While decks become more sophisticated, manufacturers seek ways to simplify.
Before working its way into late Middle English, the term originated from the Middle Dutch words dec, meaning a covering or roof, and dekken, meaning “to cover.” Originally denoting canvas used to make a covering, the term eventually came to mean the covering itself, and later a solid surface instead of one covered in canvas. Early incarnations were nothing more than small, economical square replacements for stone or concrete patios, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that decks truly started to come into their own as true outdoor living spaces. Since then, decks have proliferated the outdoor building scene and have become the single most desired outdoor structure.
Last December, Fannie Mae predicted 1.35 million U.S. housing starts for 2020 along with 6.17 million total home sales. As well, research and industry indicators (such as Principia Consulting) predict a growth rate for the decks market of 6.5% by volume into 2021, and these numbers have manufacturers smiling. “The segment is strong,” says Jase DeBoer, senior marketing director for Deckorators, “and we anticipate another year of steady growth for the industry, and for Deckorators to continue exceeding industry growth.”
Toby Bostwick, vice president of product and brand for Fortress Building Products, also sees a rosy future for the decks industry. “As homes continue to age,” he explains, “the remodeling and replacement market remains strong and the optimism grows for re-decking applications and complete replacements. Innovative efforts have also been made by alternative decking manufacturers, such as composite and PVC, to provide more cost-effective decking solutions within the segment. This will continue to drive opportunities for conversion and volume growth in wood-alternative decking markets.”
And while wood continues to hold its crown as the product of choice and as such will see decent growth in the coming year, more and more consumers are turning to alternative decking products, resulting in those options maintaining a 19-21% market share according to a recent Principia Consulting study. “Consumers are very interested in upgrading their decks to composite technology,” says Jim Stange, senior product manager for Fiberon. “Manufacturers are working to meet that demand. We see a very positive trend towards both PVC and PE Composite decking in all channels.”
“The watchwords for 2020 are the same as 2019: cautiously optimistic,” says Rob Pongonis, brand manager for YellaWood. “There are certainly trends pointing to 2020 being a good year for decking, but at the same time there remains a lingering concern about an impending recession.”
Outdoor living continues to boom
For the past few years there’s been an increasing trend towards outdoor living, and it’s a trend that manufacturers see as continuing to grow. Especially due to the fact that the U.S. economy is remaining strong and homeowners are staying in their houses longer, consumers are seeing the benefit of expanding their living space beyond the exterior walls of the home.
“A deck is one of the most economical ways to add living space and value to a home,” explains Molly Werner, senior brand manager for MoistureShield (a division of Oldcastle APG). “As homeowners are generally staying in their homes longer (11 years compared to a prior average of 8), having that outdoor entertainment space or oasis is now, more than ever, extremely desirable. And, with equity being at an all-time high, they can better afford these improvements.”
“Homeowners are continuing to extend their indoor living spaces to the great outdoors,” says Juliana Rumbaugh, marketing communications manager of wood protection for Lonza. “In recent years we’ve seen an influx of kitchens and living areas added to decks and that trend continues as decks are being constructed around pools and into under-deck patios to create multi-level living spaces. Homeowners realize the investment of their homes and go to great lengths to ensure they utilize space to create a more livable, homey environment both inside and outside.”
Chase Moritz, decking and marketing specialist for Envision Decking, sees similar trends in regard to outdoor living. “Much like interior trends of creating multi-functional open spaces and ‘great rooms’, outdoor spaces are being designed to accommodate more day-to-day activities like cooking, eating, and even watching TV,” he says. “Because of that, we’re seeing the overall size of decks increase quite a bit. The standard square decks off the back of a house are no longer enough; today’s outdoor living requires space for entertaining with all the comforts of a living room and an expansive outdoor kitchen. That’s being accomplished by adding multiple levels or unique designs with much more square footage.”
YellaWood’s Pongonis agrees. “More and more homeowners seek to expand living space beyond their four walls and look to outdoor spaces as an extension of their home,” he points out. “Their decks now serve as more than just an observation post. It’s also their kitchen, dining room and den as they cook, eat and even watch movies or sporting events while enjoying the backyard.”
Colors and style make decks more refined
Not that long ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find decks that incorporated more than one color—a deck was gray, or it was brown, and that was it. These days, the one color, traditional deck is going by the wayside in favor of mixing and matching boards, often to create patterns or inlays. As well, consumers are shying away from glossy finishes and are gravitating towards a matte, more natural appearance. “Traditional grays and browns are not going anywhere, but the way we use these colors is changing,” says Deckorators’ DeBoer. “Likely the biggest color trend is the use of multiple colors on a project. Two-tone decks have been increasing in popularity, and some are now incorporating more colors.
This use of multiple colors is not coming from a mere desire to expand a color palette or be more flamboyant; rather, homeowners are seeking out a more sophisticated look for their outdoor spaces, one that is inspired by the sleek, upscale looks found in modern hotels and restaurants. “More sophisticated looks and fashion are being incorporated into the outdoor space,” explains Fiberon’s Stange. “Customers are inspired by home shows, magazines and what their neighbors are doing in outdoor spaces. We see this as a great opportunity to inspire and complement what the homeowner is thinking and guide them through that journey.” Leslie Adkins, vice president of marketing for Trex, agrees. “As homeowners increasingly find inspiration for their outdoor spaces in commercial settings, there is a growing shift toward sleek, contemporary designs and materials, larger expanses of glass, smooth surfaces, and clean lines.”
And it’s not simply about using a unique product; style has as much to do with creating a brand for the contractor as it does with the products used. “We believe contractors are always looking for ways to set themselves apart, explains YellaWood’s Pongonis. “A simple way to do this is by offering clients a higher-grade of deck boards over standard decking. For example, YellaWood SuperSelect brand products are more budget friendly than even the cheapest composite decking, and contractors can give their clients a beautiful deck with a virtually knot-free appearance and low tolerance for wane.”
With high style, however, often comes a higher price, and it’s a factor that manufacturers are painfully aware of as they look for ways to reduce the overall cost of decking while balancing homeowners’ desires for sophistication. “With wood still controlling the largest market share, wood-alternative decking manufacturers continue to focus on closing the price gap between manufactured decking and treated lumber,” says Toby Bostwick, vice president of product and brand for Fortress Building Products. “With lower price points in mind, higher volume can become a driving factor. However, this can lead to a value vs. volume growth in the segment becoming the real question, and at what cost? The trend has been to design decking profiles differently, and in some cases make formulation changes, in order to drive the manufacturing costs down and be able to close the gap with wood.”
Sustainability still important for decks
While the notions of low maintenance and environmental friendliness are not new to the decking category, they remain a strong component in the consumers’ decision-making process. “Segments of the population, often those that have attained higher education levels, prefer more sustainable materials,” points out Jessica Hewitt, director of marketing for Humboldt Redwood. “We have a strong sustainability story to tell in Humboldt Redwood. With certification to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC C013133), Humboldt Redwood has additional environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration far in excess of the alternative decking products. Redwood is half carbon by weight; therefore, the average deck will store a half a ton of carbon.”
But native products aren’t the only ones with their target set on the sustainable U.S. decking market; bamboo is poised to make significant inroads in America. “People don’t just want to have a natural product, but also want the touch and feel of natural wood/ bamboo,” says Avery Chua, CEO of dassoUSA. “With tropical wood supply, quality and reliability becoming harder to predict; therefore, customers are switching over to fused bamboo decking which has the feel-good factor, the green aspect and yet at the same time, with a proven track record where it is being used in major high profile projects worldwide.”
MoistureShield’s Molly Werner echoes Chua’s comments in regard to interest in sustainability. “There is a cultural move again toward sustainability,” she says. “We were pioneers in wood-plastic-composite manufacturing, starting back in 1988, and our make-up of 95% recycled and reclaimed materials resonates with decking contractors and their customers as something they can feel good about it, without sacrificing beauty and performance.”
Leslie Adkins, vice president of marketing for Trex, shares Werner’s views. “Sustainability is definitely a consideration factor—and selling point—for today’s homebuyers,” she says. “There is growing interest in eco-friendly alternatives to wood products that contribute to deforestation and leave a heavy carbon footprint. Trex decking is made from 95% recycled material, making it an environmentally friendly choice for eco-conscious consumers. It outperforms wood and has fewer harmful environmental impacts. In fact, our carbon footprint is 56% lower than pressure-treated lumber.”
Time savings is key
It should be no surprise that manufacturers keep a close eye on what customers are most looking for in decking products, and when asked what is most important to the contractor almost all of them responded with the same answer: create a product that saves time, whether it is through ease of installation or by significantly reducing callbacks. “Builders want error-free decking products,” says Chua, CEO of dassoUSA. “It has to not dent, scratch, twist, buckle, or warp under any circumstances before the project is a handover. And if mistakes were made, they need the single plank to be easily replaced without going back to step one. They want an easy installation, less work, less on-site cutting or painting. Mistakes should be easily fixed. In other words, a no-hassle installation.”
The ability of a product to save time should be obvious. According to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a million fewer people now work in residential construction as compared to before the Great Recession. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 300,000 job vacancies since this time last year—a number that’s expected to grow to 747,000 by 2026. Naturally, contractors are looking for products or methods that speed installation and require fewer people.
Manufacturers are keenly aware of this need, and they are quick to develop solutions. “Builders are looking for value and availability, with a focus on value-add because of labor issues including a shortage of labor overall, particularly when it comes to qualified/ skilled workers,” says Jessica Hewitt, director of marketing for Humboldt Redwood. “Natural wood decking, like Humboldt Redwood, requires no special tools or clip systems for ease of installation, a particular benefit for those builders operating in the affordable housing space.”
Says Envision’s Moritz, “Speed of installation is key. If contractors can build a project without worrying if they sorted boards correctly or if the wood grain is facing the right way, that’s a huge benefit to making a project move quickly. Various fastening methods are also a consideration with speed of install. Finding materials such as Envision Distinction decking that are compatible with multiple hidden fasteners can increase the speed of installation while reducing the training time spent with installers.”
In regard to callbacks, few things can be as draining on time and resources as repeat visits to a jobsite because of a product that has not performed as promised. It is vital, therefore, for contractors to know that their LBM distributor is selling them materials that will deliver consistent performance. “We recognize that no contractor is happy about being called back to a job,” says MoistureShield’s Molly Werner, “so MoistureShield has kept innovation at the forefront of our product development. At the foundation of every MoistureShield board is our Solid Core Technology—the way we manufacture creates an impermeable barrier that fights damage from moisture, rot, insects, weather and wear.”
There’s more to the success equation for LBM distributors than merely stocking proven decking products, however. It’s about being what the big box stores can’t be: a trusted ally with whom the contractor can develop a long-term partnership. “Contractors have a strong relationship with their dealers and are looking for that something extra they can’t find at large retail outlets,” explains Envision’s Moritz. “Maybe it’s a larger selection of unique products or a knowledgeable resource to talk with. This industry, like many others, continues to find success in meaningful relationships. Contractors tell us they want to hear from people they trust when talking about building materials. This is a great opportunity for dealers to showcase their unique value to contractors and build loyalty.” Likewise, distributors need to embrace knowledge so that they can sell across all of their deck product lines. “The more knowledgeable a store associate is on the decking products they’re selling, the happier the customer will be, thus ensuring repeat business and referrals,” says Lonza’s Rumbaugh.
Humboldt Redwood’s Hewitt agrees. “Promoting the full breadth of decking options available, including natural wood decking, is vital,” she explains. “While the latest and greatest technology may make for a splashy PR campaign, some products are tried and true, again, thinking of natural wood decking like Humboldt Redwood. Understanding how a product will be used, the final application, is important in helping that customer choose the best product. Sometimes the latest and greatest thing isn’t the best choice. Understanding the application and making the best recommendation based on the application should be the holy grail for LBM dealers.”
Deckorators’ DeBoer echoes Hewitt’s thoughts on product knowledge. “Having a staff that is truly educated on the many decking options is key,” he says. “The differences in material and technology, the differences in price points and what features you receive or forfeit at each price point, the nuances of how the product installs, or the pros and cons of competing products in different outdoor scenarios…truly being a knowledgeable resource to both builders and homeowners.”
It’s product knowledge, passed from manufacturer to distributor to contractor, that ultimately enables that contractor to have a meaningful discussion with his or her homeowner clients. And those meaningful discussions result in increased sales. As MoistureShield’s Werner explains, “Taking advantage of a manufacturer’s selling tools to help contractors sell to the homeowner across the kitchen table—tools such as dealer locators, easy-to-navigate websites, mobile apps, samples, literature—enables contractors to close the deal.”
And how does an LBM dealer amass that needed product knowledge? According to manufacturers, it’s through taking advantage of as many of their training and education programs as possible—and there are plenty of choices. Besides online videos (both on the manufacturers’ websites and on their YouTube channels) and a slew of downloadable digital product information, manufacturers go to great lengths to put resources in the hands of their distributors.
For example, Deckorators and UFP Industries offer certification programs with options for both in-person workshops or through online learning modules, while Humboldt Redwood offers free product knowledge programs for LBM dealers as well as continuing education units approved by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In addition, its staff visits 20-30 architecture firms annually to present courses in-person.
Lonza created educational videos and collaterals designed to educate the lumber sales associate in regard to the most frequently asked questions from contractors concerning pressure treated lumber. And in the case of Trex, it operates a dedicated training center in Winchester, Va., called Trex University. The 10,000-square-foot facility provides an immersive educational experience where dealers and distributors can learn all about Trex. It features interactive touchscreen presentations, museum-style exhibits and a hands-on product “playground.” As well, its TrexPro program provides installation and sales training to installation professionals. TrexPro-certified contractors complete comprehensive product and installation training on all Trex products, ensuring homeowners that the contractor they work with is fully versed in the product.
In the end, it’s in the best interest of the manufacturers to make training as accessible as possible. As MoistureShield’s Werner explains, “We are in the process of enhancing and streamlining our training program to maximize time. While it was successful to bring decks builders and channel partners to our plant, we are working on ways to make our training program (dubbed MoistureShield U) more ‘mobile’ from a training perspective. As we grow our network, we know that being able to train and educate our partners in a timely manner throughout the channel is extremely important. We’re looking to build on that platform in a more user-friendly way that is easier to access without a large commitment in time and travel.”
With so many resources available to the LBM distributor, and with products continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, the decks segment is one that’s poised to deliver significant returns.