Monday, August 17, 2009

Decks without deforesting!

Hello out there! I've been a busy builder this last week, I've been consulting with a number of new clients on projects ranging from room additions to bathroom remodels to options for decking. That being said, its been awhile since I've had the time to contribute to my blog.

Anyway, I'm back and excited about decking again! Since I've gone green people have asked me how I feel about building decks and until now, I haven't had a definitive answer. Redwood, cedar and ipe are all wonderful, naturally weather and pest resistant traditional decking materials that, while gorgeous, are being deforested worldwide at an alarming rate.

The plastics industry has tried to offer some alternatives such as composite decking and PVC decking that look-like and can be handled like wood. Unfortunately, these products just don't hold up when tested against the elements or standard "green" principles. First of all, plastics crack, warp and get extremely hot in warm weather. As composite materials weather, the wood fibers in them collect moisture and mold that discolor the decking. Furthermore, since composite decking is a combination of plastic and wood material, they to date are non-recyclable. Once the deck is no longer useful the deck cannot be disposed of. PVC isn't much better, since a portion of the material has to be virgin oil products and the process of manufacturing holds such a heavy carbon footprint.

And let's be honest, plastics just don't have the natural beauty of wood decking.

However, all hope is not lost! Let me introduce... BAMBOO DECKING!

This stuff is awesome! Bamboo is a rapidly renewable natural resource. Bamboo is already being used to replace hardwood floors, paneling, wall coverings, carpets, cloth, etc. and so forth. And now bamboo decking is available that has many of the same properties as redwood, cedar and ipe with the natural beauty unavailable by plastic alternatives. And it feels good under your feet!

Bamboo decking is sold by the linear foot and is made by compressing bamboo fibers into a denser board form and sealed with a soy-based oil for added protection. The glues used to bind the fibers contain no urea formaldehydes, resulting in a product that does not "gas-off" toxins as it dries out. Oh, and did I mention it costs about the same as traditional deck surfaces?

All in all, this is my new favorite for decking. I'd suggest you try it on your next project. This is what I'll be using for my backyard.

Here's a link of the outfit in San Diego that carries it:


  1. Your comments contain some blanket statements that need addressing. There are thousands of composite decks that have no maintenance problems. Well made composites don’t warp or crack. Any decking surface will support mold if moisture and shade are persistent. Composites get no hotter than wood in the sun. Depends on the color of the surface.

    Cedar, redwood and ipe are not being “deforested at an alarming rate.” The loss of forests is due mainly to two things: Agriculture and urban sprawl. The vast majority of merchantable lumber species are reforested. In the US growth exceeds harvest today by 36%.

    I like bamboo too. It seems to perform well. I’ve seen tests, however, that indicate it supports mold growth more than other wood species. Also, since it’s harvested in China it has to come a long way to get to your back yard. What has a lower carbon footprint, a composite that is made from recycled materials from 200 miles away, or rapidly renewable bamboo that gets shipped 12,000 miles? Only a detailed life cycle analysis can tell you. There are moves to propagate bamboo in the Delta region of Mississippi, where is was a native species 100 years ago before being pushed aside by cotton. If this is successful, and if the mold issue can be solved, move over and make room for me on your bamboo bandwagon.

  2. I appreciate your comments, Mr. Gauthier. Thanks for illustrating the fact that building green often involves weighing a wide variety of pros and cons to determine what will work best on a given project.

    I'll admit, I was an early adopter of composite decking when it came out. Early sales points for the material claimed it used a wide variety of post consumer materials and it cut very similar to wood. However, after witnessing numerous applications where the products warped, cracked and crowned under high heat, my awe wore off. My biggest objection to composite decking is the inability to recycle unused portions or decking once it has been removed.

    But let's remove the blanket statements and get under the covers shall we?

    All organic surfaces will support mold growth and this includes bamboo. Composite decks have less organic surface (plastic is not) and therefore support lower rates of mold growth. The problem with mold in composites is how to remove the mold once it embeds itself within the decking. Wood and bamboo can be treated and washed to remove mold and mildew with better results since the cels can be penetrated. Composite materials are tougher to treat as mold can remain under inorganic portions of the decking.

    Measured with a thermometer, plastic and wood of the same color may read as equal temperatures. However, that is not how people "feel" heat. When we touch something, our bodies change the temperature at the point of contact. This is why materials like metal and plastic "feel" hotter than wood or bamboo under the sun.

    Mr. Gauthier, deforestation has happened and is happening at an alarming rate. I commend the lumber industry for its efforts to reforest our merchantable lumber species, but we have a long way to go before we restore the health of our old-growth forests. Regardless of why the forests are disappearing, they are, particularly in less wealthy countries. In addition, part of the reason why US growth is exceeding demand is due to the increasing use of sustainable building materials. Keep up the good work!

    Yes, the source bamboo for bamboo decking is traveling more miles to reach us, however it is arguable that the travel accounts for higher worldwide carbon emissions. If you measure the amount of carbon emissions over the complete supply chain (from forest to home) regardless of the distance, bamboo and hardwoods are comparable. Bamboo, since it is shipped many of its miles in large container ships has lower carbon emissions per pound than timber shipped by truck shorter distances. In addition, bamboo doesn't contain plastic which uses huge amounts of fossil fuels in its production.

    It takes between 30 to 70 years to reclaim the full benefits of an old growth tree once its been felled. Bamboo requires between 3-7 and can be harvested without destroying the plant. In fact, the root systems actually benefit from periodic harvesting.

    I agree, lets grow bamboo again in Mississippi. We can use it and resuse it!

    Keep considering jumping on the bandwagon, we'd love to have you. In the meantime, don't give up on composite decking, its still better than timber, but needs some more work for my tastes. Find a way to recycle it, and I'll reconsider it.