Ipe decking is a popular trend in Architecture & Design. However, ipe carries with it several issues that make it a less than ideal choice for building projects. Namely, harvesting ipe contributes to deforestation, and due to the likelihood of illegal logging and forged documents, it is a risky purchase. You can read more about the problems with ipe here.
That raises the question: What should architects and designers do when they need durable, attractive decking? There are several sustainable alternatives that are highly resilient. Here are a few woods to consider using instead of ipe.
Where do the best Commercial Decking Woods Originate
Tropical hardwoods make for the best decking materials. These are hard, dense woods that are water and insect resistant, and able to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations. In commercial decking applications, tropical hardwood can last 20 to 50 years depending on installation, care and level of use. But there is a downside, according to INTERPOL, Illegal logging accounts for 50-90% of all forestry activities in key producer tropical forests, such as those of the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, and 15-30% of all wood traded globally. Meaning, purchasing tropical hardwoods presents real ethical concerns and should only be done with careful consideration.
Reclaimed Teak Decking: A Strong and Beautiful Option
From TerraMai: Reclaimed Teak is a hardy wood that’s great for decking, flooring, or other applications that require resiliency
In particular, old-growth teak from Southeast Asia is globally renowned as the best teak in the world. It’s extremely robust and looks fantastic. Due to the decline in wild teak forests, teak is often classified as endangered or illegal to purchase. Purchasing reclaimed teak is one ethical method of obtaining old growth teak and its one of the best alternatives to ipe decking. At TerraMai, we reclaim teak from vintage buildings in Southeast Asia, and we work to ensure that the wood is milled locally when possible. Our reclaimed teak decking is also FSC Certified Recycled.
Using reclaimed teak helps preserve standing teak forests and gives these amazing woods another lifetime of use and appreciation. It’s an ideal option for architects and designers seeking a sustainable, durable wood. Another teak source is new, fast growing plantation teak but it does not compare in either looks or durability. Above all, reclaimed teak stands head and shoulders above ipe with regard to sustainability.
From TerraMai: Reclaimed Teak Decking at Imagination Playground in New York City
As far as functionality goes, teak can withstand a wide range of environments; it’s been used everywhere from the summery tropics to the arctic tundra. According to the Wood Database, teak is the gold standard for decay resistance. Teak also weathers extremely well and develops a grey patina as it ages. In terms of appearance, it often bears gold, copper, or tan hues with brown or silver grain highlights. The right teak can even visually resemble ipe if that’s something you desire.
From inVOYAGE: The wellness center at COMO Metropolitan Bangkok features teak decking that contributes to the biophilic atmosphere
Cumaru Decking: A Sustainable Ipe Lookalike
From TerraMai: Water Reclaimed Cumaru Decking
If going for a similar look to ipe, consider cumaru. The two woods are so similar that they’re often confused for one another. Like ipe, cumaru is a rich, vibrant wood with reddish brown tones. Cumaru is also durable and weathers well; it’s colloquially called Brazilian teak. Its high density and longevity make it one of the best woods to choose for decking or other intensive structural purposes. It ages almost identically to teak, gaining a grey patina over time if left unfinished.
Cumaru, like ipe, grows in the same Central and South American regions but cumaru can be sustainably sourced. TerraMai’s cumaru is water reclaimed from Lake Bayano in Panama, which has a unique history. It was one of the many lakes throughout Central America that was flooded decades ago for power generation, submerging vast amounts of tropical wood under water. TerraMai salvages the submerged wood, preventing the unnecessary harvesting of living trees and making use of otherwise forgotten timber.
A Final Note on Illegal Logging
Illegal logging destroys forests but it also causes other economic and social problems. Illegal logging pushes down the market price for timber, lowering prices by 7% to 16% according the American Forest & Paper Association. Those following legal forest practices cannot compete and are incentivized to join in with other illegal loggers creating a vicious cycle.
There are social implications as well. Many small communities near the illegal logging locations are taken advantage of with human right violations being recorded. It may be tempting to purchase tropical hardwoods at a low price but one must be diligent when checking the chain of custody certification. Ipe and illegal logging are so intertwined, it’s possible that logging companies are transmitting inaccurate or outright false information to the FSC.
It’s clear that ipe decking is not an environmentally sound option. However, there are sustainably sourced woods that can be use in place of ipe. Reclaimed woods are especially beneficial and prevent unnecessary logging, preserving forests around the world. Reclaimed woods can also comply with many green building standards like LEED and WELL. When choosing a decking material that is optimized for both humans and nature, choose a sustainable option. TerraMai currently offers two reclaimed decking materials, teak and cumaru. Teaser Alert! We are working on sourcing a third reclaimed hardwood decking option. Look for more to come as we get closer to introducing this new option.