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disruptors

SigmaDEK founder Tory Weber with spokesperson Mike Holmes.

Last September, six people at a Halifax house party were rushed to hospital when the third-storey deck they had been standing on crashed to the ground.

Though a few of the victims sustained serious injuries, there were no fatalities. One look at images from the scene and it's hard to believe the story didn't have a more gruesome ending.

Each summer, millions of homeowners play this version of Russian roulette in their own backyards. A recent Ipsos poll notes that 60 per cent of Canadian homes have a wooden deck, but 25 per cent of these decks have never been inspected for structural safety.

Lack of awareness isn't the only culprit. For homeowners, maintenance costs can leave a sizable hole in the bank account, often forcing them to choose between fixing the deck or the furnace. The furnace usually wins.

Tory Weber witnessed this first hand when he worked the retail floor at RONA Home Centre in Calgary. It led him to found SigmaDEK, a pre-fabricated deck system that seeks to upend the industry by eliminating materials that are subject to decay.

"I could never understand why we were selling all this maintenance-free product [for decks] and attaching it to a substructure that rotted. I spent 17 years on building supplies and I remember selling decks to the same people three times while I was there," Mr. Weber says.

"I got to thinking, 'Gee whiz, if someone could just figure out how to come up with an alternate substructure, railing and stair system, you'd probably have a shot at a good chunk of the market.'"

Mr. Weber worked on his plan for a maintenance-free deck for five years, getting funding from family and investors. "I puttered away at the design and when I thought I really had something, I shared it with some friends. We did the Post-it note on the wall thing," he says, adding that he still keeps some of those original notes on his office wall.

By 2013, Mr. Weber had the prototype for a deck system made of interlocking parts that click together into a finished product within a matter of hours, a kind of "Lego for grownups," as he describes it.

But clever engineering doesn't necessarily mean maintenance-free. It's a big promise to tell a homeowner their new deck will last the entire lifetime of the house, particularly when traditional wood decks are subject to decay.

To offset that problem, Mr. Weber designed a deck with an aluminum substructure that ably withstands rot and warping. Rot, he says, is the main factor behind deck collapses and failures.

Aluminum is not exactly high on the aesthetics list, so the next challenge was to produce a deck that didn't look like the tail end of the Starship Enterprise crashed into the back of the house.

To solve that problem, Mr. Weber researched design trends and found there was market demand for bringing the indoors outside. He chose porcelain for the deck board flooring, mostly because it doesn't scratch or stain and it's water resistant, but also because it looks nice. "The colours pop," he says.

He wanted to test the design, so he hired a helicopter to dump 600 pounds of mustard on the deck from overhead. "That was a fun day," he says.

SigmaDEK's price for customers hovers around $56 per square foot. It's certainly not for the homeowner seeking a cheap fix, but that's not the company's target market anyway. Instead, Mr. Weber explains, the product is aimed at the homeowner who wants to make a proper investment at the outset to avoid spending a fortune in future reconstruction.

"The lifecycle cost is cheaper because there's no maintenance throughout the life of the product," he says, noting the recycling value from the aluminum alone will net the homeowner around $2,000.

Since SigmaDEK's launch in the market last June, Mr. Weber has landed some pretty lucrative partnerships, including one with Home Depot, which rolled out his product in all its stores across the country. An interactive kiosk describing SigmaDEK's system to potential customers does the job Mr. Weber once performed on the sales floor. He says the kiosks alone have resulted in more than 1,000 new calls per week.

The product has even received a celebrity endorsement from HGTV Canada's do-it-yourself guru Mike Holmes, who agreed to represent SigmaDEK after some initial resistance.

"He's tougher than a $2 steak, that guy," Mr. Weber says with a laugh. "He said, 'you send a deck out and I'm going to let it weather over the winter, throw stuff at it and if I like what I see in the spring we'll chat.' We ended up putting together an agreement with him."

Mr. Weber is betting that homeowners who see Mr. Holmes on his kiosk will think twice before opting for a cheaper solution. After all, they won't want to end up like the hapless homeowners who have appeared on Mr. Holmes' programs over the years, lamenting the fact that they cut corners and ended up with a home reno disaster.

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