As a design-build firm, we are constantly focused on the integrity of the materials we use as well as the sustainability and the longevity of those materials when determining what to use to achieve our design objectives because we know we have to be able to build what we’ve designed.

Steel trellis alternative to wood trellis for outdoor use
Steel trellis construction with end caps

With modern style homes, clean crisp lines are an important part of the aesthetic. When you have exterior architectural elements such as trellises, you want them to have the same linear quality as the rest of the design. You could consider using wood slats for these types of structures. Sure, wood looks amazing when it is first constructed,but with time and exposure to the elements, wood typically begins to warp and the finish fades. Wood is a beautiful material that is impossible to replicate. Wood provides a warmth, texture, and natural feel that simply cannot be stamped out in the factory. We often use wood in the interior for these very same reasons. Some synthetic materials such as Trex try to emulate the look of natural wood, but it always leaves something to be desired.

What’s a good alternative to wood for outdoor structures?

Steel is a great alternative to wood to achieve those very straight lines that will hold up over time and not change shape. The construction cost of using steel is more expensive than wood, but not by a considerable amount. Steel also has the added benefit of far less cost for upkeep. Wood requires a lot maintenance–the need to constantly refinish and replace the wood slats can be costly overtime.

The key, is to have someone who is skilled at steelwork. This is especially important when you do not want to detract from the structural shape with weld marks or an uneven finish. We use hollow steel tubing on our steel structures. Each steel piece gets attached by welding it to the support. Steel also has the added benefit of being able to make longer spans before needing a support or connection point. With wood, the slats need be supported at much more tightly spaced intervals to avoid immediate bowing and warping.

Installation of the steel enclosure for the outdoor seating area and firepit at the Joffrey Residence
Installation of the steel enclosure for the outdoor seating area and firepit at the Joffre Residence

You obviously can’t replicate the look of wood with steel, but you can make the material choice ambiguous when you are initially looking at it. We ensure that the welds are small enough or grinded down in order to minimize them. Also, at the ends of the steel tubes we cap them with steel, and weld, grind, and sand them down to make a smooth square end. After all steel is assembled, welded and sanded to our desired level of finish, we prime the steel in order to prevent rusting.

There are many uses for this technique. Here are two recent examples:

At the Joffre Residence, our original concept was for a trellis/slate cube that enveloped a fire pit seating area. The objective was to have clean, perfectly straight lines of slats that sunlight could filter through in the day and we could use light at night to illuminate between slats. We decided to use a warm brown color that complimented the warm tones of the Mangaris wood deck. As a result, we are constantly asked how we got the wood to be so straight, which we then explain that it is not wood at all, but steel!

Outdoor conversation lounge with firepit contemporary moden design
Firepit seating area with wood alternative steel trellis–finished at the Joffre Residence

At the Sunset Residence we used this technique on the lattice of the entry, the master trellis, the outdoor dining trellis, and the trellis over the outdoor kitchen and barbeque area.

Steel trellis over outdoor kitchen and bbq area
Steel trellis over outdoor kitchen and bbq area. Sunset Pacific Palisades
Steel trellis over outdoor dining area on Sunset Boulevard
Steel trellis over outdoor dining area on Sunset Pacific Palisades

Have you had unexpected experiences with wood products? Have you considered using steel for your next project? Send us your feedback.