Composite decking manufacturers may differ in fabrication methods and materials used, but they’re united in their messaging on the advantages their products provide—and ease of maintenance tops that list, with visual appeal taking a close second. But companies continue to eye their price points, as well, as they seek to gain market share versus a range of traditional wood materials. A new generation of more economical composite offerings is narrowing the price premium versus wood and could help propel market growth through the new decade.
Checking In on the Market
Residential decks are a profitable market for remodeling contractors, valued at $3.1 billion in 2018 by the market research group Principia Consulting. That firm sees annual market growth hitting 6.5 percent by 2021. Composite products are becoming an increasingly popular choice for homeowners as they evaluate these new materials against pressure-treated, kiln-dried and tropical wood options.
As of 2018, Principia pegged composites’ national market share at 19 percent, but that figure varies widely by region. In the Northeast, composite products have captured 50 percent of all decking board purchases, and that figure is 40 percent in the western United States. Toby Bostwick, a vice president with Fortress Building Products, says these regional differences in adoption aren’t anything new.
“It’s kind of always been that way—your early adopters were the contractors in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and then on the West Coast,” he says. In part, higher home values can play a role in these decisions, with homeowners in higher-cost areas seeing more value in spending a bit more for a new deck. It also reflects some regional aesthetic preferences. For example, in the Midwest, “It’s that rustic red cedar look—they like that rustic appearance.”
However, despite these regional differences, non-wood decking products are becoming more popular nationwide. Principia surveyed decking-material dealers in its 2018 survey and found 62 percent had seen an increase in wood-alternative purchasing in the previous three years. Remodeling is driving much of this growth. Some 52 percent of all homes constructed in 2018 were built with just a porch or a porch plus patio, up from 39 percent in 2010. Leslie Adkins, marketing vice president for Trex, says her company has noticed especially in major Mid-Atlantic metro areas.
“A lot of builders focus on interiors, and they put bars across the backdoor, and homeowners put on decks later,” she says. “It’s certainly an opportunity for contractors throughout those regions.”
These customers might be new homeowners who can be easily swayed by wood’s upfront cost advantages. However, the bigger market of consumers who are replacing existing wood decks bring a fuller understanding of the maintenance that wood decks require.
“I think the arguments for a composite or capped polymer PVC deck—at least the ones from the best manufacturers—can be summed up in three points: They look better, they perform better and they last longer, in most cases, a lot longer,” says Patrick Barnds, senior vice president with AZEK Company, manufacturer of TimberTech decking. “Our best prospective customer is one who has had a wood deck for a few years or lived in a house with an older deck. The idea of spending just a little more upfront to get something that really only requires basic cleaning and should last a generation or more is an easy choice for those folks.”
Molly Werner, senior brand manager with MoistureShield, adds that the ongoing maintenance required with wood isn’t just a hassle, it also adds to the deck’s lifetime cost. “Wood is only less expensive on the initial investment,” she says, noting that yearly deck cleaning and regular refinishing efforts add up over time. “That annual investment is $3 to $4 per square foot.”
Another trend remodeling contractors might be noticing is the expanding functionality homeowners are seeking from their decks. While the idea of a deck as an extension of indoor space isn’t a new one, some homeowners are taking it to a new level by creating room-like areas that each serve different purposes.
“We see TVs and bars and segmented spaces, like dining rooms, on the deck,” says Jase DeBoer, category marketing manager with Deckorators. “That may mean a larger deck or a highly designed, functional deck that leads to a patio with a fire space. And there are literally builders creating walls on the deck.”
Shara Gamble, director of sales and marketing for Envision, says these new demands can mean larger spaces as well. “We’re seeing the overall size of decks increase quite a bit recently—today’s outdoor living requires space for entertaining, with all the comforts of a living room and expansive outdoor kitchen,” she says. “That’s being accomplished by adding multiple levels or unique designs with much more square footage.”
And, she adds, today’s homeowners are seeking to break away from traditional rectilinear layouts. “New decks are trending toward innovative edge options—a soft, curved corner, rather than a traditional square corner, adds a relaxed feel for family life. And double—or even triple—picture frames and inlays also add interesting shape to the deck.”
Decking color preferences also are drawing on interior design trends, says Chase Moritz, decking and marketing specialist for Envision. “Definitely a lot of lighter colors, especially in the grays and light brown tones,” he says. “Some of the trends are kind of following what’s going inside the home, and they’re really starting to flow through to outside spaces as well.”
DeBoer adds that using multiple colors on the same deck is a growing trend—for example, using accent boards in picture-frame fashion to outline various living areas. And he’s also seeing more interest in finishes that provide greater traction for greater slip-resistance. Deckorators introduced such a finish for its Voyage line last year. “As people are staying in their homes longer, and the older they get, the more concerns they have regarding safety.”
Meeting Expectations at All Price Points
Many composite manufacturers have recently launched new decking lines to meet lower price points. They’re cutting costs by “scalloping” the boards’ undersides, in designs that use less material but maintain board strength.
“Scalloped boards have gained acceptance and subsequently lowered pricing in the marketplace,” says Mike Descoteaux, marketing manager with Barrette Outdoor Living, manufacturer of DuraLife decking, which has introduced the MVP Profile. “Now homeowners can select these value-added products with the advantage of not having to sacrifice on color and grain options, as well as overall performance. As a result, they now feel more confident making the jump from lower-price, traditional wood decking.”
Adkins says launching the scalloped Enhance Basics line was a big step for Trex, the company that originated the composite category. “We had to look where we were going to grow,” Adkins says, noting that cost had remained a barrier for many customers who would otherwise prefer composites to wood. “The low-maintenance equation is important, but it doesn’t matter until you hit that sweet spot in pricing. It was a real engineering feat to figure out how to get Trex performance at that price.”
Other recent entries in this category include MoistureShield’s Elevate line, which, as Werner notes, incorporates an arch-shaped scallop to reduce material use. “Adding scallops help reduce the price, for sure, but it isn’t as easy as it looks,” she says, emphasizing the engineering required to design a product that still performs as expected. The work, however, has paid off. “While pressure-treated pine is still at a lower price, there really isn’t much difference with kiln-dried wood.”
Additionally, Fortress Deck has introduced Infinity I-Series decking into the more competitively priced market. Instead of arched scallops, this line uses an I-beam-shaped scallop to maintain structural integrity.
At the higher end, manufacturers say, customers are seeking products that add value over wood, in more than just reduced maintenance and added durability. This includes finishes that increase traction and keep deck surfaces cooler. But the most important feature for less budget-conscious customers, these decking experts say, is simply visual appeal.
“Is it the look that I want, and does it have the ability to make me look different than everyone else?” says Bostwick, putting himself into the persona of a higher-end customer. “The price begins to drop down the value chain of the decision making.”
TimberTech’s Barnd sees a desire to bring a handcrafted look to outdoor spaces. “We are seeing a big trend toward rustic, time-worn and authentic wood visuals,” he says. “We are also seeing a significant interest in wider-width and mixed-width deck boards. This has been a huge trend in the flooring industry, and it’s now finding its way into decking.”
To that end, TimberTech has added narrow (3½ inches) and wide (7¼ inches) boards to a number of its decking lines. These complement the company’s 5½-inch standard board width.
Adkins agrees that at the high end, “It’s much more about design and aesthetics—it’s an extension of the home’s interior design,” she says. In such plans, the decking can become just one element in a whole palette of materials that can include stone and even furniture fabrics. The goal for designers in these projects lies in creating layers of visual interest. “How do you get texture? How do you get something that looks organic? You see people putting outdoor rugs out, and lots of pillows on all the furniture.”
Selling to Contractors too
Of course, decking manufacturers need to think of remodeling contractors as their customers too. While homeowners may have done some online research before reaching out to a remodeler, that building professional still has significant influence over the final sale. So manufacturers need to understand the ways they can make remodelers’ jobs easier, along with the factors influencing a decision to represent one maker’s line over another.
“No. 1 is relationships,” says Deckorators’ DeBoer. “Contractors are small businesses—often, a small number of employees trying to build a business. You need to be available for questions and support and let them know you have their backs.”
According to DuraLife’s Descoteaux, this relationship building also involves the recognition of the labor challenges many contracting firms now face. “Skilled labor is very hard to find, particularly for craftsmen,” he says. “So anything a manufacturer can do to make things easier to install is important to the contractor.”
To this end, most—if not all—manufacturers have developed hidden fastener systems for at least some of their lines that can speed installation and create a cleaner appearance. And accompanying railing systems are often shipped as kits that limit the need for custom fitting at the jobsite.
“The more you can offer preinstalled products, like preinstalled railing,” you’re providing a benefit for the remodeler, DeBoer says. “There’s a skillset differential now, so any time you can speed the process up, that helps for sure.”
Descoteaux adds that manufacturers also have a role to play during a contractor’s sales presentation, often conducted across a homeowner’s kitchen table. “Today’s savvy consumers do most of their research ahead of time,” he says, noting the extensive product details and user reviews many have gotten used to diving into on Amazon and other online marketplaces. “The onus is on the manufacturer to provide similar information, so consumers can make their decisions.”
Continued Growth Predicted
Makers of wood-alternative decking appear confident their moves to expand color and finish options and introduce products at lower price points will lead to continued growth into the 2020s. They see the fact that more consumers are staying put in their homes and investing in remodeling as positive indicators for their business.
“I think the industry research supports an increase in composite decks,” says MoistureShield’s Werner. “Houzz reported that 40 percent of homeowners are expecting to renovate in the next two to three years. And a huge number of pressure-treated decks are aging out, and are a terrific opportunity for growth in the next five years and beyond.” QR