¦ The decking market stayed close to its 2006 £135m value during the recession.
¦ Volumes in the quality redwood sector have fallen back to 2008 levels.
¦ Seventy per cent of domestic decking installations are now DIY.
¦ The prospects for modified timber decking are good.

Historically, election years tend to have a negative impact on business activity. When the election coincides with an economy struggling to emerge from recession, the results can be very challenging.

The decking market is reflecting these difficult conditions but the signs of the resilience in 2008 and 2009 that earned decking the reputation of being recession-proof, although a little diminished, are still having a positive effect. Low interest rates and the trend to improve rather than move and spend more on the garden are still the drivers in the consumer sector but, as reflected in retail spending figures, confidence is extremely variable.

While 2010 started with optimistic forecasts of housing market recovery and growth, decking suppliers are experiencing mixed fortunes. The factors that helped sustain the sector through 2008 and 2009 close to its 2006 value of £135m still exist, but post-election uncertainty is having an effect.

According to reports from Timber Decking & Cladding Association (TDCA) members, the value of sales is up by about 5%, due to raw material price increases, but volume in the quality redwood sector has fallen back to 2008 levels. Demand for quality European redwood decking is now running about 10% lower than this time last year. Competition in price-sensitive sectors like DIY and jobbing builders has increased significantly.

Lower price appeal

Just-in-time stocking policies have resulted in irregular order patterns but a principal factor is product substitution. Where price has become the main buying concern then stockists have turned to generic, lower cost species and grades of decking to meet demand.

Naturally durable hardwood decking remains the preference for commercial, public sector and high value domestic professional deck installations. Hardwood has been the material of choice for public access decks and, because the low environmental impact credentials and other benefits of wood continue to increase its popularity for outdoor landscaping overall, it is probably too soon to predict what impact impending public sector cutbacks will have on this segment of the market. Right now, the projects that are in the pipeline should mean that hardwood decking will remain at around 15% of the total market.

In recent years, modified wood decking has emerged. Established TDCA members like Finnforest (Thermowood) and Arch Timber Protection (Keywood) have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, modified wood decking based on technologies such as heat treatment and resinification to add durability. In April, Titan Wood, the company behind Accoya, joined the TDCA as part of its strategic development of its acetylated wood technology.

The prospects for these new materials are good and the addition of modified woods to the existing market for naturally durable hardwoods and quality pressure-treated softwoods can only benefit the growth potential of the outdoor wood market. TDCA is committed to providing the quality assurance and generic information required by which demand for timber decks and associated landscape structures can grow and it intends to be in the forefront of information about modified wood decking and cladding.

While most TDCA members acknowledge that trading conditions are more challenging in 2010 than ever before, they also recognise that the market is more segmented with different grades and species than ever. Ensuring quality standards do not fall is key to the long-term future of timber decking and the reputation of wood as an outdoor material.

In the domestic sector, the economic climate has continued to favour DIY as opposed to professional installation of decks – in fact we estimate that 70% of all installations will be DIY. Professional deck installers – those accredited to the TDCA’s DeckMark quality scheme, for example – tend to focus on higher value specifications and contracts in both domestic and commercial sectors, for which demand has been fairly consistent.

Battling planning curbs

However, changes to the planning regulations for England introduced by the previous government in late 2008 haven’t helped the decking market. The new rules mean that you can erect a conservatory without permission but you can’t install a deck with a platform higher than 300mm without local authority planning consent. It’s illogical and was imposed without industry consultation and the TDCA is lobbying the government to review this guidance, along with the review of Building Regulations that it announced in July.

In the newbuild sector, the standards of the NHBC, the UK’s principal new homes insurer, are having an influence on the quality of materials and practices used in deck construction. The TDCA developed a code of practice for timber decks on new homes to meet the NHBC fitness for purpose requirement that the homes they insure have a 60-year desired service life. This came into effect in 2009 and the NHBC is increasingly consulting the Association about materials specifications and suppliers that can meet these quality requirements. This will have an impact in the medium term as the housing market recovers and more marginal land and brownfield sites that favour house designs with raised timber decks are used.

Quality schemes

TDCA’s strategy continues to focus on promoting quality materials and good installation practice. Its decking manufacturers are required to operate the DeckMark quality scheme for decking and major branded products backed by this quality consistency and customer support have attracted new stockists. Certain TDCA manufacturers are also involved in major quality softwood decking contracts associated with the London Olympics.

The Association also runs DeckMark Plus, a quality and performance scheme for enhanced grip deck boards and high-level balustrade systems. These boards are becoming an essential ingredient for public areas and specifiers want the assurance that this independent certification of loading capability or slip resistance performance provides.

Raising awareness about the consequences of cutting corners and educating buyers about the properties of quality decking materials, design and aftercare are core activities of TDCA. This strategy will be spearheaded by the launch of a new decking and cladding Knowledge Centre later this year. This Knowledge Centre will be a showcase for all that’s best about decking and cladding materials and will enable direct access to both generic and branded product information.