The Environmental Cost of Deck Materials

Reader Contribution by Lisa Henfield
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The deck. It’s a room with no wall, a space for family, friends, entertainment, food, and a place to kick back and enjoy the outdoors without leaving home. Like any space, when you decided to remodel, renovate, or build for the first time, you’re inevitably faced with a number of choices. With a deck, one of the most important decisions to make is the material. What do you want to make your new deck out of? With a number of choices to deal with knowing the primary differences, such as durability and cost, are important. You don’t want to invest thousands of dollars in a project only to later it’s not ideal for your needs—or alternatively—you don’t want to fall in love with a material only to find out it will completely break your budget or hurt the environment.

Photo by Fotolia/Elenathewise

Major Types of Wood Decking

Wood is the most popular material for decks and for good reason. It’s durable, relatively inexpensive, and most importantly, it looks good, oh and it’s a renewable resource. There are a variety of wood products available, many fitting within any budget. The downside to any wood product is maintenance. If not regularly maintained the wood will deteriorate. It may splinter, fade in color, or rot and need replaced. Basic maintenance includes possible sanding and refinishing.

Pressure treated wood is designed to resist insects, rot, and general decay, than typical non-treated varieties. It’s also an affordable choice. The downside to treated wood is that compared to the other wood options, it tends to be the least attractive. That isn’t to say it can’t look good, but if aesthetics are your thing, you may need to look elsewhere. Keep in mind also that 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.

Redwood is just plain gorgeous, but not super sustainable.

Redwood has a natural ability to resist insects and rot, however, if not properly treated or left to the elements—particularly moisture—it can degrade rapidly, specifically newer wood (sapwood or the outer layers of the trunk).

The Redwood National Park in California states that old growth coast redwood is cut for lumber every day, which is not a good thing considering there are only 38,982 acres of the old growth forests left! This number may seem like a lot to you, but it’s actually only 4.4% of its original 1,950,000 acres of old growth forest. To make matters worse, redwood doesn’t do too well in the farm setting because these trees prefer to reseed themselves naturally.

Tropical hardwood options might be even worse.

Ironwood (also known as ipe) is exceptionally sturdy, capable of lasting longer than pressure treated wood and redwood. Tropical hardwoods resist water beautifully, but given these advantages you’ve probably guessed the downside. That’s right—cost to the environment and your wallet. Tropical hardwood is expensive, and has a huge carbon footprint as it is shipped in from the tropical regions of the word. This is assuming it is licensed lumber approved by the Forest Stewardship Counsel (FSC).

Of course, there are several more types of wood that make great decks.

Cedar works great as an alternate to redwood and even possesses many of the characteristics of redwood. Yellow pine has a much different color than both cedar and redwood and also can resist insects and rotting. Finally, there’s mahogany. Cedar is less endangered than Redwood, and doesn’t need as many chemicals as Yellow Pine so it is my first choice for green-ness. FSC Mahogany is a good choice as well. Other species of mahogany are endangered and should not be used such as the Brazilian, Asian and African varieties.

Deck furniture and decor affects the environment almost as much as the wood you build with.

There are many things to keep in mind as you set about to use your deck such as buying durable furniture so you don’t have to replace it and protecting your deck with recyclable, non- vinyl covers like these eco-friendly firepit covers.

When purchasing wood, be sure it is sourced from sustainable sources. If it’s not, or you suspect that it isn’t, check and double check. If it’s not, it’s best just to move on and find a wood or material that is. Why? It’s simply responsible living!

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.