Outdoor Living: Big, Beautiful and Complex

Today’s bigger decks, with wider spans, carry heavier loads and are finished with highly decorative composite boards and railings.

authors Patrick O'Toole | March 17, 2021

May is National Deck Safety Month, so it’s not too early to shift gears and begin planning for all of those outdoor living projects in the hopper. In Atlanta, home of Outback Deck, the company thinks about outdoor living for at least 10 months of the year. For its owners, Bryan Miller and John Gwaltney, there are several deck-design considerations top-of-mind as they head into the spring.

First, demand for services is strong. They report a strong flow of leads from qualified prospects. And like many outdoor living specialists, they are seeing requests for increasingly bigger decks designed with more distinct spaces, utilizing many of the latest design accessories such as cable-rail railings, lighted post caps and illuminated stair risers.

To the Outback team, which ranked No. 254 on the 2020 QR Top 500 remodelers’ list with $6.8 million in sales on 154 decking jobs, the top consideration is deck construction. According to Miller and Gwaltney, the focus on construction is driven first by the desire to deliver a quality product but also by a set of fast-evolving building codes in recent years.

Gone are the days, Miller says, when a carpenter or even a homeowner could expect to lag bolt a ledger board to a home and extend a deck out into a customer’s yard. Recent changes to the International Residential Code include several key mandates, he explains. All exterior cladding must be removed for an unimpeded connection to the home’s framing or foundation.

In addition, there must be “hold-down devices” with the capacity to handle lateral stresses of 1,500 pounds. (There are many devices on the market designed to help contractors more easily comply with the new codes, and the GRK Deck Harness, among others.) In addition, the new flashing requirements for the connection to the house is very prescriptive. The 2020 code requires three flashing details—behind, above and below the ledger board—all designed to keep moisture from intruding into the home.

There are also a number of new code requirements for posts and railings, Miller says. A good source for that latest decking code requirements is the website for the North American Decking and Railing Association (NADRA).

“With some of the new regulations that came out in 2020, the code has become more stringent,” Miller says. “The requirements that manufacturers are recommending in their installation instructions have become more detailed. So, increasingly it has become more apparent that if you want a project that is going to meet all of the requirements and get you the kind of warranties, you need to be able to follow the letter of the law.”

A drone view of a Solid Structures project captures the curving shapes, covered spaces and multiple uses clients are seeking today.

Setting aside the skyrocketing price of dimensional lumber and wood deck boards, the latest structural requirements are increasingly favoring the use of steel framing to support many decks, especially the more complex decks clients are asking for today.

“Our project size has definitely grown in every year for the last six years. It is not uncommon for a synthetic deck project to be much larger and take up a fair amount of the budget that a homeowner might spend on home improvement over the course of two, three or four years,” Miller notes. “What used to be a $5,000 or $6,000 project, now you are definitely into the five figures, the high five figures and sometimes six figures.”

Bigger deck projects today are complete outdoor living scenarios—internal or covered spaces, external spaces, fireplace areas and hot tubs—all supported by the deck structure below. To support these ever-expanding uses and their bigger loads, Fortress Building Products is among the building product manufacturers who have introduced a full line of steel framing systems for decks (fortressbp.com/framing).

According to Outback’s John Gwaltney, the company designed and built more six-figure decks in 2020 than they had done in the previous 10 years combined. This is a function, he says, of travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and homeowners using vacation money to make bigger investments in their homes.

Another factor relates to the hilly terrain in Atlanta, he says. Many decks are two-floors up in the air. Many are old and need to be rebuilt. “Everyone here is thinking about tearing down and rebuilding,” Gwaltney says. “Everyone is thinking about building something bigger, better, stronger and wider.”

Wood and Composites

One of the greatest accelerants in the two-decade transformation from the lowly rectangle, pressure-treated lumber deck to the curvilinear multifunctional decking spaces of today is the growing desire by consumers to achieve the colors and low-maintenance attributes of composite decking. Pioneered by Trex and others, the category has expanded to dozens of manufacturers and distributors. And with each passing year, there are new colors and grain patterns to add to the mix.

In recent years, with the price of lumber soaring well above historical norms, many of the composite decking materials are on equal footing with pressure-treated lumber from a price standpoint. And they are certainly favorable, from a price standpoint to some of the more exotic decking materials like Ipe. That is also why companies like Azek/Timbertech, Trex and others have become hot stocks to own for institutional investors. They see the trend toward outdoor living. They see the consistent market share gains for composite decking with each passing year. In that regard, 2020 was a breakthrough year, say many remodeling and outdoor living contractors.

“I would say that with lumber trading at over $1,000 today, your entry-level composites are actually at, or below, the cost of pressure-treated boards today. So, it has really become automatic,” Miller explains. “We’ve been pushing the envelope to try to move away from wood decks, even Brazilian hardwoods. Most of our clients are looking for low maintenance, long-lasting solutions that come with exceptional warranties. In addition, composites are multi-chromatic, and it’s easier to do diagonal designs, multilevel decks, rounding and all those kinds of customized variations that people want.”

Many of the design considerations and trends cited by Miller and Gwaltney were mentioned by other contractors around the country. Scott Prunty, president and owner of Solid Structures Decks and Fences, LLC, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says his company has evolved into a full-service outdoor living company from one that was doing primarily decks. The company now offers design and installation of fiberglass pools as well as hardscapes.

Covered and screened, this porch and deck combination for a Deck Creations client typifies many important design considerations.

Last year, Solid Structures, which was founded in 2008, ranked No. 427 on the QR Top 500 list with 450 jobs on $3.2 million in revenue. According to Prunty, the recent expansion of services allows his firm to be the first call for many clients who might lead with a new pool and expand the project from there. Decking remains the company’s primary offering.

“Certainly we are going to go with whatever the client asks for in terms of the type of deck; but once they see the product, the choice of colors, the different design patterns we can offer—picture framing, diagonals—they gravitate to a composite deck that carries a longer warranty and is very low maintenance.”

Another Virginia contractor, Don Weaver of Deck Creations LLC in Midlothian, is also considering an expansion into pools. Weaver learned the business while working for Archadeck in Richmond and went out on his own. Recently his son, who holds an MBA, joined the business and has helped improve the company’s management and marketing. Lead flow is very strong, Weaver says, and pools feel like the right direction to go.

Covered deck structures, even enclosed screen porches on decks, have been a very prevalent job type for Deck Creations, which ranked 411 on the Top 500 in 2020 with 130 jobs and $3.3 million in revenue. Clients want shade as well as relief from pollen during certain parts of the year. The screen structures are often augmented with floor-to-ceiling vinyl windows that can be telescoped three-fourths of the way down to the floor, giving clients the option of complete protection from pollen and the elements.

“Screen porches on decks are becoming very popular,” Weaver explains. “And so are three-season rooms with vinyl stacking windows. We are adding those to screen porches for only $3,000 to $5,000 more. As far as the decks themselves, they are definitely going bigger and they are going multilevel. We see a lot of customization and diagonal patterns. We also see wider staircases with flared stairways. The railings are aluminum, black, powder-coated. And we are also seeing a move away from lattice skirting to more solid skirting using horizontal boards.”

Another way to add a covered structure, Weaver says, is to utilize the under-deck spaces using a water evacuation system. There are many under-deck products on the market. Trex offers Rain Escape, but there are standalone solutions as well. These products are particularly relevant in situations where there is a walkout basement with a patio below a covered deck.

For most of the country, the outdoor living season is kicking into high gear. The time is right to check into the new safety codes and standards and all of the new composite decking, lighting, railings and accessories. QR

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