I lived for many years right on the ocean, and had the good fortune to work on a lot of beach house remodels. Burned into my memory is the vision of a fairly dilapidated cedar deck that was apparently less than 10 years old. This lifespan is incredibly short for cedar decks, but a seaside location comes with special challenges not found in other locations, and the moist salt air had taken a toll.
Most of my clients want a deck that doesn’t take a whole lot of maintenance and stays looking great over time, and the beach house decks I’ve built usually need to accommodate big parties with barbecue grills. Another frequent demand is that decking for beach houses gives the feeling of an extension of the living room, where the life of the house can spill out into the beautiful evening climate. Creating this kind of deck–one that can handle big beach parties, ocean moisture, salt, and sand, and is also low maintenance takes a special kind of material. This post will dive into the pros and cons of using different decking materials for beach homes, and which material I’ve started using more and more for its incredible durability.
The Most Durable and Low Maintenance Materials for the Ocean
Handling the moisture of the ocean climate requires a material blessed with some special characteristics. There are a few options that tend to get picked most frequently for beachfront homes:
- Cedar: Cedar is perhaps the most popular wood used on oceanside decking. Its high oil content gives it a natural resistance to water which helps keep it from breaking down due to moisture. Cedar has a more difficult time with UV rays, though, and can be prone to splintering. Yet, if regularly stained and sealed, a cedar deck can remain in great shape for a decade or more, depending on the exact location of the house.
- Redwood: Redwood is often thought of as a kind of “extra strength” cedar. Due to its chemical makeup, it is even less likely to rot than cedar and its color fades a little more slowly. Because of this and its relative scarcity when compared to cedar, redwood is more expensive.
- Ipe: Also known as ironwood, ipe is an Amazonian hardwood, among the best natural decking materials because of its capacity to endure lots and lots of moisture. It’s also an incredibly strong and dense material. Walking on an ipe deck can feel like walking on a concrete pad. I’ve built decks and raised beds from ipe that are still going strong 20 years later. One of the biggest draws for my clients is its beautifully rich, deep reddish brown color. Unfortunately, while ipe is very effective against moisture, its Achilles heel is UV radiation. In a sunny spot, UV rays will cause a lot of color fading, and no matter how well you seal your ipe deck, it will eventually turn from red-brown to gray. Ipe is also fairly expensive, and there is an environmental cost to removing old ipe trees from the rainforest.
- Composite Decking: When talking about composite decking, it’s important to know that there is definitely a range of quality with these products. Made of recycled plastic and sawdust (or bamboo flour), the better composite decking boards are extremely moisture resistant. High-quality composite boards are protected with an advanced resin capping material that augments the moisture resistance of the board, forms a strong layer of UV protection, maintains a consistent color, possesses excellent traction, and is able to take a lot of wear and tear without breaking down.
Qualities You’ll Want in Decking for Beach Houses
Finding a decking material as beautiful and finished-looking as an interior flooring material can be quite a challenge. There are a few elements that can create a deck that feels as refined and walks as comfortably as an inside space.
- Hidden Fasteners: Decking boards that are attached to the joists using hidden fasteners create a smooth surface free of nails, deck screws, or the holes created by the screws. When people want the inside/outside look I often suggest using decking with hidden fasteners. When using hidden fasteners on beach house decking, I also use hardware that won’t rust or that are well protected, like stainless steel or galvanized steel with a high-quality coating.
- Color That Doesn’t Fade Easily: For some of my clients, this is not an issue, as they enjoy the aesthetic produced by naturally graying wood. For the others, I caution them that preventing serious fading and color change is all but impossible to achieve with wood. The best that can done is to seal and stain once a year with the best possible products.
- Beautiful Finish and Texture: It’s hard to match up to the beautiful texture of a hardwood floor with regular decking materials, but it is a fairly frequent request. When using wooden boards, I typically use ipe or one of its dense tropical hardwood cousins to achieve this effect.
- Splinter-Free, Walkable Surface: Having a surface that is safe and comfortable to walk on, even with bare feet, is an absolute must for a beach house deck. To get this result, I favor materials that don’t become “furry” due to salt or splinter easily. With wooden decks, keeping them sealed and protected from UV rays will go a long way toward reducing splinters, as well as using the hidden fasteners that I already mentioned.
My Choice for Beach Homes? High-Quality Composite Decking
I still use all of the materials listed in this post for a wide variety of jobs. However, when I’m asked to build a super durable, walkable, and low maintenance beach house deck that will look great for a long time, at the top of my list is now high-quality composite decking. While the first generation of composite decking did not typically perform as well against moisture as cedar and redwood, there is now high-quality, fully capped composite decking that protects against moisture and UV rays better than either of these woods by using ground bamboo and plastic to create a very dense, strong, moisture-resistant board.
While in the past I’ve used ipe to create the seamless inside/outside look, I’ve now found composite decking that looks as good as ipe but requires a tiny fraction of the maintenance to keep it looking that way. As I mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of top-notch composite decking is the enhanced resin capping that protects the entire board. This resin cap provides a color that doesn’t fade and a splinter-free, grippy surface that is a pleasure to walk on without requiring any maintenance work.
There are some excellent lines of composite decking available on the market that can succeed in all the areas I mentioned. When friends and clients want to do some of their own research, one of the best places to start is Fortress Deck. The resin capping on their line of Infinity Decking may even be the best out there, and their technique of using bamboo creates a uniquely tough and water-resistant board. In my experience, all of their products are built to this high standard, which is why I always look through their other building products when I need ornamental hardware, railing, or fencing that will stand up to the salt air and sea spray of a beachside location.