Photo courtesy of CanWel Building Materials Group Ltd

Contractors looking to make their name or grow their business in backyard construction and renovation should be looking beyond the notion of simply building of a better box.

For years, experts have been pointing to seemingly ever-increasing interest from homeowners around investing in their backyards. Whether it’s because this is the last remaining “room” to improve their homes, or the first and best way to show off to their neighbours, there’s no denying the appeal to improving things out back. But, alongside that investment comes expectations. Many homeowners are seeking their own singular patio oasis, and so want knowledgeable and creative contractors to bring them something fresh.

“The backyard retreat is alive and well,” says Jeff Morrison, director of LBM sales and national accounts at Goodfellow Inc., distributor of Fiberon composite decking. “We see more demand for special orders now. Homeowners are looking for something unique, something that maybe their neighbours and friends don’t have.”

He points to a few trends he’s hearing homeowners ask for in their quest for individuality: multi-level decks and framed accents to name two. “Everyone wants a picture frame now, having the deck as one colour and outlining it in a different colour,” he says.

“Maybe they outline seating areas, or put the equivalent of what would be a medallion in a hardwood floor. There are countless ways consumers are creating a unique look.”

It may be natural for trends common in hardwood flooring to spill out to the deck, Morrison says, as experts note the continued trend is toward backyard patios becoming an extension of their homes interior. Outdoor kitchens being just one such example. Studies suggest that an outdoor kitchen doubles its return on investment in home value, but the real value is, of course, homeowners wanting to get more use out of their yards.

“Homeowners are investing more and more money and time in their homes. A few years ago, bathrooms and basements were the top most renovated rooms, now we are seeing that trend move outdoors, and homeowners are spending more time building their outdoor oasis,” says Andrew Pantelides, marketing and business development director at railing systems manufacturer Regal Ideas. “Shows like HGTV’s Custom Built and Decked Out are inspiring homeowner’s creativity.”

Increased investment in backyards may also be related to the current sky-high real estate market in some Canadian cities, suggests Jay Secord, sales manager for treated wood products at CanWel Building Materials Division. He notes that, “With houses becoming as expensive as they are, a lot of homeowners are stepping back and saying, ‘Rather than move, we should improve what we’ve got.’”

He also notes the size of lots in Toronto and Vancouver may be a significant contributor to many backyard builds. “You’ve got larger homes on a smaller footprint,” he says. “So, as a homeowner, you’re turning to outside your home to add value. On these smaller lots, you’re also a lot closer to your neighbours, so you want privacy in the form of a lot more fencing or privacy screen options.”

Photos courtesy of CanWel Building Materials Group Ltd

Good “Fencerts” Make Good Neighbours

Joe Pozeg, president and owner of New Trend Fencing, agrees that privacy is becoming an even more pronounced concern in urban centres. “We’ve noticed homes are getting closer and closer together, and people just want that little bit extra privacy, whether it’s just around the deck or the fence around the whole yard.”

“Maybe they’ve put in a pool, or they have a private barbecue area or a hot tub,” he explains. “We’ve definitely noticed the request for privacy products like fences and privacy screens on an increase.”

New Trend’s patented ‘fencerts’ fit the bill, he suggests. These powder and e-coated panels come in custom sizes, colours and patterns, and provide ideal for decks or pools. And, because they minimize use of wood, he suggests they are better for the environment. Still, the biggest advantage is one felt by the homeowners.

“They offer privacy, but they let through just enough air. People want that air flow. It’s a major reason why we developed the fencert.”

Brown is the New Green

Look at any decks or fences across the country and the familiar green-tint of pressure treated wood is commonplace.

This however is changing, according to CanWel’s Secord. He points to the increased adoption of new brown pressure treated wood across the country. (Brown-coloured PT wood has always been more popular in areas in the U.S. such as Washington and California.) Brown-toned treated wood blends in well with natural wood colours like western red cedar, and has seen a sharp increase year-over-year, Secord says.

It’s not just a fresh new colour. There is new technology at play in the earthy-toned product offered by CanWel, dubbed MicroPro Sienna. It uses a “micronized” copper preservative—MCA, or micronized copper azole—that proponents say is more resistant to leaching into the environment. Copper is ground into micro-sized particles and colour treatments are added prior to treatment.

Unlike other treatments used in wood for residential building, MCA is also non-corrosive, allowing builders and contractors to use metal hardware and fasteners, and for treated boards to be placed adjacent to aluminum.

Photo courtesy of OWL Distribution Inc.

Form Catches Up to Function

For decades, research and development in the decking industry has gone into performance, increasing durability, fade resistance, standing up to the elements (which is especially important in Canadian climates).

Having improved the longevity of composite and PVC decks, a lot of R&D from the major players—such as Trex, TimberTech, Azek and Fiberon—has focused on the aesthetics.

“The biggest thing today is that consumers can truly choose the aesthetic they want, whether it’s colour, texture or profile,” says Mike Schneider, vice-president of business development at OWL Distribution Inc. “We’ve reached the pinnacle in terms of longevity and colour fastness—for now—and much recent R&D has gone into making sure that consumers don’t have to make any sacrifices in terms of the look they want.”

With the strong warranties (30 years is not uncommon) now available on composites and PVC, Schneider does urge contractors to pay close attention to manufacturer selection. Go with a trusted brand. He points out that anytime a category gains mainstream traction, like composite decking has, low-price competitors emerge. Contractors need to investigate them closely to determine not only the quality of the product, but whether the business has the history to suggest they’ll be around should a call back be needed.

Authentic Appeal

Many homeowners naturally gravitate to wood—or at least to the natural look of wood. Depending on selection it remains the most popular and economic choice of material for deck and fence building. But, the market for composites and higher-end PVC decks continues to climb year-over-year, according to Morrison.

One of the biggest improvements in the composite of late has been the release of capped decking. A thin (approximately 1/16”) PVC or PVC-like veneer added to the boards during manufacture, which offers greater durability to fade, stain and scratching. It has quickly become the standard for many manufacturers.

More recent advances in micro-etching and multi-chromatic streaking have further added to the popularity of composite decking. “This gives the deck board more of a wire-brushed look,” Morrison says of micro-etching technology, while better embossing technology has enabled more random slight variations in deck board colours. It’s all about creating a more natural, authentic look, he adds.

Photo courtesy of Regal Ideas

Investing in Summer

While the Canadian environment doesn’t necessitate composite or PVC decking, there is an advantage that contractors should address with their clients: maintenance. Today, materials all handle the Canadian seasonal cycle well; homeowners, on the other hand, might want to take more advantage of scarce summer days. That may mean wanting to spend fewer hours staining and re-staining, suggests Schneider.

The economics of composite decking, which is virtually maintenance-free, compared to wood decking is a debate contractors should have with their clients. The deck is, after all, a long-term investment. It may be worthwhile to sit down with homeowners and look at the cost of maintenance over its life, both in terms time but also costs of stain and sealant.

That time element is a crucial consideration for many of today’s homeowners. “The new trend in the next-generation of home buyers is geared towards multi-family community living where everything from grocery stores and salons to restaurants and shopping is all within the community,” Pantelides notes.

“Maintenance-free living is the future.”

Photo courtesy of Nuvo Iron

Get Your Iron On

Building product experts say that homeowners are looking for more of a mix of materials when it comes to their backyard builds and renovations.

One timeless material still popular is, of course, iron. “The popularity of iron has increased over the last half- century,” says Carlos Pacheco, president of NUVO Iron. “Iron fence is durable, sexy, architecturally appealing and goes well with different landscape scenarios.”

Carlos points to the maintenance-free aspect of ornamental iron fences, and the continued drop in prices as reasons for homeowner interest. It also appeals to their ability to be unique and creative.

“The thing with iron fence is that it can be cut, bent, slopped, formed, is available in various colour options—the sky is the limit,” he says.