I don’t often get a chance to work on big multi-unit projects, but when I have, it’s often been on their decks and patios. I was once brought on to help remodel a big 20 unit and to replace the old wood balconies. I was told that I had my work cut out for me! The main concern of the owners on 20 unit I helped on was long-term longevity. Mainly they were looking to redo these units using decking for apartment balconies that would last a long time, look beautiful with little maintenance, be reasonably easy to install, and be easy to do any necessary repairs on in the future.
I’ve seen architects and contractors experiment with many different materials over the years to get the results of longevity and low maintenance. However, in the last few years, one material has begun to emerge as a perennial favorite for all of us–high-quality composite decking. This is the choice we eventually made when it came time to replace that multi-unit’s balconies, and here’s why.
Building for the Long Haul
There are many factors that determine how quickly decking will break down. Some balconies are in full sun, some are partially protected, while others are nearly completely in the shade. Some are regularly subjected to rain and snow, while others are protected from precipitation by a covering. As the scale of the project increases, liability, future repairs, and maintaining a reputation for quality become considerations, and the importance of durability increases tenfold.
- Moisture Protection: It’s not uncommon for drainage on some balconies to be less than ideal. When this is the case, moisture protection is especially important. While many people use pressure treated 2x4s and/or well-sealed cedar decking, these options aren’t always ideal. While highly moisture resistant, pressure treated isn’t the most attractive material, and even well-sealed cedar and redwood decking boards are vulnerable to moisture seeping up from below. A good alternative to using wood is using fully-capped composite decking boards that resist moisture. These are fully encased with a waterproofed, enhanced resin cap, that, unlike wood, doesn’t require sealing every other year. This is beneficial both for the bottom line and for the peace of mind of the tenants and the apartment manager.
- UV Protection: You probably know that the sun has a way of sinking its teeth into organic materials. UV rays very literally cook wood, breaking down its cellular structure. While a good stain will help protect wood, stains don’t last forever. For more reliable and protection, the same resin protective capping that keeps composite decking safe from moisture works as a highly effective barrier against UV damage. Some of the best composite decking boards were actually designed for the often extremely intense sunshine of South Africa–these make a great decking choice when you’re looking for low maintenance durability.
Ease of Installation
Ease of installation is important both on the front end and as repairs and replacements become necessary. Keeping costs down without egregious corner-cutting is always a good practice.
- Stair Treads and Rails that Match: When deck areas require stair treads or railings, extra time is often taken in picking materials that will match up aesthetically and functionally. However, some companies are starting to provide stair treads and top rails made of the same composite as the decking, saving time and hassle.
- Grooved Boards: I’ve always preferred working with grooved flooring. Call me lazy, but it simply makes a getting a neat and uniform finish much easier. This is especially so when I’m in charge of a big crew, doing several decks at once. If this is the case, as it was with my 20 unit, it doesn’t take much time or effort to show people how to install grooved boards.
Great Decking for Apartment Balconies Uses Beautiful Materials
Transforming a balcony from a space to a place begins and ends with choosing high-quality materials. This is desirable because creating a space with enduring appeal keeps tenant retention high, and increases the overall value of the property. Where decking materials are concerned, there are a few qualities that I think are especially important.
- Color: There are all sorts of color choices available out there, ranging from a light natural wood color to faint amber to the deep colors of tropical hardwoods. With natural woods, including ipe, keeping those colors ultimately requires using some kind of stain, as the natural pigments fade in the sun. The beauty of some composite decking materials is that their colors are designed to resist fading, and while the early composite decking boards had rather artificial colors, the current crop features more natural shades, including composite decking boards that look like ipe.
- Texture: Many builders and architects passed on earlier versions of composite decking because they either lacked any wood grain patterns or the patterns were too artificial. This has changed, as there are now at least a few companies producing boards with subtle, realistic grain patterns–some of them featuring tropical hardwood-type grain on one side, and trendy distressed hardwood on the other.
- Feel: Creating an outside decking surface which comes close to the beauty of an inside hardwood floor is a real trick! One of the features that has helped me achieve this has been hidden fastener systems for decking. Using specially designed grooved boards and angled fasteners creates a smooth surface free of screws and other visible fasteners.
After working on quite a few of these projects over the years, I’ve seen that the decks with the lightest maintenance needs have been those that used high-quality composite decking. While I can’t accurately speak to tenancy rates, in general it seems that the less my crew and I have to temporarily invade someone’s privacy, the happier they are! If you are interested in composite decking, it pays to know that not all of it is of the same quality. There are a few lines that really stick out. Of those few, a good place to start with your research is Fortress Decking. Their fully capped, co-extruded bamboo-based boards are built to last a long, low maintenance lifetime, and come with a 25-year warranty. And if you have any other construction needs–maybe you’re looking for railings to go with your decking–it wouldn’t hurt to check out their full range of building materials, like railings, fencing, and ornamental hardware, so that the rest of the project looks as beautiful as the decking.