Picking Outdoor Deck Materials? Here’s Where to Start.
Pros and cons of materials for your outdoor living room
Michelle and Nate’s deck renovation in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Serving as either an open gathering place or a cozy retreat, the deck has become a widespread alternative to the patio and even the front porch. This growth in popularity is due in large part to new developments in decking materials. You have a range of types to choose from, for both durability and versatility of application. The result: you can have a deck that is a true outdoor room, whatever its size and shape.
Sweeten, a free service matching renovating homeowners with vetted general contractors, offers a rundown of deck materials and their features to familiarize you with the many choices available.
No matter how you design it or gussy it up with planters and pergolas, at its essence the deck is a large outdoor surface. Typically, it is connected to the house, at grade or raised from the ground, either by a few inches or several feet, depending on its placement. (A patio is made of stone or concrete and set into the earth.) Though made from moisture-resistant or repellent material, the deck should not touch the ground, so supports are necessary. The boards come in specially milled or manufactured sizes that are typically 2-by-4s, though widths can vary from a given manufacturer to provide you with more design options. Look for rounded edges that resist splintering.
You will find many choices for joining systems. This is partially for aesthetic reasons—to hide the joints or screws—if that’s important to you, to allow expansion and contraction. Some boards are fastened with regular deck screws; others have channels or slots along the long edges for less noticeable fastening systems. “Decking boards with slotted sides can be installed using a clip system, so you do not have to surface fasten the boards,” says Doug L. Mucher, Senior Marketing Manager for CertainTeed. “This provides a cleaner installation.” Staggered patterns will hide seams more effectively than aligned patterns.
Deck supports are best installed by an experienced contractor who knows the local codes and zoning laws, to ensure it is in compliance. Some cities or counties require approval from the planning commission and inspections during the building process. This might limit your grand plans, so be sure to consult first with your contractor before proceeding. “Most homeowners can handle replacing the deck surface,” says Mucher. “However, if the project requires the deck substructure to be built as well, you’ll most likely want to hire a contractor. A contractor can be required to make sure it is built to code.”
Your choice of material will be driven by your lifestyle, taste, and also environment. Ask yourself: will it see frequent, cooking, dining, entertaining, and lounging in the sun? Most materials are fabricated to withstand nearly all types of climates and weather, but some require more upkeep than others to stay in good shape and appearance.
Nel’s roof deck renovation in Philadelphia
Types of deck material
Once upon a time, wood was your only choice. If you like this classic material, you can still have it and enjoy its good performance, with a few regular, precautionary measures. There are some synthetic alternatives, too. Consider the following:
Pressure-Treated Pine Hardwood
PRO: As the term indicates, pressure-treated hardwood is denser than regular woods, making it more resistant to insects and to splitting, swelling, and rot from humidity. Easy to paint, stain, and finish, it is the thriftiest option, so it’s good for homeowners on a strict budget.
CON: It is a natural material and requires frequent maintenance to assure top performance. Pine is not as hard as other popular deck options—cedar or redwood. As with all real wood, it can splinter. Upkeep includes deep cleaning and application of a lumber preservative annually as well as occasional sanding. Ask your contractor about environmentally friendly stains and sealants.
COST: From $1.50 per square foot.
Marsha and Adam’s townhouse deck in Brooklyn’s Bedford and Stuyvesant neighborhood
PRO: There’s a reason why many synthetic decking materials simulate the look of wood. There is nothing like this natural material for its warmth and expression of quality. The most popular species are cedar and redwood, for their durability. Natural tannins and oils resist insects well, and these woods are easy to stain, paint, and seal.
CON: Even hardwoods are not as hard as plastics. Wood can dent, split, splinter, fade, and require frequent upkeep to maintain the best appearance and life. You will need to not only wash with a wood cleaner or pressure-washer, but also seal it at least once annually. Best to sweep daily or weekly to avoid damage from gritty dirt. Darker shades will heat up in sunlight, making them unpleasant underfoot in the summer when you are likely to spend the most time there.
COST: From $4 per square foot for cedar; from $6 per square foot for redwood.
PRO: Made from wood fibers and recycled plastics or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), composite and other synthetic decking is touted as near maintenance-free. It will not warp, splinter, or rot, and it repels insects. It requires no stain or sealing and offers plenty of selection for wood looks and colors. It also can be molded and so lends itself to curved shapes. It requires little care except cleaning with soapy water and a soft bristle brush.
CON: Surfaces in darker colors can become hot in the sun and may fade over time. It can melt if exposed to high heat for a time, such as from a grill. Scratches can’t be buffed out and dropped greasy foods will stain it.
COST: From $5 per square foot.
PRO: Also know as polyvinyl chloride, PVC is a thermoplastic that can be shaped and formed into a variety of products including decking. A particularly hard plastic, it won’t scratch, warp, rot, split, or stain; it’s lightweight and easy to install and requires no annual treatments other than cleaning with soap and water.
CON: More limited palette than composite. Will not break down in a landfill.
COST: From $4 per square foot.
PRO: Lightweight vinyl is comprised of PVC and polyethylene. Available in faux-wood styles and textures, this material is easy to install thanks to its light weight and ease of slicing with a saw. It never needs painting, resists staining and fading, and won’t heat up, unlike natural wood and some composites. Easy to clean with soap and water.
CON: Over time, it may sag. Non-biodegradable if you decide to chuck it.
COST: From $3 per square foot.
Make it your own
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of material, you can think about ways to customize the deck. “With all the styles and colors available, homeowners are really only limited by their imagination,” says Mucher.
Create a unique deck in a variety of simple or elaborate ways:
- Mix different colors or shades of planks
- Combine different plank widths
- Run planks in different directions to create a pattern, like a herringbone or a fan
- Add a contrasting border
- Paint on a stenciled motif
Make the deck resemble an actual room:
- Create steps and two or more levels for different activities, such as relaxing, dining, taking in the view
- Install an outdoor kitchen, chiminea (freestanding, front-loading fireplace or oven), or spa
- Incorporate a pergola or a lanai
- Include lighting, for use at night or to highlight an area
Finally, most decks, particularly those that are raised or tiered, include a railing. You can match your deck material or choose a complementary style or finish. Work with your contractor to make sure all the necessary elements are incorporated, for safety and security as well as environment and maintenance.
As with any room for your home, you want your deck to be comfortable and dependable, a space you enjoy looking at, relaxing in, and sharing with family and guests. Invest time in planning and selecting the right material for your lifestyle, and when it’s complete, enjoy this (nearly) carefree space.
If you have an outdoor space that you use for grilling or gathering with friends, consider installing an outdoor kitchen.
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