I've been running a design/build construction firm specializing in
oceanfront custom homes since I received my degree in architecture
in 1990. Like most builders, I may take prospective clients to see
homes I've designed and built, but I don't often get a chance to
evaluate how the buildings are performing in service. There are
times when I wonder, "How is that deck down by the bay doing?" or
"How are the gutters on that house holding up?" So, recently, I
took part of a day to inspect the exterior details on one of my
earliest projects, located in a particularly exposed area.
Built in 1994, this house is surrounded by sand dunes on a barrier
island, with the ocean to the south and a saltwater bay to the
north. To capture a 360-degree view of the water over the high
dunes, we built a rooftop deck of mahogany, suspended over a rubber
membrane roof. On the side facing the ocean, the building has a
two-story elevated deck; part of the top-story deck is framed as a
stacked double cantilever that supports a large hot tub.
After 14 years building waterfront homes, architect/builder
Andrew DiGiammo took an inspection tour of one of his early homes
to see how the materials he had chosen were holding up.
The structure was ambitious, particularly for me at the time as a
relatively new builder. And the exterior finish materials face
especially rough weather, with salt winds from every direction,
lots of sun and rain, and seasonal freeze/thaw cycles. After more
than a decade under intense conditions, I was eager to see how the
materials I had chosen were performing.
In general, I was satisfied with what I found. Some of the finishes
would have benefited from a little routine maintenance, and in a
few cases I could have selected more appropriate hardware. But the
structure was in excellent shape, and even natural wood that had
not been maintained was mostly in good condition. A few items did
take quite a beating, however — providing a reminder that the
coastal environment is not a gentle one.
This house was one of the first buildings in which I used treated
engineered wood (Figure 1). The entire house is built on a
framework of preservative-treated Parallam girders (www.trusjoist.com),
supported by concrete piers resting on isolated pad footings. Posts
for the second- and third-story decks are also treated Parallam
(continuous 6x6s that run the full height). After more than 10
years in the weather, all the Parallam timbers are in prime
condition — they look as good as new.
Figure 1. The author was happy with the
performance of preservative-treated Parallam girders and posts,
connected to concrete piers with custom-fabricated galvanized steel
anchors (left). But he noticed accelerated corrosion on some of the
nails used to fasten joist hangers in the treated sawn-lumber deck
I used custom-fabricated steel anchors to connect the Parallam
girders and posts to their concrete piers. The anchors were
specially ordered from a steel fabricator (any good steel shop can
supply this type of thing). They are made of 1/4-inch steel plate
bent into a U shape; the steel was bent and holes for carriage
bolts were drilled before the pieces were sent to be hot-dip
We embedded the anchors into the wet concrete when the piers were
poured, then we drilled the wood members and bolted them in place.
Posts and girders are suspended above the concrete pier, providing
an air gap to keep the wood dry (we set a Simpson Strong-Tie
standoff post base under each post, to act as a spacer). When the
bolts are torqued tight, the contact area between the U-shaped
anchor and the wood member develops a significant amount of
friction, which combines with the bolts themselves to support the
post or girder. More than a decade later, not one of those joints
has budged, and the galvanized anchors don't show any sign of
deterioration. I'm very happy with the performance of this design
I'm not quite as happy, however, with the condition I noticed in
some of the hangers and fasteners we used to assemble the treated
southern yellow pine deck framing. In a few cases, the crew
apparently used nails that were not compatible with the galvanized
joist hangers. When dissimilar metals are brought into contact in a
moist environment, one metal can attack the other — a process
known as bimetallic galvanic corrosion (Figure 2). This phenomenon
is worse in a saltwater exposure than in conditions of regular rain
or dew. Using regular roofing nails or common framing nails for
hangers is a common practice but not a good idea. Not only is the
connection weaker, but the nails rust more quickly and will
eventually need to be replaced. Whenever you use framing connectors
or hangers in an exposed coastal environment, it's important to be
especially careful with fastener choice. In the case of decks, I'd
advise builders to ask the manufacturer of the hangers to specify
and supply the appropriate nails — and the crew on site, in
turn, has to understand why it's important not to substitute
Figure 2. If dissimilar materials meet in the
presence of an electrolyte (which can be moisture in the air or
rainwater), galvanic corrosion occurs. Saltwater is an electrolyte
supreme, so wherever salt spray and constant moisture exist, the
process of galvanic corrosion is accelerated. The farther apart two
metals are from each other on the scale, the faster the
deterioration will be.
Wood Shingles and Clapboards
I used cedar wood without any paint or coating for this home's
siding and roofing (Figure 3, page 4). The roof is shingled with
western red cedar, and the walls are shingled with white cedar
(which grows in the Northeast). The rooftop deck's parapet walls
are sided with red cedar clapboards.
The white cedar wall shingles, in general, are doing fine. They've
weathered to varying shades of gray, but they're still doing their
job and will last for a long time.
Red cedar is a more durable species than white cedar, and the
shingles on this roof are also bigger and heavier than the ones on
the walls. However, the roof shingles have a rougher exposure than
the wall shingles — they're in a more horizontal position,
where they get direct rain and sun and can accumulate debris.
They're now supporting growths of algae, lichens, and moss,
particularly in the lower-slope and more shaded areas.
We're also starting to see some fastener failure on the red cedar
roof. We used galvanized nails to attach the shingles, and the same
natural chemistry that makes red cedar resist rot is mildly
corrosive to galvanized nails (and much more to ordinary steel).
One photo in Figure 3 shows a missing roof shingle, and you can see
how the fasteners in the newly exposed area are rusting. Code in my
area now requires stainless-steel fasteners for red cedar roofing
applications, but even before that code change, I switched to using
stainless-steel nails for fastening all naturally rot-resistant
wood. In fact, we now use stainless-steel fasteners for all
exterior siding or trim, as well. (You can see why if you look at
the stainless-steel nail heads in the parapet clapboards in Figure
3 — the cedar is gray and weathered, but the nail heads are
Figure 3. Red cedar roof shingles have
collected dirt, algae, lichens, and moss over the years (top left).
Vertically applied white cedar shingles on the wall look cleaner
and newer (top center); both types should be cleaned periodically.
Galvanized nails used to attach the roof shingles have been
attacked by the corrosive chemistry of the wood (top right) —
the author now uses stainless-steel nails for all cedar
applications, as he did on the parapet clapboards (bottom right).
Lead flashing has had a partial protective effect on the top course
of red cedar roof shingles (bottom left).
I'm not as concerned about this red cedar roof's condition as I
would be if it were the primary roof of the home. In fact, the
entire lid of the house is wrapped in rubber roofing membrane
— the projecting mansard overhangs with their shingling are
there to shelter the walls and to protect the rubber roof from
sunlight. This roof has no leaks, and won't have any, whatever
happens to the wood shingles.
Generally, an owner will get better performance out of a wood
shingle roof if the roof is cleaned every two years with water and
a cleanser that kills algae and fungi. If owners don't want to take
that on, you might want to steer them toward metal or composition
Natural Wood Decks and Rails
I used a mahogany decking on all the decks, and red cedar for rails
and balusters (Figure 4). All that wood is still in good shape, but
the mahogany was not my first choice. As I recall, we used it at
the time because the owner had gotten a good deal on this lumber
and asked us to use it. I prefer to use ipe (sometimes called
Brazilian walnut) for natural wood decks. In my market at least,
ipe seems to be a more consistent product, and very weather
Figure 4. Naturally rot-resistant cedar rails
(above) and mahogany decking (bottom) have performed well, but the
author notes mahogany can be inconsistent, depending on the variety
and on the presence of sapwood rather than heartwood boards in the
Not that some mahogany isn't durable — if it's the right kind
of mahogany, and if it's all heartwood rather than sapwood. The
problem is that there are hundreds of species and subspecies of
mahogany and no real grading system for them, so you don't know for
sure what you've got until you break open the bundle. In my
experience, the heavy pieces are heartwood, but lighter boards may
be sawn from less durable sapwood. On this deck, I noticed that a
few pieces of exposed decking here and there were darker than the
others, apparently because they were holding water — maybe
because they're sapwood, or maybe just because of the grain pattern
from sawing. Down the road, some boards in this deck may need to be
The rooftop deck on this house is designed for ease of repair,
however. As I mentioned earlier, the roof under the deck is a
rubber membrane. The deck itself is built in sections, with pairs
of joists suspended from parapet walls at both ends of the house
and in the center. If the rubber roof ever needs maintenance, the
strips of decking over the joist ends can be pulled up, and each
section of herringbone deck can be lifted out as a piece.
Paints and Finishes
The trim on this house is red cedar. We primed it with Cabot's
Problem-Solver Primer (oil based) and applied two topcoats of
Cabot's acrylic solid stain (www.cabotstain.com). It's a good combination:
While the paint in some areas has collected some dirt and grime, it
is still adhering well, and there is no bleed-through of
extractives from the cedar (Figure 5).
Figure 5. The author has gotten good
performance from Cabot oil-based primer and acrylic solid stain
(top). In a few places, staining from galvanized nails has bled
through (middle photos), and the underside of one clogged Douglas
fir gutter has lost its paint (bottom).
I did see a ring of discoloration around some nail heads on some of
the stained trim. I think this is caused by the slow breakdown of
the galvanizing on some nails. The trim nails were set and puttied
over; oxidized galvanizing can't get through the putty, but it
bleeds to the edge of the putty and comes up through the stain.
Here again, stainless-steel nails are a better choice: They won't
break down and create that staining effect.
Stain did fail under extreme circumstances in one area, at the end
of a gutter. I use Douglas fir gutters on most of my houses,
treating the inside of the gutter with linseed oil and priming and
staining the outside. We line the very ends of the gutters with
copper, where they meet the leaders. The downspout in Figure 5 had
been clogged for some time, allowing water to pool at the low spot
for extended periods and to overflow and flood the underside of the
gutter during rainstorms. Eventually, the coatings on the gutter's
underside gave up. This system does need to be kept clear in order
to work properly, but the fact that the rest of the gutters on the
house are still in good shape indicates that the stain job is not a
The owner of the house has tried a clear urethane varnish on the
deck railings and parapet caps, with mixed results (Figure 6).
Although the wood in both areas is holding up fine, the
film-forming finish doesn't last. In my experience, there is no
clear finish that will hold up on a horizontal surface in the
coastal environment — sun, rain, and salt air destroy them
all. I recommend Messmer's deck cleaning and deck stain products
(www.messmers.com) to my customers for use on
horizontal surfaces. But while the products work well, they're not
permanent: Messmer's recommends using the cleaner twice a year, and
reapplying the deck stain every one to three years.
Figure 6. Periodic cleaning and re-staining is
the only finish solution for these deck railings and parapet caps:
Although the bare wood holds up, no film-forming clear finish can
last long under coastal weather conditions.
Doors and Door Hardware
On the ground level of this house in the back, I used a standard
steel entry door with a push-button combination lock (Figure 7).
The door shows some rust, and the lock is tarnishing. Fiberglass
doors are clearly more durable in the coastal environment.
Brass hardware on some French doors upstairs is tarnishing badly,
especially the exterior levers. The entry latch set in Figure 7 is
standard door hardware and, as you can see, isn't designed for the
beach environment. Andersen and some other door makers supply
upgraded hardware for severe exposures; these days I always order
the tougher hardware and go with the white-coated variety. I
haven't found any brass hardware that keeps looking good on a beach
house over time.
Exterior accessories like light fixtures, vent caps, hose bibbs,
and the like have not had an easy time of it on this house (Figure
8). The low-voltage downlighting fixtures in the soffits, for
instance, are corroded. Lighting suppliers don't have many products
rugged enough for this environment, but plastic fixtures hold up
much better. In general, I like to use "remodeling fixtures"
designed to be snapped in and out rather than fastened to the
building structure. When they deteriorate, the fixtures can be
easily replaced. I also try to use plastic fixtures whenever I can,
to eliminate the metal altogether.
Figure 7. Doors and hardware take a beating on
the beach. A steel door shows rust (middle) and its pine jamb has
deteriorated (top left), while a hardware-store storm-door closer
is rusting badly (top right). Standard brass door hardware is
tarnished and pitted (bottom photos). For beach construction, the
author recommends ordering special hardware designed for extreme
The hose bibb in Figure 8 is in good shape, but the screws holding
it have rusted. This may be another case of bimetallic galvanic
corrosion; by experimenting with different screws, we might find
one that holds up better here. Two exhaust vent caps are also
rusting badly; those just have to be replaced.
Figure 8. Recessed lighting fixtures tough
enough for the beach are scarce, so the author uses "remodeling"
fixtures that are easily replaced (top). Replacement may also be
the only option for this rusting vent cap (middle left) or for
rusting screws on a hose bibb (middle right). Galvanized caps
terminating metal-and-asbestos fireplace vents have also rusted
(bottom), but a stainless-steel boiler-vent cap is in good
On the rooftop I found an interesting contrast in the performance
of vent terminations. Galvanized caps for the metal vents for two
zero-clearance fireplaces were rusting badly, while a
stainless-steel vent for a gas burner was in good shape. Evidently,
galvanized metal isn't sufficiently protected for this environment
— wherever possible, you have to use stainless.
There are all kinds of specialized products for home exteriors, and
they all have their pluses and minuses. But it's good to know that
we can build a working house on the beach with simple, basic
materials: Treated wood for exposed structures, naturally durable
woods for siding, roofing, or decking, painted natural wood for
trim, and galvanized or stainless steel for fasteners. With
attention to construction detail and with a reasonable amount of
routine maintenance, simple beachfront construction can last a good
Andrew P. DiGiammo is a registered architect and custom
builder. He runs Master Builders, Inc., based in Assonet, Mass.
Photos by Ted Cushman.