Despite material and labor woes, the decking market remains an aggressive growth segment.
As a place for family congregation, decks have a long and illustrious history. Beginning in the 19th century, boardwalks began popping up along America’s eastern coastal region. Obviously made of boards, these structures gave hotel visitors a place to stroll without the fear of them tracking sand into the adjacent hotels. And by the 20th century, boardwalks became destinations unto themselves.
While certainly nowhere near as grand as the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk, today’s residential decks serve as similar fashion, giving families a place to gather and enjoy the outdoors. And their popularity continues to experience significant and aggressive market expansion.
The Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity, released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, forecasts strong growth in the remodeling market into 2022, projecting high-single digit gains in annual home renovation and repair spending, with 9% growth in spending by this year’s fourth quarter. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing starts in the US unexpectedly increased 1.4% month over month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.702 million in December of 2021, the highest since March of 2021 and beating market forecast of 1.65 million.
It’s not just the numbers that predict a strong market; manufacturers seem to agree with the optimistic forecast as well. “The past 12 months have taught us that consumers are emotionally and financially invested in their outdoor spaces and will continue to use them even as the world opens back up,” says Daryl Evans, chief marketing officer for YellaWood. “The housing boom has not only introduced more first-time homeowners excited to create a space but it also established a renewed sense of enjoyment for long-time homeowners looking to reinvigorate their outdoor areas. With the chaos of the world increasing by the day, consumers are looking to create spaces outside the home where they can create memories and experiences.”
Jase DeBoer, senior marketing manager of outdoor living for Deckorators, shares Evans’ viewpoint when it comes to market strength. “It’s undeniable that in recent years more homeowners than ever are reevaluating and taking inventory of how they use the spaces within their property lines,” he explains. “In the same way that the insides of our homes have had to take on multiple purposes, people are looking to make the most out of their outdoor living spaces as well. Over the next 12 months we predict that there will be a continued demand for personalized outdoor living spaces.”
Kim Boos, director of channel sales North America for Fortress Building Products, agrees. “The country’s enthusiasm for outdoor home improvement shows no signs of slowing down, which means the decking segment will be hotter than ever. Many are commissioning beautiful outdoor spaces that extend the functions of everyday living beyond the walls of the home.”
Bret Martz, vice president of North American professional sales at Trex, also sees a continuation of the explosive growth of the deck segment. “We anticipate the market will experience continuing levels of increased interest and demand throughout 2022 as consumers continue to invest in making their homes more comfortable and functional. Outdoor areas, in particular, are becoming larger and/or more elaborate. We are also seeing more consumers embracing and seeking out the benefits of low-maintenance materials, which is positively impacting demand for composite and moving the needle on our goals for driving wood conversion.”
Matthew Bruce, vice president of sales for MoistureShield, agrees. “With historic demand for outdoor living products, industry experts like Principia report that this demand for outdoor living space will continue past the pandemic and expects all decking—both new and repaired/replaced decks—to grow 5.5% by volume through 2023.”
Personalization is where it’s at
Ever since the lockdowns that came with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, homeowners have embraced the concept of outdoor living like never before, opting for projects that result in an overall expansion of the home’s usable outdoor square footage. “Homeowners continue to seek options to expand living space beyond their four walls and look to outdoor spaces as an extension of their home,” says Chris Brown, director of business development for Culpeper Wood. “Their decks now serve many purposes. A deck is now their kitchen and dining room as they cook, eat, and even watch movies or sporting events while enjoying the backyard living space.”
Dennis Hazenstab, vice president of customer experience and sales execution for the AZEK Company, agrees, pointing out that, with a decrease in available home inventory, people are making enhancements to their current spaces, particularly outdoors. “Nearly a third of millennials (32%) want to renovate their outdoor spaces to add value to their homes,” he says. “The decking focus for homeowners used to be maintenance but has since shifted to lead with a priority on aesthetics followed by low-maintenance, durability, and sustainability. There’s also an uptick in millennials buying new homes, and sustainable, low-maintenance features have never been more important.”
But as the pandemic has continued, a mere expansion of outdoor space isn’t enough. Rather, manufacturers point to a growing homeowner desire for more personalized designs that include bold use of colors, patterns and deck board widths. “Classic lumber-toned decks never go out of style, but adding some flair with an eye-catching color is a subtle way to elevate your deck’s aesthetic appeal,” says Steve Booz, vice president of marketing for Westlake Royal Building Products. “Some designs incorporate the same color throughout while another way to bring color to your deck is through distinctive inlay designs or other design features.”
Mixing and matching of colors and widths is an easy way for homeowners to create a personal touch to their outdoor spaces, manufacturers suggest, along with the mixing of dark and light color palettes. “Homeowners are starting to think about the outdoor living space as an extension of their home, bringing trends from the indoors, like multi-width boards and lighter flooring, to the outdoor space,” points out AZEK’s Hazenstab.
“Creative flair is increasingly mainstream,” adds Booz. “Some options for incorporating greater depth and style into your deck design include mixing and matching boards to create patterns, inlays and focal points or utilizing two-tone designs for more visually interesting aesthetics.”
That personalization also goes beyond horizontal decking, with homeowners incorporating an increasing number of auxiliary structures into their outdoor living plans, says Deckorators’ DeBoer. “Increasing trends including additional, personalized features such as wet bars, pools, spas, and customized storage solutions reflect homeowners’ desires to cultivate an outdoor space that reflects their lifestyle and personality.”
Jessica Hewitt, director of marketing for Humboldt Sawmill Company, also sees auxiliary outdoor structures that add functionality to outdoor spaces as a growing trend. “We have been promoting redwood timbers for quite a few years now. They can be used for deck posts on higher-end, larger decks, but most typically for shade structures like pergolas and arbors,” she explains. “We were early in that trend as other manufacturers are just starting to see the value of extending their product lines into shade structures. We feel the versatility, ease of use, and variety of dimensions and lengths of redwood timbers available, make them idea for dealers to carry in stock and contractors, builders, and homeowners to use for those types of projects. And as outdoor settings continue to be important to homeowners, upgrading not just decks, but shaded areas as well, is not a trend that is going to reverse anytime soon.”
Supply shortages, labor woes
While demand for decking has many seeing a bright future for 2022, global supply chain issues have manufacturers wary. Shortages of everything from resins to computer chips—all key components used in manufacturing line machinery—have resulted in significant line downtime for manufacturers due to lack of availability of parts. And anything coming from overseas, whether it’s the materials for the products themselves or the materials used to make the machinery that makes the products, is subject to significant delivery delays while it waits to be unloaded from cargo containers.
For example, in January, top container shipping firm A.P. Moller-Maersk warned its customers in an advisory bulletin on its website that it was still struggling to move goods around the world. The pandemic has prompted shortages of container ships and log-jams at ports at a time of very high consumer spending, with the biggest waiting times for container vessels to discharge or pick up cargoes found on the U.S. West Coast, where the waiting time at Long Beach port in Los Angeles currently is between 38 and 45 days, the shipping firm said.
To add insult to injury, according to an estimate from the American Trucking Association, the U.S. is currently experiencing a shortage of more than 80,000 truck drivers, so even once materials are unloaded at the docks, there may not be anyone available to drive the goods anywhere—be it to the manufacturing facility or from the manufacturer to the LBM distributor. Nevertheless, decking manufacturers are doing everything they can to overcome these delays.
Says YellaWood’s Evans, “YellaWood is committed to working with dealers and distributors to stay ahead of demand increases. We are in constant communication with partners on both ends of the supply chain to ensure that all parties are aware of timelines and any demand challenges.”
It’s a sentiment that’s shared by all the manufacturers we interviewed, and while everyone acknowledges the materials and logistics challenges, they’re all committed to doing everything they can to get materials to the distributor as quickly as possible.
“COVID-19 has posed, and will continue to pose, challenges with labor,” says Trex’s Martz. “Like other industries, we are faced with labor difficulties while also trying to meet the demands of the market and balance employee welfare. Growth has also challenged us to look further in our global sourcing of raw materials for our products, and we feel prepared to meet the emerging demands of the customer while maintaining our leadership position in recycling.”
Matt Roughen, director of marketing, wood protection North America for Arxada (formerly Lonza Wood Protection), agrees. “We’ve seen the impact of raw material availability throughout the industry; however, at Arxada we’ve taken measures to ensure our customers have material when they need it. We are proud that through the pandemic our service to our customers remained strong.”
And for some decking manufacturers, domestic product availability has eased some of those supply chain issues. “Our company has the unique benefit of owning our redwood and Douglas-fir timberlands, 440,000 acres total, our sawmills, treating plants, and distribution centers,” Humboldt’s Hewitt points out. “Overseas disruptions have exposed how long supply chains have gotten and how far away component and raw materials may be. The beauty of natural wood is…it’s wood! There are no component materials. Furthermore, we have great relationships with our raw materials suppliers for our treating plants and have worked diligently to ensure we have the raw materials to feed those plants as demand remains at historically high levels.
Knowledge-based solutions are vital
In the midst of supply chain and delivery woes, the building and remodeling industry continues to struggle with labor shortages, and contractors are having a difficult time keeping up with the growing demand for their services. “Like many other industries in the US right now, finding labor is a struggle,” says Arxada’s Roughen. “The same can be said for the construction industry. Contractors seem to have longer job-files and homeowners are seeing longer wait times to have projects started.” It’s a shortage that’s industry wide, points out Culpeper Wood’s Chris Brown. “Labor shortages are being felt by all businesses, not just our industry. However, the mills, the manufacturers, the retail lumber yards and every other business in our industry are having staffing difficulties. As a result, production, fulfillment, and service have been affected. We all are having to adjust where we can to be able to provide the level of service our customers are expecting.”
Because of these shortages, it’s become more important than ever for LBM distributors to provide as many options as possible for contractors. Whether it’s with a deeper portfolio of products or by providing ones that deliver labor-saving benefits, manufacturers stress the importance of time and labor-saving solutions. “The labor shortage continues as an issue for deck builders who are trying to do more with less, and often operating with smaller crews,” says MoistureShield’s Bruce. “This creates a need for consistently reliable, easy to use products.”
To be able to offer solutions, product knowledge becomes paramount, and the successful LBM dealer will strive to be a decking educator rather than a mere order taker. “Customers want the best of both worlds when it comes to decks and accessories,” explains Deckorators DeBoer. “It’s not enough to offer a product or design that is aesthetically attractive. You also need to think about how a space is going to function and whether that product is going to last. Your biggest defense is knowledge. Know your products, know their warranties, and know how they need to function.”
“To stay competitive,” stresses Fortress’ Kim Boos, “LBM dealers must be able to ‘show the dream’ with advanced computer design programs, virtual reality software and interactive, mobile-friendly websites. By creating a value-add experience, the deck designing, purchasing and installation process can actually become easy and enjoyable.”
YellaWood’s Daryl Evans, also sees product knowledge as key, not only as a means to provide solutions, but because customers are more product-savvy than ever, and LBM distributors need to be prepared to respond. “We’re finding that customers are spending more time researching specific products for their ideal deck before engaging a contractor,” he explains. “Higher-grade materials customers were previously unfamiliar with, like KDAT boards and built-in water repellants, are now being asked for by name. This is a challenge because contractors need to be ready to have deeper dialogues about the best product choices for each project and be prepared to offer alternative products to balance demand for premium products.”
Growing your product brain
In this post-COVID-19 world, it can be challenging at best for the LBM distributor to stay on top of product knowledge. Nevertheless, decking manufacturers are doing all they can to make sure the dealer has as many resources as possible at their disposal. Online product training coupled with the slow return of in-person events are helping LBM distributors and contractors alike stay as informed as possible. For example, the Humboldt Sawmill Company launched a third American Institute of Architects continuing education course in mid-2021. “We train upwards of 6,000 specifiers annually through a combination of in-person and online continuing education courses,” says Hewitt. “The vast majority of those are online as specifiers value the flexibility of going through those materials as they are able, whether in the evenings or on weekends, to meet their training requirements.”
Arxada has partnered with Matt Risinger of the Build Show to create an educational video and podcast about understanding treated wood where he discusses product basics, from how to choose the most appropriate treatment level for a customer’s needs to what fasteners and flashing to use.
In the case of Trex, in addition to more in-person interactions balanced with virtual trainings, it will soon be reopening its Trex University training facility, while Westlake Royal Building Products offers on its websites a variety of downloadable materials such as installation guides and training videos.
Introduced in 2021, the MoistureShield Value Partner program (MVP) provides training and rewards programs. As well, its MoistureShield University provides a digital product learning platform for contractors, dealers and their sales teams. And for Culpeper Wood, it provides training resources exclusive to its customers. “We are a certified provider for AIA Continuing Education, we offer on-site Lunch & Learn opportunities and even online webinars which can be scheduled at your convenience,” explains Brown. “When a customer walks in to a retail lumber yard, they expect your team to be the experts. Ensure they are by taking advantage of educational opportunities.”
If the continuing challenges and upheavals of the pandemic environment have taught the decking industry anything, it’s to go with the flow. Industry experts don’t see a quick or easy end to labor shortages and supply chain issues, and as a result, LBM dealers can find themselves feeling as if they’re riding a never-ending roller coaster.
As Culpeper Wood’s Chris Brown puts it, “Demand has been all over the chart the past two years. Much of this can be attributed to the historical rises and falls in the lumber market. Yet housing starts are at numbers which our industry cannot fulfill. Mortgage rates have been at levels which promote new starts, remodels, and rapid changes in the real estate market. The DIY market has been booming and the surge in the outdoor living category shows no signs of easing. Factor all of this in with vast swings in pricing and it creates a difficult situation to navigate for both manufacturers and retail lumber yards.” By staying ahead of the trends, however, and being able to provide thoughtful solutions, LBM dealers can make that roller coaster feel more like a calm and soothing carousel.
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.