New deck has it all, but bugs

Material: Wooden decks still predominate, but new-age materials also contribute to old-fashioned fun.

September 02, 2001|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Through the first three houses that they built, Robert and Patricia White never really made use of their outdoor deck.

"We never used them before," Robert said. "It was always too hot, or too rainy."

But by the time they moved into their fourth home - a residence in The Preserves in Sparks - they had finally built an all-season deck that they could use all the time.

The Whites' $25,000 enclosed deck is state-of-the-art: Trex-brand wood polymer flooring, ceiling fans, sunburst balusters and beverage holders on the railings. The couple even thought to install a screen on the underside of the floorboards to prevent bugs from crawling through the cracks from below.

"Now I fire up the gas grill, and because of the enclosure, there are no flies," Robert said.

"We eat dinner and just talk and sit. Just listen to the chimes. It's peaceful," said their daughter, Danielle.

As summer turns to fall and Labor Day signals the final big cookout for many families, it's apparent that deck aficionados are definitely enjoying more intricate designs. Of course, the traditional rectangular wooden deck remains the staple of the industry, but more imaginative flair and new-age materials are appearing in today's back yards than ever before.

The once wood-dominated market has been invaded by composites made of wood dust and recycled plastics and even by vinyl. In fact, many homeowners today have the ability to mix and match materials to make the best deck.

"The `what's the ultimate deck' question is just like choosing the best color for a Corvette; there's no end-all," said Jerry Bolt, general manager of Parksite Plunkett-Webster, a Baltimore-based materials wholesaler of everything from Trex - a manmade material composed of waste wood fiber and reclaimed plastics - to Philippine mahoganies.

"It comes down to the look people want ... it comes down to wood vs. polymer - and money," Bolt said.

"Think outside of the rectangle," is an advertising slogan used by Winchester, Va.-based Trex Company LLC., whose brochures show examples of multilevel and multiple angle decking made possible by the material.

Billy and Debbie Keyes, who also live in The Preserves, reap the benefit of that kind of thinking when they soak in their built-in hot tub ($11,000) and their in-laws sway on the deck's pergola-swing.

Today's deck is just the evolution of the old concrete patio.

"The deck is aesthetically changing into more of a porch," said Dave Lombardo, president of American Deck, which builds both wood and composite decks, including the Whites' and Keyeses' decks. "There are more elaborate rails and vinyl railings. It's the old porch look."

The Whites chose a deck enclosure. The structure has graduated levels that hug the rear of the home and gently descend to the side yard. Nice aesthetics and no steep, dangerous stairway.

"We have a fall-away lot. It's easier [to descend] with a couple of step-downs than with a long stairway. It's also easier to bring furniture up," Robert said.

No warping

While Lombardo and many others once used only wood materials 10 years ago, his composite and vinyl business has risen to 50 percent of his jobs. Design flexibility is a major reason. While wood, especially untreated wood, can shrink, expand or warp - composites resist rain, have no grain so they're easier to cut, and they stay in place without shrinking or warping.

Circular floors, sunburst balusters, angles and arcs are often more difficult to achieve and maintain with lumber because there's wood grain to deal with.

"People like creative designs in decks. With composites, once it's down, it stays. You can have bigger, more intricate designs. Curves and circular decks," said Clark Spitzer, general manager at Snavely Forest Products of Finksburg, a distributor of Trex Easy Care decking materials.

"Trex is more flexible than wood. There's no grain to it so you can get easier, sharper curves. You can do a 45-degree miter cut very easily," said Brett Engelland, spokesman for Trex, which has captured 70 percent of the polymer market.

Vinyl decking, fencing and railing are also more common today.

Despite higher initial cost, vinyl has a longer life than pressure-treated wood, its makers say.

Vinyl, which is used for planks, rails and steps, has a much different look than wood, but its smooth surface is etched to provide slip resistance. White, tan and gray are its primary colors.

"I'm sure it's a little bit of a friendly competition among neighbors," said Owings Mills-based builder David Grossman (who has a redwood deck and sunken hot tub). "It's outside for everyone to see."

Nationally, the deck industry is growing at an annual pace of about 4 percent (measured in building permits issued), and most of today's decks are simple and cost less than $10,000.

If you are looking for the least expensive way to go in building a deck, pressure-treated lumber, usually Southern Pine, is the way to go.

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