endangered species

The trees that yield exotic hardwoods are disappearing fast. Unsustainable forest practices in South and Central America have made such species as Honduran mahogany rare. Teak is listed as endangered, Ipé is becoming increasingly hard to find outside of reserves, and Ajo, Manu, and Peroba Rosa, each incredibly durable and great for decks, have all but vanished, says Steve Brunner, founder of Tropical American Tree Farms in San José, Costa Rica.

It is important, then, to do your research. “We try to align ourselves with importers that take these issues seriously,” Techler says. “We like to know who the contact is, where [the wood] came from, and what the process is for getting it here.” For those reasons, Techler avoids Honduran mahogany.

“We ask these questions [about Ipé] and suppliers tell us it's a re-growth species so there is no threat to the tree, which means that it will not be extinct years from now,” says Eric Barth, an architect with Tom Hurt Design Office. “But sometimes we wonder.”

This gloomy outlook is one reason Brunner established his farm in 1991. The company converted 10 cattle farms—about 12,000 acres—where they plant and harvest a wide assortment of species to sell to furniture designers, cabinetmakers, and architects. The farm is growing Ipé, mahogany, and teak, but the trees are young. “The Ipé and teak are only 13 years old and are not ready to be harvested for decking,” Brunner says.

  • Western red cedar is lightweight and resists moisture, decay, and insect damage.

    Credit: Western Red Cedar Lumber Association

    Western red cedar is lightweight and resists moisture, decay, and insect damage.

Avoiding lumber from too-young trees is also vital. Western red and Eastern white cedars, for example, have traditionally been excellent species for decks. The older-growth heartwood is very resistant to decay, but the lumber from young trees that are harvested too soon has a lower level of decay resistance.

hard costs

Your clients will pay dearly for the benefits of high-grade lumber. Although cedar and redwood are fairly expensive (at about $1.15 to $1.50 per board foot), teak is much pricier, at $8 to $12. “[Ipé] is somewhat affordable at about $2.50 per board foot, which is a quarter the price of teak,” says Barth. But the wood's density makes installation extremely difficult. Finne, who now uses Ipé for about 75 percent of his decks, says installation “increases the cost of labor significantly.”

Architect Ivor Brown applies simple strategies to cut cost. “It matters how much you use,” the principal of Slant Studio in Emeryville, Calif., says. “I like to use less wood and make my decks less bulky.” For example, he'll combine stainless steel and small amounts of Ipé for his rails. The result is a great-looking, long-lasting deck and a small breather for Mother Nature. A win-win by design.