The old or the new?

The choice between old and new materials for decking and flooring projects has never been more finely balanced.
JOHN POWER reports.

When it comes to choosing materials for decking or flooring, today’s consumers are faced with genuine dilemmas. The question, ‘Should we choose natural or synthetic/composite products?’ is now being asked seriously across all price points, and in relation to a complex range of architectural styles.

This is a new state of affairs, recognising the emergence of truly innovative composite material technologies and fabrication systems that off er clear advantages over traditional timber products. In the past, purists would have declared natural timber products to be superior options for Generic pic from Cabotsall high-quality projects, with synthetic or composite alternatives considered only in response to a tight budget or to achieve specific functional requirements. Nowadays; however, designers of even the most luxurious dwellings are keen to weigh up the merits of non-natural decking and flooring systems for a range of performance-based or aesthetic reasons.

Old versus new decking
If we consider household decking, a number of social and practical forces are reinforcing a drive towards non-timber products. These pressures include:

  • A new aesthetic of flawlessness; i.e. synthetic, geometrically perfect extruded products are increasingly seen as ‘nor-
    mal’, providing unblemished standardised finishes over large surface areas. This trend has occurred in tandem with a rising acceptance of other visually homogenous manufactured products such as uPVC window glazing, PVC fencing, prefabricated walling systems, MDF veneered panels, as well as composite stoneware (Caesarstone, etc). Original products in these segments never really succeeded as ‘lookalike’ alternatives to natural products – now the ‘synthetic look’ is accepted in its own right, albeit subliminally in most cases. It follows that more exotic non-natural colours and textures for decking will gain momentum in future.
  • More widespread acceptance of environmental impact assessments, favouring trends for recycled or reconstituted materials.
  • A desire for lower maintenance requirements over the life of the product, particularly as a means of avoiding oxalic acid-based cleaning agents, or toxic chemicals used for bleaching out mould or mildew from older timbers.
  • Demand for instant gratification, with full usability once manufactured products have been laid down, i.e. no need for additional protective treatments, labour-intensive preparations, restorative coatings, or lengthy waiting periods for tannins to leach out of new boards.

From the above list, perhaps the appeal of low maintenance has been the strongest driver towards alternatives to natural decking.

On average, Australian homeowners are shifting home less frequently than ever before, with the average house tenure across all capital cities now more than 10 years.

This diminished household transience means maintenance rituals such as the ongoing refreshment of old decking are an unavoidable burden, particularly if the homeowner has inherited decking with a checkered history. If old timber decking has been subjected to a litany of different treatments over the years (oiling, and/or staining, and/or painting by previous owners), then an investment of time and effort to rejuvenate the asset might be hard to swallow, particularly if the result is a mess of light and dark colouring, sporadic board replacements, uneven graining, or organic staining and slippery surfaces. Most handy-people are happy to perform basic maintenance, but historically both homeowners and hardware store operators have been challenged by the real-world maintenance needs of older decking, taking into account the ways in which past coatings might affect preferred new coatings, or the actual state of the timber (which might need a full sanding to remove legacy coatings or water-trapping graininess). No wonder many older decks look like grandma’s patchwork quilts.

Manufactured alternatives, by contrast, offer great usability and consistent performance without the need for ongoing refreshment, as well as the benefit of ‘as new’ appeal for far longer.

CLT dwelling construction_7025

Interior flooring

If low maintenance has been the dominant driving force for extruded decking materials, then it is fair to say that ‘superior performance’ has been the main motivator for recent developments in non-timber flooring systems. It is important to emphasise the word ‘systems’ here, as the insulation and prefabrication industries have figured prominently in the creation of modern holistic flooring solutions that deliver (a) superior energy efficiency, (b) faster and more accurate installation procedures with more refined tolerances, and (c) lower costs through labour savings.

Other factors influencing the popularity of manufactured flooring systems include:

  • Perceived and/or genuine environmental friendliness through the use of recycled timbers or waste wood ingredients in composite fabrication materials.
  • Space savings by sandwiching together low-profile insulation and flooring strata, thereby maximising room dimensions (particularly valuable in multi-level buildings).
  • Easier cleaning, which is particularly prized in commercial or wet-climate areas.
  • Greater compatibility with other elements of the building structure, specifically prefabricated walling systems that can be matched directly with manufactured flooring systems.

Market leaders of this kind of technology have produced rigid insulation boards for highly diverse situations, including flooring. Companies like Kingspan Insulation have won a loyal client base by offering streamlined and easy-to-install panels that vastly minimise thermal breaks while providing a perfect base for a range of claddings and overlay materials.

Once again, aesthetics cannot be ignored here, as the prevalence of large-scale, comparatively seamless flooring and walling surfaces, combined with a dramatic rise in the sizing of windows and glass doors, has led to a clinical design aesthetic that is creeping into everyday life. As far as flooring is concerned, this minimalism is manifested in a rise in the popularity of increasingly adventurous floating floor pattern designs, supported by irresistible technical attractions like anti-slip features and super hardwearing materials for busy walkways. Of course, ‘faux woodgrain’ is unlikely to disappear from extruded floorboard designs any time soon, but a new palette of colours beyond conventional timber-based templates – and even deliberately outrageous patterning – can’t be too far away.

Natural is not dead

Naturally, none of the above assertions conflict with the reality that many builders and their clients still insist on real timber for their flooring needs. Habit is a powerful force, especially among longstanding installers and specifiers, and many practitioners regard technical innovation with suspicion. Nevertheless, the use of traditional timber flooring is no longer an automatic or instinctive choice for many consumers.

The importance of aesthetics cannot be overemphasised; indeed, aesthetic considerations may well represent the only justification for using traditional timber boards. For example, customers seeking a heritage or nostalgia effect are fuelling strong demand for recycled or reclaimed timber flooring and decking boards – a counterpoint to the wider social acceptance of standardised manufactured boards. Similarly, customers striving for a ‘point of difference’ in their homes or investment properties provide a niche market for unusual or rare genuine timber products.

One trend remains certain: R&D in manufactured decking and flooring products is marching forwards at a rapid pace, adding ever-increasing validity to alternative products and flooring systems; meanwhile, natural timber is a limited resource with its own supply chain pressures.

For the moment both categories are surviving, though the trend towards new manufactured materials is overwhelming.

Cabots announces wood-care growth

Cabots recently reported that it has seen continued category growth (volume) in the woodcare market, over the past 12 months, thanks to the continued and growing use of timber within the retail and trade housing markets.

This year Cabots has re-launched its walk on paint formula, Cabot’s Timbercolour Deck & Exterior paint, to now include a lifetime guarantee and 500ml project pots. Cabot’s has also introduced an oil based flooring stain (two pre-packaged colours –Mocha and Dark Roast), which has the ability to be top coated in either an oil or water based floor grade clear.”

Cabot’s Premium Woodcare Brands (CPWB) has continued to lift the bar in terms of retailer relationships and acting on consumer insights across retail and trade, according to a spokesperson.

“If we talk decking oils/stains specifically, which is a considerable share of the woodcare market, we are continually looking at improving our products across our portfolio. Whether that been in durability, finish and/or application,” the Cabot’s spokesperson said.