America's decking market appears to be splitting between high-priced synthetic and low-priced treated wood products, speakers at a Principia Partners conference in Charlotte, N.C., said Monday. Wood remains the big leader, and its proponents see an opportunity to produce upscale products that will move into the market space being vacated by composites.

Several speakers at Principia's Wood-Plastic & Natural Fiber Composites Conference predicted that makers of non-wood decking will, within a few years, stop producing products consisting solely of a wood-plastic composite. Instead, all synthetic products will be either PVC goods or will be composites that have been "capped," or bordered, with a PVC-like substance.

About $2.75 billion worth of decking will be sold this year, said Steve Van Kouteren of Principia, the conference chair. Of that, wood accounts for $2 billion, composites represent $750 million, and PVC decking contributes another $100 million.

Wood generally is used in new-home construction and projects where material costs matter significantly. Composite and PVC decking often gets installed on higher-end new-home projects and when homeowners decide to replace their worn-out wood decks with a product that requires less maintenance. Building material dealers sell the lion's share of synthetics, but Principia estimates that the role of big boxes has grown to account for one-third of sales.

Christopher Grandpre, president of Outdoor Living Brands of Richmond, Va., which includes the 200-franchise Archadeck design-build firm, said there was about a 50-50 split in the number of wood vs. synthetic products used in Archadeck-built projects in 2008. Last year, wood's share rose to 54%, apparently because of financial worries, he noted, but so far this year synthetics figure in 52% of the projects.

"We see that, in a couple of years, two of every three jobs [we do] will involve some sort of low-maintenance materials," he said. Fiberon president Douglas Mancosh even said that he doesn't expect any manufacturer to produce uncapped wood products two years from now.

Michael Salazar, director of purchasing at TW Perry in Gaithersburg, Md., said he sees the decking
market splitting into two segments. The lower end will be cost-driven and dominated by wood, he projected. The higher end will consist of so-called ultra-low maintenance PVC and capped products, such as Trex's Transcend series. (One speaker predicted that "capped" decking will get marketed as "prefinished" goods.)

Robert Lett agreed. "The wrapped products are what we see as the future," said Lett, vice president for sales and marketing at Wolf, the York, Pa.-based distributor that on Monday announced that it has terminated its distributor relationship with AZEK effective Nov. 5. Wolf now has become the exclusive supplier of another PVC decking product--CEVN--and will introduce its own proprietary PVC decking and railing products.

As for wood, Kirk Hammond, sales manager for Arch Chemicals, said wood producers are reaching out to deck builders to speak up for wood. He said the industry can push some laminated and related wood products that cost more than regular treated lumber, but less than the cheapest composite.

"There are wood products out there for the high-end deck builder that will perform," Hammond said. "We can absolutely put a good-performing product out there that the consumer will appreciate. ... We're looking to start filling that middle with a higher-end laminated product."

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Charlotte, NC.