Someday all decks will be built this way.

I don’t mean with gazebos and hot tubs and grills galore. That’s all good. A great deck has all that stuff.

I mean with materials ultra well-suited for what a deck ought to be: a place of relaxation and enjoyment that doesn’t consume every free minute with maintenance.

What’s right about today’s deck choices is this: composite materials made to last longer than you will live in your house. Materials made of recycled plastic and wood chips that both look the part but have starring roles as simply hassle free and worry free.

A note of candor: my family lives in the upper Midwest. We love a deck in the months we can venture outside. But ice, snow, thaws, refreezing, sun and humidity have their way with wood. The real thing warps, cracks, rots and peels. I’ve sealed and resealed our venerable wood deck just short of lamination. Wood still works in many climates, but if weather in your neck of the woods is problematic, it’s worth a look at alternatives.

It’s the look of wood, however, you can’t do without. The grain and texture are hard to copy. But that doesn’t mean non-wood manufacturers don’t try.

My wife and I tore off our old deck (and safely disposed of the remnants) and plotted our new and improved version. We checked out our non-wood options.

It’s important to note some essential differences between composites and wood. Some are structural, others aesthetic. For one, you can’t simply rip off the old wood and slap down composites atop old joists. Most decks are built on what are called 16-inch centers. That means the gap between support joists is 16 inches. No way will that work for composites.

Once you lift any length of composite, you’ll see why.

Composites are heavy. I’m no math wizard, but my guess is composite planks are almost twice the weight of a comparable length of wood. And the plastic-wood chip hybrids are flexible. The 16-inch gap is too wide to support the weight and the sag. Our landscape designer specified 12-inch centers.

Your underlying support structure will still be wood, treated or cedar. Composite joists and support beams don’t exist yet.

We chose a composite brand called ChoiceDek, made in Arkansas by AERT but distributed by Weyerhaeuser and sold at Lowe’s.

Composites have come a long way in a few years. Once limited to 6-inch-wide planks and a few other options, makers like AERT have expanded ChoiceDek to include varying widths of fascia board, railings and spindles, moldings, etc. Composites once had fading issues, too, and had to work hard to look like wood.

In fact, the deck we installed late in 2003 used last year’s version of ChoiceDek. At this year’s International Builders Show in Las Vegas, the new versions featured a more realistic wood grain look and color schemes. (One note: wait till you walk on a splinterless composite deck. It’s cool.)

The composite is more expensive, about one-third more. But homeowners are well advised to pit initial cost vs. the time and expense of maintenance.

Other than the narrower gap between joists, about the only measurable construction difference was the use of stainless steel deck screws to minimize rust stains. Our contractors didn’t need any special skills. When they had a question, they contacted AERT.

If we had any nagging doubts, it was about Old Man Winter. What would it do to our new baby? We get serious thaw and refreezing cycles around here that can be death to wood.

But the new surface came through like a champ. No buckling, no warping, no popped-up screws.

Sure, there are a few minor cosmetic points. I shoveled my deck continuously over the winter (to create a path for our dog) and a plastic bladed scoop worked well, without scratching the material. Avoid dragging deck furniture on it. And, we’ve had to hose it off, but that’s no big deal. It has faded a bit to a pleasing gray. We’re not color snobs.

When the snow melted and the sun broke through, our deck went into full service mode. We haven’t painted, sealed or stained. Now that’s the way a deck should be.

If you have questions or comments on this new outlook on decks, or want the plans for the deck or companion pergola, contact the author at [email protected]

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