Soaring demand for outdoor living positions decking for solid growth.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past that the front porch was the centerpiece of the home. Families would sit together to take in the air, say hello to neighbors and in general escape the rigors of the day. But there was a secret about the front porch: it was a place to escape the back yard which, at the time, was the locale of the vegetable garden, the trash dump, and the odorous outhouse.
Today, the front porch has relinquished its crown as the preferred outdoor haven to the backyard deck, a place for relaxation, entertaining, cooking, and family bonding. The deck has also taken on a new role that not even Nostradamus himself could have predicted: a place to escape to from the harsh realities of pandemic lockdowns. And escape they have—in record numbers.
According to a January 2021 new residential construction report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 1.8 million building permits issued for privately-owned housing units, 10.4% above December’s revised rate and 22.5% above this same time last year.
“Looking ahead to the next 12 months, housing sales and starts will continue driving industry growth as we see families pushing for more outdoor living space traditionally found in suburban markets,” says Jeff Schulz, vice president of channel sales at Fortress Building Products. “Industry research tells us that consumers will invest in big ticket items such as new decks to fully utilize their backyard.”
Growth in the pandemic
Statistics alone would show a very strong outlook for deck construction, but there’s so much more to the story, and much of that narrative is being driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. “With COVID-19 lingering longer than many had initially hoped,” Schulz continues, “consumers have shifted much of their discretionary spending from areas such as travel, to the enhancement of their personal outdoor living spaces. For the building products industry, this has provided unprecedented opportunities for growth even amid the precariousness of a pandemic.”
Because of lockdown protocols, people have been taking a hard look at underutilized living space and seeing the potential to increase and diversify their overall living environments. “The COVID-19 pandemic created very strong demand for deck building and materials in 2020,” explains Jase DeBoer, senior marketing manager for Deckorators. “As the pandemic postponed trips and limited interactions to screens, millions of people started to spend more time than ever within their property lines. Many U.S. homeowners invested in new decks as a way to expand and personalize their living space.”
Patrick Barnds, senior vice president of product management at The AZEK Company, agrees. “As people flee urban areas in favor of the suburbs, outdoor spaces will be moved to the top of homeowners’ wish lists. Millennials in particular are looking for products and brands that align with their values, so sustainable, composite decking will continue to see growth. Research shows that 50% of current decks are beyond their useful life, and nearly 80% of the market is still wood, leaving plenty of room to grow.”
Chris Leslie, retail marketing manager of wood protection for Lonza, also sees the pandemic as a causation of growth for the decking industry. “The millions of Americans that have been working from home over the past year have had an opportunity to really see their environments and have decided to make positive changes from a negative situation,” he points out. “People who were contemplating a deck build or upgrade prior to the onset of COVID-19 had a much easier time making the decision to proceed once the lock-downs began, which in turn allowed them to expand their living space and enjoy the outdoors.”
But this growth has not been easy on manufacturers, and LBM dealers have felt the resultant pain as supply struggled to keep up with demand. “We are fortunate that the COVID-19 environment has been an accelerant to our business, as not all businesses have benefitted,” explains Chris Gerhard, vice president of sales at Trex Company. “Demand for Trex products and decking as a category was robust prior to the crisis but, as time at home took on even more significance, the market absolutely exploded. An increased focus on outdoor living products put considerable sourcing pressure on our channel partners. Supplying unparalleled demand with limited supply made for a challenging environment. From a Trex perspective, we had a supply plan strategy in place prior to COVID-19 due to capacity constraints so we already had a framework for the delivery of our products throughout the year. Was it perfect? No, but our team worked tirelessly throughout the year to keep our partners informed of our progress.”
Outdoor living leading the way
Throughout the surge in demand during the previous year, manufacturers agree that one trend stood out as the most prominent driving force—the desire to embrace outdoor living. It’s a trend, they say, that will only grow in strength for 2021.
As Lonza’s Chris Leslie explains, “The outdoor living explosion we saw in the past ten months is not an isolated event, but rather the beginning of what will likely be a multi-year continued climb for the greater outdoor living segment, with decking being a large piece of that pie. People are now thinking long term with plans for their backyard or outdoor spaces; and after this past year, homeowners are now thinking ahead to how they can better enjoy their homes. The push to be outside while at home is stronger now than it has ever been, and it is unlikely that this trend will reverse course any time soon.”
The desire for increased outdoor living space is not limited to decks. Rather, homeowners are exploring unique ways to bring the amenities of indoor living to their backyard environments, and they’re using deck products to achieve that desire.
Accessory dwelling units, luxury sheds, pergolas, privacy structures, outdoor kitchens, and other non-traditional deck projects are predicted to dominate in 2021, along with the new trend of creating outdoor home office spaces. “Among the top trends predicted for the coming year is the emergence of outdoor workspaces,” says Trex’s Gerhard. “With working from home and remote learning expected to continue well into 2021, contractors report increased interest in outdoor spaces that can comfortably and functionally accommodate professionals and students.”
It’s part of a larger trend called biophilic design. Simply put, biophilic design is a building concept that strives to connect people with the natural environment through the use of space, place conditions, incorporation of natural elements, and the use of building materials that connect people with nature. While it’s not a new concept— aspects of biophilic design can be traced back thousands of years—it’s one that decking is particularly well suited for.
“Numerous studies have concluded that surrounding ourselves with natural products such as redwood enhances our overall physical and mental well-being,” says Jessica Hewitt, director of marketing for Humboldt Sawmill. “It has also been shown to increase productivity of work and learning.”
New materials make inroads
Another trend that manufacturers recommend LBM dealers stay atop of is the use of alternative deck materials. This isn’t to say wood is in decline. In fact, according to a February 2021 report from Global Market Insights, the wood decking market size was valued at $15.01 billion in 2020 and is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of over 2.7% from 2021 to 2027. The pressure-treated wood segment held the largest market share of more than 48% in 2020 and is anticipated to grow by 2.8% during that same time period, with redwood and cedar also experiencing significant gains.
Composite decking, however, is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of wood’s market share, partly due to the well-reported lumber shortages, and due to alternative decking’s low maintenance nature. “The homeowner demand for a low maintenance, beautiful outdoor living space has increased exponentially in the last year,” says Steve Booz, vice president of marketing and product development for Royal Building Products. “As a result we are seeing a growing demand for premium cellular PVC decking products like Zuri Premium Decking. In fact, we have seen a 114% increase in online searches for Zuri Decking in the last year.”
Once reserved for luxury projects, alternative decking manufacturers are releasing more and more products aimed at a more budget-conscious buyer. “More homeowners are looking to trade up to an entry-level composite, but they are seeking a high-performance, high-value product,” says Deckorators’ Jase DeBoer. “They want beautiful decking without forfeiting durability and supporting warranties. For homeowners seeking premium decking, important features include interior design trends and elements like enhanced traction.”
Jim Stange, senior product manager for Fiberon, agrees. “Convenience is key,” he says. “Homeowners want their upgrades to be quick and easy, using low-maintenance materials so they can spend more time enjoying their new outdoor living space and less time worrying about upkeep time and labor. Our composite and PVC deck boards provide a low-maintenance alternative to traditional pressure-treated lumber.” Alternative materials, however, are not limited to composite and PVC products. Due to the aforementioned lumber shortage, steel is gaining in popularity for deck construction, and it’s a trend that Fortress’ Schulz recommends LBM dealers pay particular attention to. “Steel deck framing is already a norm on a global scale, and we anticipate this will be the case across North America in the coming years,” he explains. “A viable deck framing solution for consumers, light-gauge steel delivers an enduring, dimensionally stable deck system that sidelines many of the issues commonly associated with lumber.”
Upscale colors, bigger sizes
Beyond the use of alternative materials, manufacturers are seeing trends that favor the sophisticated or the personal. The use of exotic grain patterns and mixed colors that create the sense of the unique are in vogue as homeowners strive to create spaces that stand out from their neighbors, and LBM distributors should be prepared to offer an array of product choices that support individualization.
“Our customers are broadening their color palette offerings, with a focus on lighter, on-trend colors, especially gray tones and greige,” says Fiberon’s Stange. “We’re also seeing a demand for more sophisticated grain patterns that mimic interior flooring—extending the feel of indoor living into an outdoor space.”
And consumers are choosing these colors in very large quantities, as builders report increased demand for much larger decks that incorporate multiple levels that allow for more spatial dimension and variation. “People who have built new or upgraded existing decks have begun to treat the projects more as extensions of their indoor living space rather than just an exterior gathering space,” explains Lonza’s Leslie. “No longer is the deck just the place to put the grill and patio furniture, but it’s the second living room, the bonus room, with added benefit of open air and natural vistas, or the mini-getaway from the comfort of your house.”
Creative solutions bring success
With all of the increased demand for an array of decking products and considering the potential of product shortages, it may seem to the LBM dealer that the best they can hope for is to tread water in an ultra-competitive market. Decking manufacturers, however, see methods for success. “It’s important to provide educational tools and digital selling resources to make the current virtual selling environment and experience more successful,” says Fiberon’s Stange. “LBM dealers can work to utilize and promote these tools to their customers.”
First and foremost, manufacturers recommend LBM dealers take the time to intensely study and understand the products they are selling so that they are able to provide creative solutions. “Knowledge is everything and details are important,” points out Lonza’s Leslie. “Like all things, the decking industry has seen many changes over the years, especially in pressure treated wood standards as they relate to codes. It is important that dealers understand the details of the products they are offering so that they can clearly and effectively educate their staff, who in turn can communicate effectively with end users. An educated sales team inspires confidence with consumers who will be more willing to make a purchase if they know they are buying the right product for their project.” This deep base of product knowledge, combined with a true understanding of their customers, can enable LBM dealers to see creative solutions that undereducated dealers might miss. As Humboldt Sawmill’s Jessica Hewitt explains, “As housing in general, and certainly decking and home improvement projects, has boomed during the pandemic, product shortages and supply disruptions have been no secret. Customers have scrambled for limited products; timelines have been pushed out on project completions. LBM dealers can help their customers by getting to know their core competencies and recommending products accordingly. In the example of accessory dwelling units, a remodeling contractor with a core competency in that space may be less concerned with odd lengths as they are likely building smaller decks, cutting the wood more. Proactively suggesting products, especially as demand remains high, could help LBM dealers solidify relationships and trust with their customers.”
Part of that ability to provide creative solutions comes from being able to provide product choices that can be creatively combined, says Royal Building Products’ Booz. “Adding a product like Zuri Premium Decking to your offerings of outdoor living products is a great margin booster because outdoor living spaces are going to continue to be in demand. You can also add products like Royal Column Wraps and Nickel Gap and Shiplap, which can be combined into one order from your wholesaler for ease of purchase.”
But it’s not just about having the most inventory, the latest displays, or the most point-of-purchase literature grabs. The successful LBM dealer will look for ways to incorporate all their available assets—including the manufacturers—into a comprehensive strategy of stocking and selling, and then taking advantage of those resources.
“The pandemic amplified the notion that the stocking, trained, committed dealer with display space or a showroom provides the best service in the industry,” says Trex’s Gerhard. “A balanced strategy between the manufacturer, distributor and dealer that embraces the strengths of all parties is a way to separate from the masses. Taking advantage of platforms such as our TrexPro contractor program also enables a connection that fuels consistent lead generation and repeat business.”
Product training goes virtual
To be able to provide creative solutions for their customers’ needs means that LBM dealers must actively engage in training and product knowledge resources. And while COVID-19 put a damper on in-person training (and will likely continue to do so in 2021), manufacturers are devising virtual ways for dealers to stay at the top of their game. For example, Royal Building Products has launched RoyalPros.com as a resource for contractors who for the first time had to conduct business virtually. The site offers webinars and installation videos along with sales tools and advice for contractors. As well, it has extended its Royal Preferred Contractor (RPC) program to include Zuri Premium Decking installers. “The RPC program is designed to provide hands-on training and certification to ensure that our products are installed correctly, providing a lifetime of maintenance freedom for our homeowners,” explains Booz. “Once enrolled, RPC candidates can complete a free online training program, receive top billing on Royal’s website of preferred contractors, get help with leads, and can also earn special rewards for qualifying jobs.”
Humboldt Sawmill has also increased its virtual training opportunities, focusing on redwood decking, redwood timbers, and its Allweather Wood brand of preservative treated lumber products. “For our redwood product training sessions, we would typically host about 200 individuals in-person on an annualized basis,” says Hewitt. “This year we reached ten times that number virtually. Certainly, the economies of scale in terms of reaching people virtually are very attractive.”
TimberTech recently introduced a new deck building resource center on TimberTech.com that provides expert information to help professionals and DIY homeowners prepare for deck projects, with topics ranging from choosing the right decking and selecting preferred fasteners to installation tips.
Fortress has launched FortressBP Academy, an online Learning Management System that allows its internal and external customers to engage in focused micro (adult learning) training courses on everything from customized content on Fortress products and services, to over 4,000 general business trainings to assistance in up-skilling general business knowledge.
And in the case of Trex, it utilized its TrexPro network to hold virtual training sessions with its channel partners as well as enhancing professional developmental skills. “The creativity shown by our TrexPro network in connecting with homeowners virtually and using new technologies to propose projects reflects that the business will evolve based on the circumstance,” points out Trex’s Gerhard. “When travel restrictions relax, we are poised to welcome LBM dealers and contractors to our new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and industry-leading training center at Trex University. As an organization, we welcome the return to normal but will adapt to the changing climate.”
Along with product knowledge resources, manufacturers are using this time to release new and updated technology tools for the LBM dealer and deck contractors. For example, Lonza’s new Treat Right Business Intelligence platform offers up-to-the-minute data analysis along with other functions to help treaters deliver high quality treated wood products in a timely fashion. Rollout of the platform began in 2020 and continues throughout 2021.
And for Fiberon, its newly launched Deck Designer tool allows trade professionals and homeowners to get an idea of what their new deck would look like using pre-made templates or a “start from scratch” option that utilizes the company’s entire range of decking, railing and lighting. As well, its sample store now includes 3D models that can be rotated or zoomed in on (via the desktop site), while a built-in augmented reality feature for smartphones allows the user to visualize the product in their space in real time.
“We provide tools and resources to help our customers promote their business and the Fiberon products they sell,” says Kate Haws, senior brand manager for Fiberon. “LBM dealers can contact their Fiberon representative to learn more about how we can help them during this busy and challenging time.”
If the past year has taught the decking industry anything, it’s that the unexpected is becoming the norm. Few anticipated how the pandemic would spur such record demand for decking, but if trends continue as manufacturers predict, the coming twelve months promise even more returns for the LBM dealer that’s prepared for it. As Humboldt Sawmill’s Jessica Hewitt puts it, “There is no doubt that COVID-19 has been a boon to the decking industry, one that was not anticipated a year ago. I would surmise that had the industry known how important home was going to become to the American public, some of the manufacturing shutdowns and furloughs that occurred last year would not have happened. That said, I believe the industry is doing all it can to keep up with the once-in-a-generation demand we are seeing for decking materials.”
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.