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Scrap the wood

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Composite deck materials were once out of reach for many homeowners but the pricing gap when compared to pressure treated lumber has narrowed. The variety of style, materials and colours also allows for a little more creativity in your deck design. Photo: Archadeck of Nova Scotia

Is it time to consider alternative decking materials?

“They don’t make wood like they used to,” says my neighbour, a retired hardware store owner whose sense of humor is drier than summer kindling, as he surveys my chipped, gouged, bleached, and blanched backyard deck. “You can always tell people that you like it that way … you know … natural.”

Of course, he knows I don’t like it that way. He knows that I’ll probably spend the next 36 hours sanding, sweeping, cleaning, and staining. He also knows that I’ll do it all over again next year just so he can say something like: “On the other hand, you can rip it up and put in one of those composite deals.”  

This is a seasonal ritual for us. He ribs me. I pretend to ignore him. Later, I cruise the Internet for the latest prices on aluminum, vinyl, and composite (plastic-film and wood-fiber blend) decking, check my bank account, sigh deeply, and eventually tell myself there’s nothing wrong with pressure-treated lumber that a little tender loving care can’t cure. After all, it was good enough for my dear, old pappy. Sure, after a few years it looks weather beaten. But, then, don’t we all? 

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking my neighbor may be on to something. Recent manufacturing and supply-chain improvements, combined with rising costs and demand for Canadian lumber, have cast alternative materials in a consumer-friendly light like never before. 

Maurice Meagher is owner and project developer of Halifax-based Archadeck, which makes decks, patios, retaining walls, and porches from a variety of natural and manufactured materials. 

“Increasingly, people are looking at composites,” he says. “They are readily available and very durable. Their quality and aesthetic appeal have improved in recent years. Plus, even though wood is still a more cost-effective building material, the price difference isn’t as great as it used to be.”

Martin Poirier, owns Dieppe, N.B.-based Spartan Decks, which designed and installed 30 composite decks last year. “Maybe they were a new trend, but they’re super popular now,” he says. “Mostly, it’s the low maintenance. There is a hidden cost to sanding and staining a wood deck every year. People want to put something at the back of their homes that looks great for 20 years. So far this year, I don’t have any [wood] orders.”

For Graham Hobster, who bought two of Poirier’s composite decks last year for the front and back of his house, it’s about convenience, aesthetics, and durability. 

“I looked at low maintenance and high product quality,” says the Moncton homeowner. “My old pressure-treated wood deck in the back was 20 years old, and it had never been treated or anything. I was getting tired of replacing boards. [Martin] showed me samples of the pressure-treated cedar that was available, as well as composites. There was no doubt in my mind. I chose a composite, not too dark and not the most expensive, and I haven’t looked back.”

He does, however, recall swallowing hard a couple of times. “We replaced the back deck, a semi-circle with a 30-foot diameter, and the front one, which is about 25 feet long and seven feet deep, for about $20,000. It was a bit of a shock, but we took some time to think it over. I feel confident. It’s very impressive.”

Sticker shock was also a factor for Beaverbank, N.S., homeowner Stephen Burke, who recently commissioned two composite decks from Archadeck. “We had our back one redone last fall with glass, a few privacy walls and semi-pergolas for about $18,000. We’re doing the same to our front deck this summer. With steps and glass and everything, it’s going to be about $20,000.”

But Burke, like many consumers these days, plays the long game, and he’s philosophical about the costs. “I think the price of everything is just going up generally,” he says. “These are the times we live in right now.”

He’s not wrong. What makes composite and other materials more competitive now is not that they are getting cheaper; it’s that traditional wood is getting more expensive. The Canadian Forest Industries 2021 Lumber Market Outlook reports that because demand for building projects bottlenecked over the late spring and early summer of COVID-19, “the sustained rush of lumber buying caught sawmills and wholesalers by surprise, which then pushed prices up to never-before-seen heights.”

The cost of plywood has tripled since the beginning of last year, as has the board-foot price of Spruce-Pine-Fir PT (the lowest of the low among deck-building materials), across Atlantic Canada and much of the country. So, then, why not spring for something just a little more expensive, durable, and flexible? For that matter, why stop at composites? 

Winston Cousins is proprietor of Atlantic Decking Systems of Seaview, P.E.I., which specializes in slip-resistant PVC deck membranes. “There’s a substantial increase in demand for our business,” he says. “They are increasing in popularity, compared with pressure-treated wood, [because] they are waterproof and maintenance free. We have the product on several apartment buildings in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.”

Meanwhile, Karl Costandi of Costandi Designs of Truro, N.S., vouches for aluminum. He represents Alumarch’s Knotwood line of decking materials: “We predict a 40 or 50-year lifespan on this product, he says. “It’s 100% recyclable. I’m quite sure you can’t say that about composites.”

If you have the money of Midas, the patience of Job, and only superficial regard for the global environment, there are always speciality timbers like Ipe (also known as Brazilian Walnut), an extraordinarily beautiful, durable, and insect-resistant rainforest wood. More traditional higher-end woods available to Atlantic Canadian consumers are cedar and, less commonly, redwood.

All of this, I must admit, is nudging me away from my dyed-in-the-pressure-treated-wood ways. Increasingly, I like the idea of staycationing not only safely, but pleasantly, at home. I like the idea that my deck might finally be a boost to, not a blemish on, my property’s resale value. 

About the only thing that still worries me is my neighbour. After all, without my chipped, and gouged deck, what are we going to talk about when the weather turns fine and sun shines again?

Hit the deck

The cost of building a deck varies according to your choice of materials and location. Here’s a reasonable assessment for a 150-square-foot structure in most places of Atlantic Canada (materials and labour, not including taxes): 

Spruce-Pine-Fir PT: $5,000.00

Western Red Cedar: $5,250.00

Aluminum: $5,600.00

Composite (mid-range): $6,000.00

Ipe: $6,750.00

PVC (mid-range): $7,000.00

Sources: superdeckstoronto.ca and homeadvisor.com. 

Alec Bruce

East Coast Living