Top decking choices

Stefan Holmes of Millboard Decking discusses the main considerations for choosing between materials when it comes to specifying decking

While timber was once the default option when it came to choosing decking material, that is now far from the case. Today, alternatives are available that will often provide better value and a closer fit with the client’s needs.

Choosing between timber and an alternative comes down to three main considerations, ease of ownership, cost of ownership; and enjoyment of ownership.

The amount of time and effort required to maintain a deck is important for many clients. One reason why alternative materials were developed in the first place is that, left to its own devices, timber decking exposed to the elements is liable to split, warp and rot. This can be prevented through chemical treatments, both before and after installation. Pre-treated timber overcomes some of the problems, but even so requires regular care with application of protective oils or varnishes, and sometimes may require sanding down or replacement of damaged surfaces.

Whether a timber deck receives the care it needs will be down to a residential client’s inclination to carry out the work themselves or pay somebody to do it. Unfortunately, in many cases, neither option is chosen, and the decking deteriorates quickly.

Modern composite materials usually require minimal maintenance. For entirely wood-free versions in particular there is nothing for algae to live on, so in most cases no chemical applications should be necessary, just a straightforward wash with standard detergents. In this regard, non-wood alternatives win hands down.

This is also true when it comes to the subframes beneath deck surfaces. These are much harder to get to, so if made of wood, they are going to be hard to maintain – especially if the wrong grade of timber is selected. Decking problems are often due to subframes deteriorating, rather than the deck’s surface. Non-wood alternatives, including aluminium and plastic systems, are likely to last longer, and are much the best option in ground contact, and around water.

The cost of ownership
Wood tends to be cheaper than its alternatives so far as initial cost goes. However, once the whole cost of the deck and its subframe, plus any work or treatments over its lifetime are taken into account, alternative materials come out very favourably. Most clients expect their deck to be a once-only purchase, and with both timber and composites, initial cost-cutting can quickly turn out to be a false economy. Just as higher-grade timber will last longer, so too will the best composites outlast their budget competitors.

Enjoyment is made up of a number of factors, and different factors will be more important for different customers.

The most important are usually aesthetic considerations. Timber scores heavily here – it looks good! There also is no doubt that some artificial options look…artificial. Even so, they may offer a cheap and cheerful option for some whose budgets don’t stretch far and who appreciate the ease of maintenance. However, there are also man-made alternatives that offer a startling likeness to wood, with grain and texture carefully replicated. These true-to-wood looks come at a price, but the initial cost may be outweighed by the low maintenance and other advantages that accrue.

Non-wood materials are more predictable in terms of their consistency of colour. While timber can be stained or painted to the required shade, composites are available in a range of colours to complement any design.

Safety is a high priority for many clients, especially in the commercial sphere. When it rains, timber becomes slippery, especially if it has any algal growth on the surface. Many clients will want to reduce the risks, especially to children and the elderly, and commercial clients will want to minimise the possibility of expensive legal claims (which could massively increase the cost of ownership!) from people who slip and injure themselves. Grit-strips can be added, and provide excellent grip, but these compromise the appearance. Some composites can still be susceptible to algae, especially if the wood content is exposed on the surface or it has a smoother plastic finish, but varieties with an elastomeric surface provide excellent slip-resistance without modification, even in the wet.

The environmental credentials of the different materials are also important to many clients. Wood is self-evidently a ‘natural’ product, but the process of heat-treating timber is very energy intensive. Many composite materials make a virtue of using recycled materials in their construction and – of course – there is no risk of their depleting precious hardwood forests.

The overall message is that while a ‘timber deck’ is what many clients have in mind when they aspire to decking, there are alternatives that may actually fit their needs better.

Stefan Holmes is technical product manager at Millboard Decking