Which is best? Concrete, wood, steel, or composites?

We believe that a quantitative analysis of all skatepark material options throughout the total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI) favors concrete over modular materials.

Further, too many skaters, vulnerable to surface inconsistencies due to hard wheels that can be as small as 50mm, have experienced first-hand the unnecessary hazard caused by the seam between the base of modular ramps and the pad it sits upon. This single factor specifically eliminates prefabricated park elements from the list of superior materials. In other words, the use of kickplates on skateboarding terrain elements introduces an increased TCO and diminished ROI and should be avoided. This recommendation encompasses any application of a steel plate to bridge the variance between the slab and the terrain structure regardless of the composition of the structure itself, (e.g., precast concrete, wood, or any number of other materials).

The steel plates favored in prefab to bridge the distance between the structure an the ground is a common source of trouble. While all companies that employ these devices claim to have solved the issues, skateboarders have yet to see any significant improvement.

Modular ramps, (excluding precast concrete structures), in the words of Portland, Oregon’s Noise Control Officer: “are essentially speakers,” broadcasting the sound of skateboarding great distances. By comparison, sound studies of concrete skateparks are shown to emit sounds quantified as “comparable to a conversation between two adults” at just a few meters (Van Orden, et al. 2001). This further reinforces SPS’ recommendation for concrete over all other common materials used in skatepark construction.

Overview of Skatepark Construction Materials

There are several options for those seeking to provide a skateboard park. There are temporary structures, movable or “modular” ones, and permanent skateparks build from concrete. Skateparks today are made from wood, steel, fiberglass, composites (or polymers), and concrete.

The spectrum of materials available fall into two categories:

  • Permanent
  • Modular

Permanent parks are typically constructed from concrete. Modular parks are constructed from wood, steel, fiberglass, and composites, depending on the vendor and quality of the materials. What is the right option for your community?

The “right option” can easily become a topic of subjectivity. One segment of skateboarder might have a preference for a material. Others may weigh the value of the judgment on tertiary factors such as expediency, ease of acquisition, and so on. SPS believes that the best method to make an informed determination is grounded in a time-honored economic principle: Total Cost of Ownership, or TCO.

TCO is the sum of the initial investment plus maintenance cost over the life of the product. For example, a new car that costs $20,000 will seem like a better deal than a similar model at $22,000 until you discover that the $20,000 model requires a monthly $1,000 repair while the more expensive model doesn’t. After 2 years the cars have become the same price, and thereafter the “expensive” car is a better value. The TCO favors the car that is reliable and requires no maintenance.The cost of acquisition may mislead some buyers into believing they are getting the better deal with the cheaper model but the informed shopper comes out ahead when the TCO is understood.

Although many modular vendors promote an apparently inexpensive acquisition cost—a factor they often present in the context of “price per square foot”—SPS has found that these values are inaccurately derived. Many vendors divide the investment cost by the total area of the facility and ignore that they do not provide the flat pad, (or slab), that the facility is placed upon. When the cost-per-square-foot is recalculated accurately by tabulating ONLY the cost of the surface area they are supplying—and excludes the total area of the slab their structures rest upon—the cost of acquisition for modular equipment far exceeds the cost of concrete.

The price of the skatepark may include pre-existing structures. This will have an enormous impact on the "price-per-square-foot" sales message.

What is actually being sold will generally be more expensive than concrete even before considering maintenance expense.

Granted, site conditions and the design of the skatepark will be factors in calculating an accurate TCO. With concrete, as with any new construction, code and procedure must be followed. In challenging situations that require ancillary expenses, such as wetlands mitigation, the cost for concrete can be increased. Prefabricated structures that rest upon an existing slab are not typically required to adhere to the same standards as new concrete construction, particularly if excavation is involved.

Common “value-added” features propagated by modular companies speak to the “modularity” of their equipment and often come with generous warrantees. In a growing number of cases many vendors invalidate the equipment’s warrantees as soon as they are relocated, thereby voiding one of their product’s values when the other is evoked. In several documented cases the prefabricated ramp supplier dismissed damage due to ordinary use as vandalism presumably to void a potentially costly warranty claim. Many cities have complained of poor responsiveness from prefabricated manufacturers or distributors while seeking remediation. Several communities have contacted SPS to solicit advice on repairing their “ramps” when the manufacturer failed to respond to warranty claims. (As expected, if the community were to attempt to repair the equipment themselves, the warranty would be voided.) The drain on Parks maintenance and the impact of closures while the park is repeatedly repaired—in addition to the danger that a skatepark in disrepair presents to its users—must be considered when weighing the practical value of these products.

SPS recommends requiring ANY bidding vendor, regardless of material, to provide several references to cities who purchased their equipment 3 or more years ago. The review committee should evaluate each bidding company on the merits of their service, responsiveness, and the durability of the equipment. A growing archive of photos and video has demonstrated the frailty of modular materials when subjected to everyday usage, particularly in products that feature steel plates that bridge the form to the ground surface, (i.e., kickplate).

For more information on the pitfalls of skatepark warranties see this article from Warranty Week Magazine: