Perfection-minded custom builders and luxury homeowners have discovered one more detail that’s worth finessing: ceilings over outdoor-living spaces.

Why ceilings, and why now? To begin with, if you follow home improvement and construction media you’ve seen outdoor living become the hallmark of a high-end home. Construction and renovation pros report unlimited demand for amenities like porches, verandas and gazebos; pool houses, pergolas and lanais; covered decks, patios and walkways.

When homeowners lavish tons of attention on these structures, it’s only natural to look up at plain-vanilla ceilings and wonder, “Is that all there is?”

For answers, I asked four veteran builders — whose projects stretch from the New Jersey shore to South Florida — to talk about options for the second-largest horizontal surface on the outside of a house. Weighing in were:

  • Kevin Boyd of N.F.D.I. (Neighbourhood Fence and Deck, Inc.), a designer/builder specializing in high-end, low-maintenance decks in and around Ontario, Canada
  • Ken Keirns of JF’s Construction, a veteran of luxury home building from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater to Orlando and Naples, Fla.
  • Bob Sharpe of Sharpe Construction, based on Long Beach Island, N.J., who builds custom bayside and beachside homes on the Jersey coast.
  • Jason Stimis of Stimis Enterprises, with more than 20 years of upscale renovation experience along Maryland’s Eastern Shore

We explored four high-end ceiling materials:

  • Natural wood
  • White, solid PVC trimboards
  • White PVC with hand-applied, woodgrain finish
  • And an innovative PVC newcomer — trimboards manufactured with realistic, permanent, wood-look laminates

Here’s how our hands-on panel described the pros and cons of each option.

Natural Wood

Jason Stimis said, “With wood, the biggest pro has always been that you can ‘dial in’ the stain colors. Any time a customer wants a very specific ceiling color, you can tailor it, so it's way more customized.

“But, compared to modern materials, wood’s inconsistent in a couple of ways: Really clear wood is so rare and expensive that most of what you get, in practice, is full of knots. And millwork places like to ship random lengths, which means you wind up with anything from eight- to 16-foot boards. You could pay a little more to get all 16 footers, but then you're stuck with leftover 16-foot material. The waste can add up.”

Other panelists on the upside:

  • Variety: “The selection of wood profiles is still tremendous.”
  • Tradition: “Some customers, maybe 15 percent, just want the real wood.”

And the downside:

  • Cost: “In the short run, woods might seem cheaper. But along the coast you pay the added costs of repairs, replacement and re-sealing every few years.”
  • Maintenance: “Even if wood’s pre-finished, it’s a lot of work. Eventually you're going to have to re-finish it. Here in Florida, the UV, humidity and salt air break down any sealer or stain.”

White PVC

Ken Keirns noted, “PVC comes in 16- or 18-foot lengths, a definite advantage. In the end, you have fewer seams. But length and flexibility can be a disadvantage during installation. That’s because anything over 12 feet —14 or 18 feet — can be awkward for one person to handle, up on the staging. There are tricks to it, but you almost always need a two-person crew. It’s not quite as easy as putting up stiff pieces of wood.

“Back on the positive side, white PVC is a finished product you don’t need to paint, stain or maintain. That’s a major pro. But job sites can be dirty, so you’ve got to handle it with care or plan for cleanup. For installers, that can be a con.”

Other panelists on the upside:

  • Paintability: “You don’t have to paint it but, if color is an issue, it will hold paint as well as or better than wood.”
  • Longevity: “I try to persuade every customer to go with PVC just because it lasts longer in spite of moisture, sunlight, salt air and storms.”

And the downside:

  • Appearance: “Where there's a lot of moisture and wind, you may see soot or dust collecting in the corners.”
  • Waviness: “On a big ceiling, like 20 feet square or more, wavy areas can show up when the light hits it a certain way.”

Hand-Stained PVC

As Bob Sharpe reported, “Hand-applied stain can carry a custom theme from some unique part of the house onto a porch ceiling. Let’s say the homeowner’s in love with a wooden front door. A craftsman can copy that color and grain on maintenance-free PVC — with realistic variations all across every board, like wood has.

“But you can’t DIY, especially on-site. Before you outsource the job, look at samples of the sub’s work first. And remember that extra craftsmanship takes extra time.”

Other panelists (upside):

  • Installation: “It has that nice flat edge you can nail into. It saves time and it's a clean look. A friendly install.”
  • Unique personality: “Unlimited variability. No danger of ‘wallpaper patterns.’”

Other panelists (downside):

  • Special skills: “Not something everyone can do. Your average homeowner, or even builder, can’t just buy that stain off the shelf and slap it on.”
  • Cost: “The guy who does it for us is an artist, actually, with the right tools and a climate-controlled shop — and prices to match.”

Factory-Laminated Woodgrain PVC

Kevin Boyd told us, “There’s definitely a ‘wow’ factor with a good laminated woodgrain ceiling. It’s just gorgeous — looks nice enough to install inside or outside. If you take pride in your work and you want it to last, you know this stuff will keep looking new, without any re-staining or clearcoating. I don’t even offer my customers the option of wood anymore. It seems like a dated way of doing things.

“Other than price — wood-look does cost more than the same profiles in plain white PVC — the only limitation I can think of is that there are only about four available colors.”

Other panelists (upside):

  • Curb appeal: “People are crazy about that warm, distinctive grain. Where homes are close to the street, they stop and take pictures of our ceilings.”
  • Zero maintenance: “Once it’s up, it’s done. Homeowners never have to touch it.”

Other panelists (downside):

  • UV sensitivity: “Colorfast up on the ceiling — but, on the job, you should store it out of the sun, or tarp it.”
  • Special skills: “The warranty may depend on installation by a manufacturer-certified builder.”

Your Mileage May Vary

According to our panel, each option has its place. But I can’t call it a draw. My hope is that you’ll compare your own situation with our panelists’ impressions, and get a little bit closer to the perfect ceiling. Meanwhile — keep trimming smarter.

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