they are looking for.

For homeowners who want the look and feel of real wood, but don’t want to cut down any trees, the Minneapolis ReUse Center has a wide range of reclaimed wood available for purchase. Brian Krausse, operations manager for the ReUse Stores, said the center takes down anywhere from 10 to 12 decks a year and resells the materials.

Homeowners can also look for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC encourages the use of rapidly renewable, local wood products, such as black ash or basswood, and takes travel distance and other green factors into account when approving materials.

After installing a reclaimed or sustainable wood deck, homeowners need to be careful with harsh wood chemical treatments, which can seep into the ground. Barak Brodni, owner of New Again Deck Renewal in Eden Prairie, said deck owners should avoid painting their decks because paint removal requires harsh chemicals. Brodni recommends a green friendly oil-based stain that can be removed with soap instead of a chemical stripper.

Once you’ve got it, keep it

Brodni also has tips for new deck owners who want to keep their outdoor living space looking good down the road. Simple steps include placing flower planters on small cement blocks rather than directly on the surface of the deck where they often trap moisture and leave dirt stains. Also, he suggests using a grease catcher under grills to avoid grease stains that are difficult to remove. And be sure to sweep up dead leaves — they can also leave stains on a wood deck.

Hackett said that it’s a good idea for homeowners to talk with several contractors to get advice before they start a deck project, especially on which materials would work best. Each homeowner will use this new outdoor space differently and will have different environmental circumstances to consider. But contractors agree: A well-built and maintained deck is a smart home-improvement investment that can add value to a home and provide a great place to gather and enjoy the outdoors.