How to Find the Best Green Building Materials for Your Deck or Outdoor Space

Reader Contribution by Lisa Henfield
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You want to be ecological responsible. You want to minimize your impact on the environment. And you want to expand your living space into the outdoors or you want to replace an old, run-down deck or patio. How can you find the balance, create an awesome outdoor space where you can hang out with friends, grill up some kabobs or burgers, and do it with materials that reflect environmental mindfulness? 

It’s tougher than you think, but it’s totally doable.

Photo via Flickr

Finding the Best Green Building Materials

Much of the process in creating an environmentally friendly deck comes from asking questions. Asking things like:

• Where does the material come from?

• Is it sustainable?

• Is it harvested/manufactured in a responsible manner?

The more questions you can get answered, the better. Of course, determining who to ask can be a challenge in and of itself. Do you ask a retail store clerk or lumber yard specialist? It can’t hurt and it’s always a good place to start. They may, in the very least, point you in the right direction. Or they might have the exact information you need.

Many companies involved in the harvesting and logging business tend to claim their products are sustainable. They claim to practice responsible harvesting and manufacturing.  But “sustainable” is a broad term, so claims shouldn’t always be taken at face value. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t, but when broad claims are made with any “green” product, a healthy dose of skepticism is good to have.

Let’s look at the available materials you might consider in your quest to build a green deck. When looking for products designed with sustainability in mind, wood is generally a great choice. I say generally because there are plenty of wood products out there that are not planted or harvested in a sustainable manner and only sold for pure, immediate profit by unsavory individuals or corporations both domestic and abroad. 

Typically, imported wood materials can be more challenging for the general consumer to get a hold of, since there are import restrictions in place on wood. This does not mean all imported wood should be avoided in favor of domestic woods. Just bear in mind there a several countries (such as China and Brazil) that employ very unfavorable harvesting techniques that are not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly (clear-cutting, for instance).

Photo via Flickr

So, what types of wood should you consider? Well, your average lumber retailer usually has a limited selection of wood decking to begin with, so what you consider isn’t likely to be much. A typical selection might look like:

• cedar

• redwood

• southern yellow pine

Additionally, there may be a pressure treated option to increase their resistance decay.  Keep in mind many pressure treated wood products are treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) and you may want to avoid these types of products due to concern of potential arsenic exposure.

Since these three woods originate in the US or Canada, their harvest conforms to fairly strict regulations and the must be sustainably harvested (again, broad term. Historically, this was very much not the case).  And be aware of the maintenance a wood deck requires. It will need to be treated and stained in order to hold up to all outdoor conditions. That means you’ll need to be aware of what stains and other chemicals you’re using in order to determine whether or not their safe for you and the environment in the vicinity of your deck.  Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. But the end result often makes it worth it.

What if you aren’t interested in a wood deck? There are plenty of other options, but they vary widely in terms of their environmental friendliness.

Composite materials fall right under wood in terms of decking. Except the resins and plastics used in the composites (which incorporate wood particles) aren’t biodegradable, meaning after years of use, once they’re worn out and need to be replaced, you’ll have very few options. In most, if not all cases, manufacturers will advertise composite decking as “environmentally friendly” since they are made from recycled materials (wood, plastics) and while true, they cannot be recycled. Also, composites don’t last any longer than a well-maintained wood deck (which can be upward of 20 years). However, over the life of the deck, one built with composite materials requires less maintenance.

Photo via Flickr

Plastic and vinyl options are a little different in their eco-friendliness. While many plastic products still come from non-sustainable sources, and therefore aren’t recommended, you may be able to find plastic decking made from recycled materials and material that may be recycled in the future. Be sure to check what percentage of the material is actually recycled. Each of these factors vary from product to product, so if you’re considering plastic, you may need to do more intensive research, but for those wanting to be environmentally responsible, it may be best to skip this option.

When it comes down to it, wood is the best green building material you can choose for your deck. Again, you’ll want to do more research before committing to your material to be sure where the wood is sourced, how it’s sourced, and how it’s replenished (See also The Low-Down on Sustainable Decking Materials). Plus, out of the decking materials, woods, composites, and plastics, wood is regarded as the most visually appealing. So, get out there and find what works for you and start building!

Lisa Henfield
 is an exterior designer who spent a few years designing patio furniture covers for hotels in Las Vegas. She mostly writes about her design experiences, providing tips on exterior design and gardens. When she isn’t practicing her sewing or writing about the right colors for the outdoor seasons, she usually works on her paintings.