The Principia Decking and Outdoor Living Products Conference offers participants one of the deepest, most intense dives available anywhere into the world of wood-plastic composite (WPC), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and traditional treated lumber decking. Aside from our main story, here are 15 other notable takeaways from the Oct. 3-4 event in Charlotte, N.C.

  1. To date, A.E.R.T. hasn't produced a capped WPC. But early next year, it plans to unveil a wood-plastic composite that uses nanotechnology to create a kind of hard outer shell that most other dealers get by applying a layer of a plastic-like substance. "I've heard people here bashing wood, saying it's not the answer," noted Joe Brooks, CEO of A.E.R.T. "We're trying to supercharge wood."
  2. Big Builders such as D.R. Horton have concluded that, when properly planned, it's cheaper to regrade a property than leave the land undisturbed and have to build a deck. This could have big implications once new-home construction revives, particularly for makers of pressure-treated wood, as production builders almost invariably build decks out of wood.
  3. There's an increasing connection between decking and hardscape, both in terms of companies offering the products and deck builders who do hardscaping/landscaping work.
  4. Asked for his summary of the meeting, one participant replied with a single word: "Disconnect." Indeed, the conference featured numerous instances in which one part of the supply chain complained of problems that it felt were caused by other links in the chain. Builders say manufacturers should listen to their pleas to create warranties that cover labor as well as materials. Dealers want more flexibility when ordering decking and railing. Distributors want more advance word--and more sympathetic responses--from manufacturers who decide to change a product or drop it entirely. And manufacturers want dealers and distributors to start forecasting future demand.
  5. Say bye-bye to the Winter Buy. Dealers are becoming less and less likely to make commitments during snowy months for product that they won't get until the spring. That's in part because dealers are buying as little product as possible in bulk, preferring to special-order it.
  6. The dumbbell-shaped market that we described last January remains. The share of the synthetic decking market contributed by ultra low maintenance products (i.e. capped WPC and PVC) rose to 45% in 2010 from 15% just two years before. Meanwhile, traditional wood-plastic composites have lost market share while wood--which often can cost half as much as ultra low maintenance goods--continues to be favored by budget-conscious buyers.
  7. That said, there isn't always a direct connection between the price of the product and the income level of the buyer. Some poorer people are buying higher-value decking-particularly when they've decided they're going to continue living in the house for years to come, while some wealthy people are opting for lower-price pressure-treated lumber.
  8. Wildfire issues could be the next big area for the people who write building codes.
  9. Numerous speakers echoed the old lament that makers of alternative decking overpromoted their products' qualities several years ago, thus setting up unreasonable consumer expectations that their decks don't need any care. "The two words that we started this industry with were completely wrong: 'Maintenance free,'" said John Junod, a branch manager for Hood Distribution. "And we're still paying for that mistake today."
  10. To that lament, Chris Freeman of California's Ganahl Lumber raised another potential problem: Now that PVC and capped products are described as "ultra low maintenance," he mused, what will manufacturers call the next generation of decking. His suggestion: "This time we really mean it" decking.
  11. Dealers should recognize that deck builders aren't like other builders. As one decking company president noted, he and his peers have to have the engineering knowledge of framers as well as the finish skills of trim carpenters.
  12. Consensus appears to have increased for standardizing certain testing protocols to measure appearance qualities. What should come first? A panel voted for fade and stain issues.
  13. But don't expect consensus will be easy. Distributors and dealers complained to manufacturers that they can't even get product makers to put out products that are the same dimensions. Replied one manufacturer, who may have been only semi-joking: "It is what it is. We'd like everyone to change--to our size."
  14. Keep an eye out for potential complaints against capped wood-plastic composites that swell on the ends after water wicks in and causes wood fiber in the decking's core to expand. An article in the latest issue of Professional Deck Builder on the issue generated lots of discussion, in large part because critics say manufacturers haven't properly alerted dealers and deck builders about this potential problem.
  15. Here's a word that you should get to know: Furfurylated. It refers to a treatment used in Europe that injects an alcohol polymer into wood to create a product that darkens softwood so that it resembles hardwood. Samples are crossing the Atlantic now.