In the process of planning a deck, you will inevitably come to a crossroads where you have to choose between wood, plastic, or composite materials. From a green building standpoint, the choice is clear: wood is naturally beautiful, low maintenance, sustainable, and environmentally sound. Redwood, in particular, offers the additional perks of being naturally resistant to fire and insects.
Redwood first became commonly used for outdoor living in the 1960s, and is particularly popular in mountain states like Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and some parts of the Pacific Northwest, Utah. Lots of sunlight and relatively dry environments are best, though the redwood market is also strong in Texas, despite the variable climate. The redwood timberlands extend from California’s border with Oregon to the Santa Cruz and Big Sur areas.
“It’s the indigenous species up here,” says Charlie Jourdain, president of the California Redwood Association. “We’re lucky to have this species that’s a naturally durable wood. It can be used outdoors without any preservative treatment. It’s also very stable. It also happens to be very beautiful and very easy to work with. You put all those things together and you have the ideal material for building outdoor structures, be it decks, fences, any kind of patio furniture, just about anything you would want to build outdoors to enhance your outdoor living space.”
Focus groups conducted by the CRA several years ago showed that when homeowners are in their backyards, they prefer to be among natural materials and furnishings. “They don’t like to be surrounded by plastics and synthetics with all the chemical off-gassing and other problems that those products have,” Jourdain says. “They really like to be surrounded by wood, and redwood in particular because it’s got a really nice feel to it.”
After a redwood deck is completed, applying a quality stain or deck finish is recommended, with reapplication every two to three years. In between applications, a light scrub with a deck cleaner and a rinse should suffice. Some homeowners leave their decks unfinished, and that’s okay; just know that the wood will change color, taking on a weathered gray patina over the course of a few years.
Members of the CRA boast about 500,000 acres of redwood timberlands under private ownership. (Jourdain estimates that an additional 1 million acres of redwood are owned by independent land owners.) Timberlands owned by CRA members are certified sustainable, meaning that an independent third-party auditing company (the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC) comes in and audits company mills and timberlands to ensure they are being managed on a sustainable basis.
“We grow more redwood than we harvest on an annual basis,” Jourdain says. “The overall volume of redwood on the timberlands continues to increase and at the same time we maintain all the other attributes of those lands, such as wildlife, fisheries, soil, and air.”
Redwood is biodegradable. That’s important because, at the end of your deck’s life (up to around 30 years), it can be recycled. A facility that accepts what’s known as “green waste” (organic material that can be re-purposed) can grind it up and turn it into another product, such as mulch. Plastic decking material, on the other hand, “takes a lot more energy to produce, it relies on petroleum products, oil production, and, at the end of the cycle, not only does it produce a lot more pollution—both air pollution and water pollution—but when that plastic product meets the end of its life, it generally gets tossed into a landfill—and it’s going to remain there for thousands and thousands of years,” Jourdain says.
In contrast, “it really doesn’t take a lot of input from the human side of things to make wood,” Jourdain says. About five years ago, the redwood industry conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study that looked at redwood decking and analyzed the energy inputs and outputs in terms of waste products that it takes to grow the trees and produce and distribute the lumber. The “cradle-to-grave” assessment, from the time a seedling is planted until it reaches the end of its life cycle in disposal or recycling, found that it takes less energy to produce redwood lumber than it does to produce a plastic product. Why is that? Because, in the process of growing a tree, photosynthesis occurs: the tree removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, takes in soil nutrients and water through the roots system, and uses the sunlight as an energy source.
“As we all know, excess amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a bad thing,” Jourdain says. “Growing trees, and redwood in particular, is really good from an environmental standpoint.”
So you get a gorgeous outdoor living space and the environment benefits. That’s a win-win in the fight of man vs. nature if there ever was one.