Has Composite Deck Innovation Surpassed Wood?

by Tim Steingraber

From a demand standpoint, there is no hotter category in remodeling today than outdoor living. Coast-to-coast in all climates, homeowners are asking remodeling professionals to create larger outdoor spaces—spaces suitable for cooking, dining, watching sports or simply hanging out with friends and family.

More often than not, those spaces are supported and enhanced by beautiful decks. Increasingly, those decks are comprised of composite decking materials that today offer a wider range of benefits and price points.

These added features and benefits of composite decking come against a backdrop of higher prices generally for pressure-treated lumber, the traditional decking material, which is often viewed as a maintenance hassle for homeowners. Indeed, composite decking is claiming an ever-increasing share of the decking market, with no end to that growth in sight.

We recently sat down with Patrick Barnds, senior vice president of The AZEK® Company, the parent company of TimberTech®, to hear his perspective on the question of whether composite decking — with all of its advancements over the last decade — has surpassed wood.

Q: Can you talk about the progression of innovation in composite decking over the last decade?

Patrick Barnds, SVP, The AZEK Company

BARNDS: If you look back over the last 20 or even 10 years, the composite decking industry has made tremendous advances in terms of features and benefits.

In terms of long-term performance (e.g., durability, fade and stain resistance, moisture resistance, etc.), there is no longer an argument about whether the best composite decks available today are better than wood. Clearly, composite wins on that front.

The composite deck boards of a prior generation were manufactured without a protective capping layer, which protects the core of a composite deck board. The result was a board that might last 15-20 years or longer in terms of its structural integrity, but it could really start to show its age without regular maintenance. Those products were susceptible to fading, staining, scratches and topical mold and mildew among other issues.

Since that time, the industry has moved to incorporate a protective capping layer that provides long-term performance in terms of color retention, stain, scratching, moisture and fade resistance. In fact, TimberTech’s latest generation of decking products carry warranties that run from 25 years to 50 years for fade and stain and up to a lifetime warranty for structural integrity. Even with extensive annual maintenance and upkeep (cleaning, resealing, painting or staining), wood products just can’t match that performance.

For additional detail on composite decking advancements see the “Step-by-Step Advancements” sidebar to this interview.

Q: What advancements in composite decking have enabled its gains in authentic wood aesthetics?

BARNDS: When it comes to wood vs. composite decking, the long-term durability and performance story is the one that has gotten the most attention over the past 10 years or so.  But the design story is really what is more exciting and driving the conversation today. 

With the educational outreach efforts from the composite decking industry over the last several years, homeowners, contractors and dealers have taken notice and acknowledge the performance advantages of composite decking vs. wood. However, a lot of people have still historically preferred wood decking for its visual attributes (e.g., color, pattern and surface texture). In other words, they would agree that wood does not last as long or perform as well but they really preferred the look of wood.

Prior generations of composite decking had exaggerated, artificial wood-grain patterns, noticeable repetitive patterns, unnatural colors and a higher gloss level. In other words, they often looked like plastic.  Today, the visual attributes of the latest generation of composite decking products are head-and-shoulders above where they were in the past.

At TimberTech, we now combine multiple natural-looking stain colors in a variety of patterns and pair those with a wide range of surface textures from traditional wood-grain visuals to hand-scraped, wire-brushed and other designs to create composite deck boards that are virtually indistinguishable from domestic and tropical or exotic hardwoods. In fact, with our latest generation of products, there are visuals that come from the higher end of the hardwood flooring industry that are not widely available in traditional wood decking products today.

So, in both categories—performance and now in design—composite decking technology has now reached the point that it really does surpass wood decking. Equally important, the domestic composite decking industry is one of the largest users of recycled plastics and wood waste from consumer and industrial sources. Material that was once destined for the landfill or burned is now being recycled into these beautiful, incredibly long-lasting decking products.

Q: In terms of real wood looks, do you see the continued expansion of colors, patterns and finishes in the coming years? Or are we nearing the logical end of these possibilities?

BARNDS: The timeless, classic colors and wood looks will never go out of style. The composite decking industry has come a long way on that front in terms of realism and the quality of those visuals. But, in terms of what’s possible on the design front, the industry is just getting started. 

Looking at the evolution of visuals from the hardwood flooring, furniture, cabinetry and other interior and exterior design markets, it’s clear the possibilities are endless and will continue to evolve along with developing tastes and preferences of homeowners. 

For example, rather than just a traditional, open flat-sawn wood-grain pattern, we are seeing demand for rift and quarter-sawn grain patterns, a trend toward more rustic, reclaimed, time-worn designs and more European-influenced designs like wire-brushed, low-gloss visuals and wide and narrow-width boards. All of this will be a challenge to deliver in exterior decking but that’s a big part of what is exciting for the industry today and for years to come.

Q: Composite deck boards are very weather resistant, require less maintenance and are more durable than wood. Please talk about expansion of these attributes from a technology standpoint.

BARNDS: It’s been interesting to see the advances in technology within our industry with regards to the outer-most layer of the deck board, the capping layer. It provides all of the long-term performance in weather, ultraviolet light protection as well as moisture and wear resistance.

When capped composites were first introduced several years ago, the capping layer was primarily applied to the top and sides of the boards. While that provides protection for the most exposed portion of the board, it leaves the back exposed. That can be an issue in high-moisture climates. It’s also not as attractive to look at if you have an elevated deck that is visible from underneath.

At TimberTech, we now apply that capping layer around all four sides of our better and best product lines, which provides an extra measure of protection and visual consistency. In terms of the technology that goes into the cap itself, it’s amazing to see the amount of research and development and polymer science that has gone into recent advances in cap performance.

We are now using a wide range of performance additives and components from some of the smartest materials technology companies in the world and from our own team. That has driven significant improvements in weathering performance as well as abrasion resistance. The real advance though is in combining all of that long-term performance and durability with similar advances in the quality of the design and visuals that come from that same capping layer. In the end, it all adds up and enables us to confidently stand behind industry-leading warranties, which include a lifetime structural and 50-year fade and stain warranty for our top-of-the-line TimberTech® AZEK® boards.

Q: Do you see advancements in composite decking technology as offering more options at different price points, perhaps someday coming in at a lower price point than treated lumber?

BARNDS: Anything is possible. However, there are some inherent costs with high-quality composite decking that will probably mean that there is a lower limit to what can be achieved. That’s not to say that there are not opportunities to further reduce costs or increase efficiencies.  But I see more investment being placed on innovation and ongoing feature and benefit advances vs. trying to get another 25 percent or 30 percent out of the cost of the board itself. 

On the other hand, we’ve seen a relatively significant and sustained increase in lumber prices over the past few years and that’s having the effect of shrinking the gap in price between wood and composite decking. While not at the level of pressure-treated pine, we do see composite decking today being very competitive in terms of price with cedar and redwood and lower than most of the commercially available exotic hardwood species. Additionally, when you factor in the maintenance costs of wood, TimberTech decking can actually save homeowners money in the long run because it doesn’t require sanding, staining, sealing or the replacement of boards. For example, over 10 years, the cost of owning a TimberTech AZEK Vintage Collection® deck is up to 19% less than Ipe premium hardwood.

For more information about TimberTech composite decking or to learn more about some of the tools offered to remodelers and deck builders, go to www.TimberTech.com.

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