The substructure of a deck is the heart of its durability and the foundation for its aesthetics. Until recently, wood has been the go-to material for builders, contractors and architects. However, as professionals are increasingly switching to steel for its superior structural integrity and design flexibility, steel deck framing is poised to be the next big thing.
Exterior structures must withstand much harsher environments, which is why steel deck framing intended for the outdoors is triple-coated—first with a layer of hot-dipped galvanized coating, then with a layer of baked-on prime coat, and finished off with a layer of baked-on exterior high-performance polyester coating. It all adds up to an unparalleled level of protection surrounding a carbon steel core, ensuring each critical joist, beam and ledger connection holds up to the elements and to daily wear and tear for decades.
Steve and Brucie Schneider, TrexPro deck builders in San Rafael, CA., are the most prolific users of Trex Elevations steel deck framing in the West. Since they began advising clients to choose steel deck framing as a replacement for pressure-treated wood two years ago, they have built dozens of decks using Elevations framing. The innovative and creative options steel offers makes the product their go-to choice.
Elevations “allows you to create designs that are time-consuming if you tried it with other materials,” says Steve Schneider. Chief among them, curves. “We do lots of low-level decks, close to the ground. We do long curves that meander with the landscape. Steel deck framing opens up the design possibilities.”
Schneider also likes that he can easily use the steel material in ways that aren’t deck-related, such as in the construction of low-level retaining walls, flower boxes and landscape walls. The steel framing system reduces excavation time and allows builders to create longer cantilevers—saving time, material and labor costs. Because of its lightweight nature, the material is less physically taxing on the carpenters and is especially beneficial when used for high-reaching structures.
Admittedly, the switch from wood to steel framing is an adjustment for contractors who have dealt solely with wood substructures for decades, but many contractors are surprised at just how easy it is to work with steel.
“I like working with metal—it’s all straight and each piece is the same,” said Mike Schmidlin, a general contractor from Los Gatos, CA. “Every time I pick up a piece of wood I’ve got to look at it five different ways to see if I’m going to use it; how I’m going to use it; is it bent, bowed, cracked, curved, cupped, twisted; does it have a big knot in it—all that’s eliminated with steel deck framing because every piece is exactly the same.”
For other contractors, the results alone are enough to convince them to scrap wood altogether.
“I’ve been in the industry for 25-plus years and have used just about every new product that has come on the market to ensure my customers are getting the best products available,” said Robert King of NW Quality Remodeling & Decks of Snohomish, WA. “Steel deck framing has exceeded my expectations so much that I would like to switch over to it completely. Both the look it provides from below on second-story decks, as well as the stoutness it lends to overall projects, has been met with great praise from homeowners, which will only increase the demand for it in future builds.”
With superior durability and aesthetics, steel also offers the following benefits:
- Stability – Traditional framing can split, warp and shift over time, leading to an uneven surface in the deck boards above. Steel deck frames are precision engineered to ensure a refined, flat surface for the life of the deck. They also are significantly more resilient to weather, moisture, time and pest deterioration.
- Design flexibility – Steel beams have the ability to be bent and shaped to allow for everything from curves and angled corners to extended cantilevers. Additionally, they are more lightweight than wood and can span up to 15 ft. (vs. 10 ft. for wood), resulting in the need for fewer posts and greater flexibility in post placement. This creates less obstructed views and more open space below the deck for storage or even additional outdoor living area.
- Safety – A substructure is the platform that will support your deck—not to mention your friends, family and loved ones—for decades of outdoor living activities. Steel offers superior strength and longevity, is non-combustible, termite-proof, and free of pressure-treated chemicals.
- Eco-friendly – Steel deck frames are made from recycled materials, and can be recycled themselves.
With its ability to prolong the life of a deck and improve its overall appearance, steel deck framing delivers performance and design benefits that others simply can’t. It’s a smart investment for any homeowner looking to maximize the life of their deck and a great product for architects looking to deliver decks that will maintain their beauty and performance for years to come.