Using High-Performance Composites for the West’s Decks
by Brent Gwatney, senior vice president of sales and marketing, MoistureShield
From Architectural West May/Jun ’14
From the damp Pacific Northwest and the snowy Rockies to the sunny Southwest, the West’s varied geography influences decking material choice and deck designs. Throughout the region, many design and building professionals are shifting from traditional wood decking like redwood and cedar to high-performance composites. With proper selection, wood-plastic composite decking will look great for years in any part of the Western U.S. and Canada. As in other parts of North America, composite decking is growing in popularity in the West. Two factors driving the growth of composites are a desire for more durable decking and a wider range of aesthetic choices.
We’ll first look at how different climate zones in the West can benefit from using high-performance composite decking, then discuss how the material fits in with the region’s deck design trends and aesthetic desires. Despite having vastly different weather, the West’s major sub-regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Southwest, create similar challenges for decking materials.
With their infamous rains, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia have some of the most demanding exposures for outdoor materials of any part of North America. Moss-covered roofs and sidewalks from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Oregon show the degree to which moisture is ever-present in large areas of the Northwest. The region’s high moisture can deteriorate traditional wood decking, as well as many types of composite decking. In the Northwest, it is not unusual to see rotted wood decking or lower-grade composites that have crumbled over time from absorbing moisture. In the most extreme cases, some decks are so continuously wet that they have mushrooms sprouting from them.
To protect against rot and other moisture damage, water-resistant composites provide an effective and attractive alternative to wood treated with harsh chemicals. Home and building owners do not need to regularly paint or stain high-performance composites to protect them. The key to how well composite decking stands up to moisture exposure is the degree to which the wood fibers are encased in plastic. Products with fully encapsulated wood fibers can even be suitable for applications on the ground, in the ground, or under water.
As in the Pacific Northwest, the weather in the Rocky Mountain states can wreak havoc with decking materials. Despite being a largely arid area, snow in both urban and rural areas of the Rockies exposes decking to moisture for extended periods. This is particularly true in the early spring when snow packs on decks begin melting during the day then refreeze at night. The result is near continuous moisture exposure for weeks at a time. Well-meaning home and building owners who shovel snow from their decks often create another problem. Shoveling snow off the deck removes the standing moisture source, but can gouge boards and create an entry point for moisture absorption in wood and some composites. However, composites with fully encapsulated wood fibers remain protected to the core of each board.
One doesn’t usually think of decks in the desert Southwest as experiencing much moisture exposure. That’s largely true as far as the weather is concerned, but the popularity of pools and hot tubs from Southern California to Phoenix, Arizona, is another source of moisture. Decking used for pool and hot tub surrounds comes in contact with moisture from people getting in and out of the water, and from children splashing. As in rainy and snowy climates, moisture-resistant composites perform well in these applications and offer a splinter-free surface for bare feet. Additionally, as anyone who has been to New Mexico in the summer knows, that state and other parts of the Southwest experience drenching rains each year during the summer monsoon season.
Of course, the Southwest’s intense sun also creates challenges for decking. Boards with fully encapsulated wood fibers and a supplemental plastic cap are a new option for architects and builders who want protection against both sun and moisture. Encapsulation of the wood fibers defends against moisture absorption, while the cap adds a layer of protection to help resist sun fading, along with scratching and staining.
Western Deck Designs
In the same way that weather varies throughout the West, deck tastes vary by sub-region and between urban and rural areas. An overarching theme, though, is that throughout much of the West, decks tend to be more expansive than other parts of North America, given the region’s fondness for larger houses and lots. Westerners’ love of spacious outdoor living areas provides designers with ample room for creativity.
Broad Western deck design trends include: decks divided into specialty functional and aesthetic areas, such as for cooking, dining, and utility storage; outdoor living focal points including built-in fire pits and water features; multi-level decks; curved decking features; and high-end amenities like railing systems with alternative balusters such as glass plates or cable ropes.
Modern composite decking can help design professionals express their design vision in these and other areas. Notably, composites are available in a broad color palette, which allows for providing visual cues to help differentiate various functional areas of the deck from one another. Additionally, work crews can bend composites more readily than they can wood decking, which allows for smoothly curving deck shapes, including full circles and ovals. More complex shapes are possible, too, such as one deck designed to resemble a giant six-string guitar.
For home and building owners who like the look of traditional wood decking, but want a more durable product, many composites now have embossed grain patterns, with the character of wood decking. Further, composites are now available with variegated colors that have the look of tropical hardwoods, which are especially popular in custom homes.
Selecting among composites
Dozens of composite decking brands are available throughout the Western U.S. and Canada. To ensure selection of a durable and attractive product, it is important to evaluate:
Moisture resistance – Composites vary greatly in their ability to withstand moisture exposure. As discussed above, products with wood fibers that are fully encapsulated in plastic perform best and can be used in the most intensive conditions, including full submersion.
Performance – Whether the manufacturer has a history of proven performance; ask about any product field failures, and research any lawsuit settlements, as there have been a number of these in recent years.
Warranties – Reputable manufacturers will warrant their products against defects; warranties can vary from 20 years to lifetime and some brands even offer additional fade and stain warranties.