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In Depth: Decks

Decks and related structures have long been a part of our history. Take for example the Sweet Track, an ancient boardwalk that crossed a marsh in the Somerset Levels of England. It was built around 3800 BC and consisted of crossed wooden poles driven into the swampy soil to support a walkway of oak boards laid end to end.

Older yet are the remains of a wooden platform archaeologists working in Zambia have discovered. The rudimentary construction—the oldest-known wooden structure in the world—consists of two interlocking logs joined by a notch. Markings on the logs demonstrate that they were cut and chopped with a range of stone tools an estimated 476,000 years ago. The structure, which was found upstream of Kalambo Falls near the border of Zambia and Tanzania, was likely part of a platform used as a walkway, though it may also have been the base for a shelter.

If one of today’s modern decks lasts for over 400,000 years, it would be a true testament to its construction. Still, while that kind of life expectancy is not likely, the deck industry as a whole appears to be poised to experience continued growth and deliver significant wins for LBM dealers.

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Optimism dominates
If any factors are poised to disrupt the decking segment in 2024, interest rates and the possibility of continued inflation would be at the top of the list. Decking manufacturers are keeping a sharp eye on these variables, but they still express optimism as to the overall state of the decking market.

“Based on what we see in the field, indicators seem strong for outdoor living and deck demand this year at the dealer and installer level of the channel,” says Matthew Bruce, vice president of sales for MoistureShield/Barrette Outdoor Living. “While interest rates have a significant effect on new construction, we are in a position that 90%+ of the non-wood decking market falls into the R&R category. While the average homeowner may not be as inclined to make a move into a new home with the market uncertainty, it is highly likely that those who stay in their existing homes will do upgrades or renovations. Outdoor living is still one of the largest areas that consumers are spending their dollars. We like our positioning in the space and feel that the segment will still see growth over the next several years.”

Jessica Hewitt, director of marketing for Humboldt Sawmill Company, anticipates 2024 to show similar decking demand to 2023. “Demand has settled into a steady pace, lower than the high-volume years of 2020 through mid-2022, but the category remains strong,” she reports.

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“With the median age of a home in the U.S. at about 40 years, there will always be a certain amount of churn in the industry with decks needing repair or replacement. Homeowners locked into low interest rates have found themselves to be better off staying in their existing homes and remodeling as needed versus trading up to a new home with a hefty mortgage.”

She goes on to explain how the American consumer has steered the economy away from excessive fears of recession, inflation, and interest rates, while record stock prices and equity in their homes has led homeowners to invest and expand. “Decking projects augmented by overall landscape and hardscape expansions—fences, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, raised planting beds, etc.—illustrate the versatility and value added that redwood lumber and timbers can provide,” she says. “Deck builders can tap into this consumer demand by providing entire design packages that go well beyond the average deck.”

One other factor that is helping the growth potential for decking is the stabilization of wood prices. According to Trading Economics, lumber prices stabilized around the $550 per thousand feet benchmark amid prospects of increased supply and subdued demand. The latest data from top producer Canada showed that lumber production edged down by 0.1% month-over-month in November but rose by 2.4% on an annual basis, indicating a resilient upward trend in the sector over the longer term.

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As Chris Brown, executive vice president of Culpeper Wood Preservers, explains, “As we begin 2024, the forecasts still point to a slowdown in the housing market, and there is still skepticism for the building materials industry. However, as a supplier of pressure-treated wood, one advantage is that the pricing of lumber is anticipated to remain relatively stable throughout the next 10-12 months. While new home construction and existing home sales could see a slowing market, the repair and remodel industry should remain strong as people look to invest in their homes. Considering the current economic conditions, many homeowners will decide to stay put and look to improve areas within their current homes. As the outdoor living segment continues to be more of the popular area to improve, this should bode well for the decking segment.”

Still, some caution is warranted, manufacturers point out. “It is difficult to make any clear predictions regarding inflation and how interest rates in 2024 will affect the growth of the decking segment,” says Bret Martz, vice president of North American professional sales for Trex Company. “We do expect interest rates to stay elevated relative to recent historical rates. The byproduct of the macro-economic environment is the expectation that existing homeowners are more likely to stay in their homes and focus on improvements and designing spaces that fit their lifestyle needs. Outdoor living continues to be one of the more popular focal points for home improvement, so we are cautiously optimistic and feel that our competitive programming, coupled with industry leading new products, and unmatched brand recognition and preference, position us well to succeed.”

Steve Booz, vice president of marketing for Westlake Royal Building Products, shares some of Martz’s viewpoints regarding the economy.

“Despite the uncertainties surrounding inflation and interest rates, which have the potential to impact home renovation activities, Westlake Royal Building Products holds an optimistic view regarding the growth of the decking segment in 2024, and really most of our remodeling products,” he says. “Changing consumer preferences and trends in outdoor living spaces continue to influence the expansion of the decking industry. For example, four years after the pandemic, people are finding great enjoyment in gathering and socializing with friends and family. This includes entertaining outdoors and creating a comfortable yet functional outdoor living space. Decks, in particular, are evolving into true extensions of the home.”

Colors evolve
When it comes to deck colors for 2024, don’t look for major deviations compared to last year. If anything, colors are migrating towards more neutral tones.

“Nationwide, we’ve seen a shift away from grays to a more natural, neutral palette of browns and tans over the past few years,” says Michelle Hendricks, category marketing manager for Deckorators. “Homeowners’ preferences for deck colors are generally becoming more minimalistic and monochromatic. This opens up more opportunities for pops of color and texture elsewhere. With neutral color options, the deck becomes a versatile base that can adapt to shifts in tastes, seasons and trends. Homeowners can easily switch up their outdoor furniture, accents and decor without the need to completely overhaul a bold color scheme.”

Lighter colored palettes with increased performance details such as heat mitigation continue to drive demand, explains Trex’s Martz, pointing to the adoption of the company’s new Trex Transcend Lineage and Trex Signature decking lines. “More and more homeowners are seeking materials that create a harmonious and modern outdoor ambiance,” he says. “Pioneering new levels of aesthetic authenticity, these new decking options closely resemble the look of premium hardwood interior flooring, making them the perfect complement for creating a sense of seamless continuity from indoors to outside.”

Other manufacturers, however, forecast increased demand for decking in gray tones. “For a clean, modern look, the trend towards gray decking is set to accelerate in 2024, from bold charcoal to subtle light gray, like Zuri Premium Decking’s Weathered Gray, which remains one of Westlake Royal’s top sellers,” says Westlake Royal Building Products’ Booz.

Outdoor living drives sales
Similar to last year, homeowners are spending record amounts of time at home, especially in their outdoor spaces. As more people were forced to work from home and forego public gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, embracing outdoor living became a priority.

It’s a trend that remains on the upswing and should be one of the biggest in 2024, says Westlake Royal Building Products’ Booz.

“Essentially, homeowners want their outdoor areas to be as appealing, comfortable and functional as their interiors,” he explains. “Homeowners will also try to make decks an extension of their indoor living spaces by incorporating elements that cater to their interests, such as an outdoor kitchen, fire pit, or lounge area with comfy furniture. Homeowners may also consider creating distinct zones for cooking, dining, lounging, and entertaining by incorporating multiple levels into their deck design.”

Deckorators’ Hendricks shares similar opinions. “Homeowners want to maximize the utility of their outdoor living spaces,” she says. “The easiest way to achieve that is by creating flexible-use zones to accommodate different activities and elements—think outdoor kitchens, spas, seating areas, and entertainment centers. Our contractors like to use Deckorators Picture Frame Board to visually distinguish those zones around the deck.”

Envision Outdoor Living Products’ Moritz points out that, while outdoor living in and of itself continues to be one of the biggest trends in residential construction, versatility is important when it comes to those spaces.

“Ideally, creating a living area that has a little something for everyone and every task—areas for group gathering around a fire pit, a relaxing space to read or nap, an outdoor dining space and kitchen, etc.,” he recommends. “Builders and remodelers are creating those spaces in a variety of ways, including designing their composite decks with inlays, picture framing, and borders to visually separate spaces. Large planters, rugs, and furniture placement also serve that function.”

Being able to create a versatile outdoor living space starts with thoughtful design. “Designate outdoor living zones, creating separate spaces for dining, recreation like hosting a movie night, and even office spaces as more and more employees choose suburbs and rural locations for living and work from home remains a viable option, for full- or part-time work,” says Kim Guimond, chief marketing officer for Modern Mill. “Add a skirt to hide the space underneath the deck to the ground. This can also create hidden storage space. Integrate lighting and climate control with pergolas for shade or lamps for added heat.”

Never stop learning
In order to best sell these trends to customers, decking manufacturers recommend LBM dealers be as educated as possible on product options. While this advice may seem obvious, it’s often overlooked. “Dealers should ensure that staff are well-trained and knowledgeable about different decking materials, including wood, traditional composite, mineral-based composite, and other alternatives,” says Deckorators’ Hendricks. “They should understand the pros and cons of each material, as well as their specific applications and maintenance requirements.”

She goes on to say that a knowledgeable and readily available customer service team that can address questions and offer guidance is equally crucial. “It’s also important to collect and consider customer feedback. Dealers should establish a mechanism to gather input from customers about their experiences with different decking materials, and use that feedback to improve and refine their offerings.”

Culpeper Wood Preservers’ Brown also stresses product education. “The most essential practice available is having the proper knowledge of the products and all information about the intended applications,” he explains. “Homeowners are investing in their property and need to ensure the right products and building practices are followed. Our company stresses education not only to our retail customers but also to contractors and homeowners. We provide all this information on our website and want to ensure it is updated and available to everyone.”

Envision Outdoor Living Products’ Moritz echoes these sentiments. “One of the biggest things dealers can do to best serve their customers is simply product education—knowing the products they sell inside and out in order to help buyers, especially consumers, understand the differences between decking materials to help them choose what will work best for their needs,” he stresses. “This knowledge also can help customers navigate what is sometimes an overwhelming decision-making process—not just what type of decking to use, but also what color and what railing to go with it. Work with your manufacturers to get to know the products, including accessories, and to understand how to walk buyers through the options to reach their needs both aesthetically and functionally.”

Now is the time for your team to bone up on product knowledge, manufacturers recommend. “Spring is a great time of year to start educating homeowners and builders with lead nurture and product education,” says Modern Mill’s Kim Guimond. “Modern Mill offers many packaged ideas like product decision trees to compare and find the optimal product for ones projects, we offer tools to reach audiences including deck safety checklists, outdoor living inspiration and our new websites offers a project gallery to see actual decking installations and new ideas.”

Says Trex’s Martz, “The stocked, trained, and committed dealer with display space or a showroom provides the best service in the industry. A balanced strategy between the manufacturer, distributor and dealer that embraces the strengths of all parties is a way to differentiate from the masses.”

To say that the decking industry won’t experience hiccups in the coming year would certainly be an exaggeration. Yet despite continued labor shortages and uncertain economic forecasts, industry experts seem to share a cautious optimism for what the decking category might bring for the LBM dealer.

As Modern Mill’s Guimond puts it, “We continue to see significant upside for decking as homeowners seek sustainable options for new and replacement decks, the continued desire for more beautiful outdoor living spaces, and the strength of home improvement sector. It’s also worth noting that there is a lag from housing starts to peak construction spending, so we could start to see more spending from 2023 housing starts later this year.”

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