An eco-friendly deck in the backyard of a home

Building a deck is a superb way to get the most out of your home’s outdoor space. It’s a relatively inexpensive project and is simple enough to be tackled by a competent DIYer, which helps to keep costs down further if you’re on a budget.

There are many benefits to adding a deck to your house. They make ideal spaces for entertaining guests, relaxing on a sunny afternoon, and can even add value to your home.

Homeowners are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impacts that their home improvement decisions can have, which is increasing demand for more eco-friendly building materials and construction techniques.

It can be a complicated decision to work out what materials to use to minimize the environmental impact that your new deck will have. For example, how do you weigh the benefits of using natural, eco-friendly deck materials against those with a more energy-intensive manufacturing process?

If a type of building material is very environmentally friendly but must be transported halfway around the world, is it still an eco-friendly option for your project?

We’ll look at these and other complex questions in more detail in the rest of this article to explain how you can evaluate the pros and cons of different material choices for your new deck.

So, read on to learn more about the tricky business of building an eco-friendly deck without breaking the bank.

The Most Important Considerations When Building an Eco-Friendly Deck

When building an eco-friendly deck, the most important factors to consider are how the materials are made, how long they will last, how far they must be transported, maintenance requirements, and whether they can be reused or recycled at the end of their life.

Environmental Considerations When Designing Your Deck

Environmental issues are continuing to grab headlines. Everything from raging wildfires in California to more intense and frequent hurricanes in Florida are reported through the lens of humans’ impact on the environment.

We are all aware of the impact of climate change on the planet and the urgent need for us all to collaborate to mitigate the effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and adapt to the challenges a warming climate presents.

Environmental considerations are influencing the decisions that we all make, from government energy policy at a national level right down to the choices individuals make about how to travel, what food to eat, and how to build our homes.

Most of us understand the importance of minimizing our carbon footprint and actively try to do our bit to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Knowing the right thing to do to minimize your carbon emissions concerning travel is easy. First, walk or cycle for short journeys. Avoid flying if possible, and if you must drive, consider car sharing.

When it comes to building an eco-friendly deck, the choices are less clear-cut. For example, you might find locally produced materials that cut down on their embodied carbon, but what about the other variables in their production, such as how much energy was used to make them?

It’s not so easy to make an informed decision on these factors.

An eco-friendly deck with trellis in the backyard of a home

In addition to the climate change impacts of our decisions, we must consider how our choices might feed into the biodiversity crisis, deforestation, environmental pollution, and resource depletion.

These issues are interrelated and complex.

If choosing wood for your eco-friendly deck, should you buy wood that has come from further because it is sourced from a sustainably managed forest? That’s a tough call to make.

At times, acting on an individual basis can seem futile. You might ask what difference my choice of building materials makes to these global problems.

Fortunately, with collective action, we can truly make a difference and bring our planet back from the brink. Bearing these issues in mind when designing an eco-friendly deck can help minimize your project’s environmental impact, and it could even save you some cash.

The Environmental Impact of Building a Deck

A technique called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is used to evaluate the impact of products on the environment.

LCA looks at all a product’s impacts on the environment throughout its life, starting from the extraction and processing of the raw materials used in its manufacture, the manufacturing process itself, and distribution. It also accounts for the product’s use, whether you can recycle it and how it is disposed of.

Very few of us will have the skills, time, or inclination to perform a complete LCA on our eco-friendly decking materials, but there are some key factors that you can consider.

These variables include:

  • How the materials are manufactured – carbon-intensive processes like the production of aluminum, which is increasing in popularity as a deck material, have a very high carbon footprint. Reclaimed or recycled materials are preferable, and virgin wood should be harvested from sustainably managed forests.
  • Chemicals used in the production process – pressure treatment of lumber for preservation uses insecticides and fungicides that can impact the environment, particularly if they leak into rivers and groundwater.
  • Material transportation – local eco-friendly deck materials will take less fuel to transport to your house than those from across the country or the other side of the world, reducing the carbon footprint of transportation.
  • Material longevity – the longer your deck lasts, the better. If you need to replace your deck after a few years, that doubles the environmental impact because you are effectively building it twice.
  • Maintenance required – if you must use chemical-laden wood preservers every year to maintain your eco-friendly deck, this will have a higher environmental cost than one that merely needs a wash with a pressure washer or soapy water.
  • Whether the material can be recycled – turning the old deck into something useful at the end of its life will help to reduce its environmental impact. For example, aluminum decks can be recycled into drinks cans. Even burning wood to generate electricity is preferable to sending the waste to landfill.

Selecting Eco-Friendly Deck Materials

While nobody expects you to do a complete life cycle analysis of your eco-friendly deck to minimize its impact on the environment, if you keep in mind the above factors when designing your deck, you can make some sensible choices that will make your deck more eco-friendly.

Of course, it won’t always make financial sense to go with the most environmentally-friendly materials, and how much you are willing to pay for a “greener” deck is up to you.

Sometimes, going green and keeping costs low go hand-in-hand. For example, if you use reclaimed lumber for your eco-friendly deck, this not only keeps previously used timber higher up the waste hierarchy but can also save you cash.

A closeup of slats of reclaimed wood flooring

If you’re interested in saving money and being more eco-friendly in your next building project, read our article about using reclaimed wood as a building material and where you can find it.

Wooden Decking

Wood is a popular choice for eco-friendly decking, thanks to its visual appeal and the way this natural material transitions beautifully from the natural environment to the built environment, forming a bridge between your house and the great outdoors.

Sustainable Forest Management

Sourcing your wood from sustainably managed forests is probably the best way to minimize your deck’s environmental footprint.

The Forest Stewardship Council is the body that sets the standards for operators to follow in the forestry industry to ensure they are acting responsibly.

These days, people tend to be more environmentally conscious than in the past and are keen to seek out the FSC certification mark on products they buy. If you’re serious about building an eco-friendly deck out of wood, make sure you use FSC-certified lumber.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

Softwood comes from fast-growing conifers such as pine and fir and can be replaced quickly. As such, they are considered more eco-friendly than hardwood lumber, which is sourced from broad-leafed trees like oak or beech.

It is possible to have sustainably managed hardwood forests, but it is more challenging to do, so you should double-check that any hardwood you plan on using comes with the proper certification from the FSC.

Some more exotic types of wood might be available in your local stores, such as Mahogany and Lignum Vitae, and you might be tempted to use these in your project.

A closeup on mahogany wood grain

They are beautiful woods and, being hardwoods, are very tough and long-lasting. However, they are often sourced from Central or South America, where there are fewer guarantees over how the forests they are harvested from are managed.

One thing to remember if you’re on a budget is that hardwoods tend to be more expensive than softwoods, so you might want to limit your design to pine of fir.

Another option for your eco-friendly deck would be reclaimed wood, which you can often find locally for a low price. We’ve had success finding this type of wood on Facebook Marketplace—often, people are glad just to get rid of surplus materials, saving them a trip to the dump.

Maintenance

Wood needs to be cared for, which is the most prominent aspect of its use that doesn’t align with an eco-friendly agenda. Caring for wood means protecting it from the elements because moisture and harsh sunlight can cause it to rot and crack, hastening deterioration.

It also means keeping it safe from mold, fungus, insects, and other creatures that like to tunnel into the body of the wood, causing it to decompose. The answer to this problem is to use chemical treatments, potentially harmful to human health and the environment.

That’s why materials like composite decking that don’t need such treatments are better for the environment in this regard.

Composite Decking

Composite has become an increasingly popular choice for eco-friendly decking in recent years. Manufactured from recycled plastic and reclaimed wood, it lasts up to twice as long as regular wood. 

The use of recycled feedstock in its manufacture and its longer lifespan is fantastic for the environment.

The recycled feedstock puts waste that would have ended up in landfill to good use, and the fact that the finished composite product lasts a long time makes for a more negligible environmental impact over the long run. 

It doesn’t require maintenance either, beyond a good wash every once in a while with soap and water.

A homeowner with a screwdriver bending over while installing composite decking slats

This is great in terms of the environment compared to standard wooden decking, which needs to be maintained with regular treatments of preservatives and wood stains that contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment.

One aspect of composite decking that is less positive for the environment is its recyclability or lack thereof. It’s not suited for repurposing and cannot be recycled, so it is destined to end up in a landfill.

Aluminum Decking

Aluminum decking is made from powder-coated, extruded aluminum, which is exceptionally hard-wearing and resilient to the harshest climates and hungriest bugs.

Its hard-wearing character means it requires little maintenance. A simple power wash every few months will keep it looking good.

The biggest drawback to using aluminum for your new deck is the cost, with an aluminum deck coming in at around $15 per square foot compared to composite, which ranges between $5-$15 per square foot.

Given its high resistance to wear and tear, this significant outlay at the beginning pays off over the long term, thanks to the minimal maintenance and long lifespan.

Deck Flashing: Make Your Deck Last

A homeowner installing deck flashing above a ledger board on the side of a home
Courtesy of Decks.com

The most important thing you can do to minimize your deck’s environmental impact is to maximize its lifespan.

If your eco-friendly deck lasts only ten years due to improper design or installation, you’ll need to replace it, which will double the environmental footprint compared to a deck that lasts 20 years.

A common source of failure in decks is the ledger board, so you need to ensure it is installed correctly so that your deck lasts.

What Is a Deck Ledger Board?

The ledger board of your deck is a horizontal beam made from wood that is fixed to an existing wall and supports your deck. It’s a crucial piece of the construction of your deck and supports about half its weight.

Deck Ledger Flashing

Normally made from pressure-treated lumber, the ledger board is resistant to rot and insect damage. Still, water damage can occur over time if it is not installed correctly, particularly in cases where the deck ledger flashing detail is incorrect.

If water gets into the wall, it can rot the rim joist of the house and cause the whole deck to pull away from the wall, potentially causing a collapse.

The flashing for the deck ledger board is essential for the longevity of your deck, preventing water damage over the years. The best way to ensure that water doesn’t cause any issues for the ledger board is to use a multi-layer approach.

The first layer is a peel-and-stick layer of flashing first applied to the wall before the ledger board is fixed. Once that first layer is stuck to the wall, fix the ledger board over the top of it.

Once the ledger board is in place, an additional peel and stick flashing should be applied on the wall above, running down over the top of the ledger board and overlapping slightly to ensure any water is directed away from the wall of the house.

Finally, a metal or vinyl cap flashing must be fixed in place over the top of the peel and stick flashings and ledger board to protect the peel and stick layers, which can’t be exposed to UV light from the sun.

The following video puts all this into pictures so you can see how everything fits together:

Screenshot from a video displaying how to install deck ledger flashing
Courtesy of Fine Home Building

Finishing Touches for Your Deck

Once you’ve built the structure of your eco-friendly deck, you’ll probably want to add a few finishing touches to make it your own and match its décor to complement the rest of your home.

Here are a few tips for keeping these final touches eco-friendly and within budget.

Lighting

When lighting your deck, the most eco-friendly options will likely also be the cheapest. LED lighting is an excellent solution for several reasons.

First, you can get solar-powered LED lights for use on your deck, which require no wiring and are, therefore, simple to install.

Second, LEDs use very little power compared to standard filament bulbs, so if you’re after higher-powered lights than solar and willing to wire them into your electrical panel, LEDs can add more brightness without increasing your electricity bills.

Third, LED lights last a long time—generally 100 times longer than a typical incandescent light bulb. This longevity means you won’t have to replace them for up to 20 years, saving you money and keeping waste from landfilling in the process.

For more information about how much money you can save with solar lamps, please read our article, Solar Lamps: How Much Do They Save? (Costs & Energy), for a detailed answer.

Furniture

Plenty of stylish, eco-friendly furniture is available that won’t break the bank, and making a wise choice here can enhance your green credentials and save you money.

Avoid wooden furniture that doesn’t have an FSC certification, or you could even opt for composite furniture made by the likes of Trex.

Restored furniture is also a great eco-friendly deck option, whether you buy something from a garage sale, sand it down and add a lick of paint or buy from a company specializing in furniture reuse and recycling.

Bamboo is another environmentally friendly material that you can use to make attractive furniture at a reasonable price. In addition, bamboo is very fast-growing and, therefore, can be replaced quickly, making it an excellent choice for the environmentally conscious.

a series of platforms, walkways, and handrails using bamboo as the main structural sustainable building product

Summary

Building a deck is a great way to add extra outdoor space to your home, whether for entertaining or simply relaxing in the afternoon sun.

Everyone must make more eco-friendly choices to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and prevent pollution of the environment with harmful chemicals.

There are some excellent options for building an eco-friendly deck but deciding on the best materials for the planet without breaking the bank can be difficult.

Some ways to minimize the environmental impact of your deck include:

  • Using local materials wherever possible
  • Using recovered or recycled decking
  • Softwoods managed sustainably and certified by the FSC
  • Using durable materials, so your deck lasts a long time
  • Using materials that require fewer chemicals to preserve their looks and structural integrity
  • Ensuring the deck ledger flashing is installed correctly to avoid water getting into the wall and rotting the rim joist. Replacing a deck after it fails prematurely would increase your environmental footprint.
  • Ensure your finishing touches, such as lighting and furniture, use eco-friendly deck materials and minimize their energy usage.

For more ideas on making more of your home, look at our article on companies that make ADU kits, which can increase the available square footage and provide extra living or working space within a budget.

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