Treading the boards

Decking is becoming an increasingly popular choice for outdoor flooring in the Middle East. James Boley looks at the different woods on the market.

Rohmix International's teak decking was selected for the Raffles Hotel in Dubai
Rohmix International's teak decking was selected for the Raffles Hotel in Dubai

The choice of wood for exterior surfaces over other paving options is undoubtedly an emotional one. Whether it is specifically selected to emphasise ties to a nearby water setting by evoking the original wooden decks used on ships, or whether it is simply chosen to cover a large stretch of sand, wood is renowned for its sensorial and tactile appeal.

Wood has long-established markets in Europe and North America, but is now experiencing increased demand in the Middle East region as a premier choice for outdoor flooring, according to specialist suppliers.

 

Everyone here knows about Burma teak but there is so much more on the market

"Decking is a new product to this region and has only been growing in popularity for the last two years or so," says Albert Douglas, chief executive of flooring and decking company Alomi Real Wood Floors. "We've seen it particularly become more popular over the last six months; in fact I'd say that demand for decking is growing on a daily basis here.

Wider, longer planks are particularly popular, he added, as this allows the client to better see the grain and the colour of the wood.

Elaborate decking is another trend, says Michael Morgan, general manager of wood flooring distributor Abu Sharkh General Trading, with increased requests for multi-level decking or integration with railings or other components.

Traditional choices

Various types of wood are used for decking, but hard wood is the most in demand by the market here, especially teak wood. Teak wood is available from different parts of the world, but it is Burma teak which is most popular in this region, according to suppliers.

"Here they mostly go for real wood and they all want to have this Burma teak. This is a hardwood and really good for the climate here," says Kristin Scheffer, CEO of outdoor flooring specialist Rohmix International. The high humidity in the Gulf can cause some woods to absorb moisture and warp, meaning any wood used for outdoor decking in the region must perform well in this respect.

Burma teak also corresponds well to the request for luxury in this region, adds Scheffer. "Burma teak has a warm brownish-orange look when it is fresh, and turns into a silver-grey when laid outside and left untreated. This silver-grey tone is elegant and classy," she says.

One of the problems with Burma teak at the moment, however, is that the Burmese government is restricting its supply out of the country. Other concerns include how teak from Burma is logged, with some environmental groups accusing the government of using forced labour to harvest the timber.

As a result, not only is Burma teak becoming something of a scarce commodity, but the limited availability is pushing up prices, according to suppliers. A combination of the weakening dirham and difficulty in sourcing the timber has increased prices by around 20% over the last year, they say.

Alternatives to Burma teak are available in this region, such as Lapacho, for instance, from Brazil which is so tough it is considered as fireproof as concrete and steel, but it is hard to persuade regional customers to try them, report suppliers.

"Everyone here knows about Burma teak but there is so much more on the market," says Douglas. "In the US and Europe, people ask for a variety of different woods because they know about them, but here in the Middle East most customers only know one or two woods, so they ask for the same things each time."

Scheffer agrees. "It takes time to convince customers to go for other woods. They always think in traditional ways. They just know one wood and don't want to change," she says.

 

Types of wood

Some of the key woods used for outdoor decking.

Teak

Found in Burma and the Indian peninsula, although now also available from Africa and Central America. A very tough wood with little moisture movement, teak is very popular in the GCC but expensive.

Merbau

Another tough wood from South East Asia, which also has limited moisture movement. May accelerate rusting of iron materials in damp conditions.

Garapa

Scratch resistance makes it a particularly good choice for decking. Good durability and can cope with daily wear and tear. Found in South America

Wallaba

A very durable wood from Central and South America, with deep red to reddish-purple colour. Contains gum, which can spoil finishes after being fitted.

Balau

Has a moderate amount of warping in humid conditions. Cheap to purchase but many species of tree used for the timber are classified as endangered. From Asia.

Composite

Made of wood and plastic, including recycled material. Regarded as a very good material for use in the Gulf, but currently has a less desirable image than real wood.

Source: Abu Sharkh General Trading
 

Real wood alternatives

Real woods are not the only possible choices for decking. One alternative that suppliers are hoping will catch on in the region is composite wood.

Made from plastic and wood fibres, composite wood is promoted as sustainable, low maintenance and high performing, even in challenging conditions such as high humidity, UV exposure and splashing of chlorine from pools. The composition varies but the wood is typically made from scrap wood fibres, which are blended with polyethelene and then extruded to form planks of composite material.

"So many companies are trying to develop the market for composite wood," says Rohmix's Scheffer. "This should work perfectly in this climate but still the customer is thinking that traditional wood is the best.

Composite wood for decking has a number of advantages over real woods, according to the suppliers.

One of the main benefits is that it is often made with recycled materials like reclaimed wood and recycled polyethylene, such as that used in plastic supermarket bags.

This is likely to be a big selling point as clients in the region increasingly start to seek out more sustainable, environmentally friendly solutions.

Composite wood is also considered to be easier to maintain than more traditional woods and has a longer life span as it is less likely to experience rot or suffer from excessive fading.

"The beauty of composite wood is that it needs less maintenance," explains Morgan. "Usually it contains UV inhibitors so after a short time, the wood will fade minimally but [it] will then hold that colour almost forever.

Its high durability typically makes it a popular choice in heavy traffic public areas where a hardwearing material is essential, he adds.

Composite wood is also suitable for use in areas with lots of water, for instance, around swimming pools. There is a risk of rot and failure if the wooden understructure of the deck is submerged in water, which is reduced with composite wood because of its plastic component, explains Morgan.

It is also more resistant to the effects of bleaching from chlorine from swimming pool water than real woods, firms say.

One of the drawbacks to composite wood is cost as it tends to be more expensive than real woods. However, firms point out that once the initial payment has been made, composite wood tends to work out the cheaper choice over the long term, particularly for large-scale projects, as it requires less maintenance.

Another negative of composite decking for many clients, of course, is that it simply doesn't have the expensive look or cachet of the real thing.

 

Case study

Al Seef Water Bus Terminal, Dubai

Marina manufacturer Gulf Marinas was contracted to provide docking pontoons at Al Seef, one of the departure points for the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA)'s recently launched air-conditioned waterbuses along the creek.

The firm used 360m2 of Evergrain composite decking from Al Serkal.

Water bus terminals are high-traffic areas and so any decking must be able to withstand both the climate and heavy pedestrian use, Marcus D'Silva, sales manager at Gulf Marinas, explained commenting on the choice of decking.

"The key factor is that the decking is durable. There's no fading or discolouration caused by the excessive heat or sunlight. The decking has been there five months now and we haven't seen any real discolouration," he said.

One consideration that the firm had to take into account when selecting the decking was the distance between fixing points of the decking, he added.

"Regular, standard timber to our specification would be red hardwood from Malaysia," said D'Silva. "Fastening points would be 600mm apart, whereas for this particular timber (Evergrain), we had to space it at 450mm apart because of its flexibility. We also considered expansion of the wood from the weather conditions in this decision, although expansion doesn't happen a lot with composite decking.

Work on the Al Seef terminal project was completed in July 2007. Since the water bus service began operating in August last year, over 20,000 passengers have used the service to travel across the creek, according to the RTA.

In addition to being a stop on two of the main commuter lines, the Al Seef station also serves as a stop on the ‘tourist' line.

Project details

Client: The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA)

Main contractor: Gulf Marinas

Decking supplier: Al Serkal
 

 

Climate considerations

For clients who insist on real wood, it is important to select timber that can perform well in the aggressive, hot and humid climate in the Middle East, firms advise.

"The most important issue is to actually find a product that works here and is capable of withstanding the high temperatures and humidity that we encounter, especially in July and August," says Douglas. "A lot of wood won't perform properly here and needs to be replaced after a short period of time."

Two of the best types of wood, according to Douglas, are grade A teak and pressure-treated pine. These are the most suitable for this climate as they can withstand the humidity, high temperature and air flow, he says.

A typical problem in the Middle East region is the discoloration of the wood that occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun.

"Due to the extreme climate we have here, especially during the summer, all the wood will go grey over a certain period of time and so with outside wood decking you need to re-oil it every six months or so," says Morgan.

Oiling can itself cause problems, however. Some suppliers recommend not to put any treatment on real wood as in the hot climate the oil makes the surface of the wood become as much as 10 degrees hotter than the area around it.

Contraction and expansion of the wood used for decking is another problem that often occurs in the Middle East, suppliers report. "With it being so humid in this region, the wood sucks up the moisture and so expands and contracts the whole time. That's why hardwoods have an advantage," says Morgan.

Fixtures and fittings

Installation is another important consideration when selecting wood for exterior decking surfaces, say suppliers.

"It's a case of not only finding the right product, but of having that product professionally installed. A lot of people say they are carpenters and can do this [fit decking] but they have no experience doing this type of work," warns Douglas. If good quality decking is poorly fitted, then it runs the risk of experiencing the same problems as if it were poor quality wood, he adds.

Hardwoods are particularly suited to the Middle East climate as far as fixtures are concerned as softwoods tend to warp more and work out the screws from the fixings more quickly, comments Morgan.

Future trends

Whilst customers in the Middle East continue for the moment to resist composite wood over its real counterpart, rising prices and reduced availability of woods such as the Burma teak look set to inevitably spur the growth of composite wood as an alternative.

 

The use of alternative decking materials such as wood-plastic composite and plastic will continue to lead gains in the $4.6 billion decking industry in the US over the next few years, further supplanting real wood, business research company Freedonia predicted in its recently released Wood & Competitive Decking report.

As the technology behind composite wood matures and the gap between alternative woods and real wood narrows, it seems that it will be only a matter of time before composite products also start to also enjoy greater popularity in the Middle East.
 

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