Building Better Decks, continued
Let there be light. In
recent years, local building departments have begun to require
safety lighting for exterior stairs. This hasn't posed any
problem for us, because we've always offered and recommended a
lighting option (Figure 3). We use low-voltage Hadco sconce and
step lights (Hadco, 717/359-7131,
www.hadcolighting.com) that we build into
the stair risers and mount on the rail posts. This makes the
deck a much more pleasant place to be after dark, and it's a
huge selling point for us, as well as an important source of
Figure 3.Built-in lighting adds after-dark
atmosphere and improves safety. Low-voltage sconces are
installed in the deck posts (left), and step lights in the
stair risers illuminate the treads (right).
To be truly functional, an outdoor deck should be no smaller
than 450 square feet, with a minimum dimension of 12 feet deep.
We try to keep lumber waste to a minimum by sizing our decks in
even 2-foot increments, but we don't hesitate to deviate from
that if it will result in a better-proportioned space.
Principal activities. In
planning a deck, we consider the three activities that decks
are most often used for -- socializing, barbecuing, and eating
-- and provide a distinct area for each. The socializing area
should comfortably accommodate a few chairs, a lounger or two,
and maybe an umbrella table. The minimum area I allow for this
is 12x12 feet. An eating area, which will include a larger
table and at least four chairs, also requires a minimum of
12x12 feet (Figure 4). The grill area requires at least 50
square feet. Anything smaller than these basic requirements
compromises the comfortable enjoyment of the space.
Figure 4.The three primary uses of a deck are
socializing, cooking, and eating. Each activity should have its
own space. Comfortable socializing and dining areas require at
least 150 square feet each.
Let it flow. It's important
to place the deck stairs where traffic between the house and
yard won't pass directly through any of those three areas. In
most cases, placing stairs at an outside deck corner will
create a diagonal flow across the deck, resulting in an awkward
division of otherwise usable space. It's best to keep steps as
close to the entry door as possible. If elements of the house
or landscape make that difficult, I center the steps on the
deck. A nominal 4-foot-wide walkway across the middle of a
16x28-foot deck will still provide comfortable 12x16-foot areas
to either side.
location. An attached deck built in the wrong place is
destined to go unused. Placing the deck up against the home's
breakfast and family areas makes it appealing and easy to use.
Ideally, the location will allow indoor and outdoor activity
and entertaining to flow seamlessly together.
Not always on the sunny
side. The best side of the house for a deck isn't always
the sunniest side, and sun isn't always the owner's objective.
A screened-in area on a deck provides a pleasant, shady outdoor
entertaining area, free from bothersome insects. It's best to
attach the screened area to the house and provide direct access
from indoors. An attached screened porch also creates the
illusion of greater living space, even though it's technically
not counted as part of the home's overall square footage.
Mature trees can be a nice source of shade, but they also have
some drawbacks. A tree-shaded deck soon gets a stained and
tired appearance as sap and pollen deposits take their toll.
Where this is likely to be a problem, I recommend a darker
decking color to help conceal any discoloration and reduce
On the other hand, a dark surface on a sunny deck can become
uncomfortably warm underfoot. In that case, I recommend a
lighter-colored surface. Composite decking lumber is available
in various shades to help accommodate those situations.
Hugging the ground. Because
leggy decks with exposed posts tend to look unfinished and less
secure, we keep our decks as low to the ground as possible. If
the landscape falls away from the building, forcing an elevated
ground-floor deck, a skirt enclosure or latticework helps to
visually anchor the deck. If the deck will be located above a
walkout basement -- especially one that provides finished
living space -- enclosing the base usually isn't an option. We
sometimes extend the outdoor leisure space to both levels by
installing a stone patio or ground-level platform below the
main deck level and connecting the levels by steps, landings,
and walkways (Figure 5). Again, the design goal is to ensure
that the deck completely integrates the house and
Figure 5.Enclosing the base of a deck with
paneling or lattice provides a ground-hugging look and prevents
it from appearing spindly. Where an elevated deck is located
above a walkout basement, substantial support posts help
provide a solid feel.
Paint and stain. A glaring
design defect of the average deck is that it's built of
pressure-treated lumber and simply left to weather. Meanwhile,
the house to which it's attached has painted trim, siding, and
other architectural embellishments. From the start, the deck
looks like a crude alien growth, or a burr hitching a ride on a
helpless host. Extending the house trim color to the deck's
perimeter, step risers, and railing system helps to integrate
deck and house, creating a more refined look. We apply two
coats of oil-based stain to all exposed wood surfaces. Few
builders actually enjoy painting, and it certainly complicates
the building schedule, but it adds to our profit; plus, it
leads to referrals because it really sets our decks
Composite decking is our standard surface, and of all the
options Trex is our favorite product. Because composites are
perceived as a vast improvement over common pressure-treated
decking, this choice sets up the basic expectation that we
offer a better-quality product than other deck builders in our
area. Specifying premium materials also allows us to increase
our markup per square foot. For framing material, we use .40
pressure-treated No. 2 lumber, including double 2x10 or 2x12
girders, 6x6 structural posts, and 2x10 joists.
Self-cutting ceramic-coated screws speed assembly of railing
systems and trim pieces. The reversibility of the screws allows
us to fit many of the components, then disassemble them for
I save a lot of money by purchasing all of our standard
hardware in bulk -- including nails, screws, bolts, joist
hangers, and post bases -- and maintaining a steady inventory.
We buy our millwork, post caps, lighting fixtures, screen
doors, stain, paint, and even skylights the same way. At the
beginning of each week, our eight field crews stock up on
supplies at our warehouse before heading off to their sites.
That way, there's no time wasted on long trips to the
lumberyard for small but essential items.
Before we break ground for the footings, we assemble the deck
framing on temporary support posts (Figure 6). This allows us
to use a plumb bob to accurately position the anchor bolts for
the permanent posts, which are supported by 18-inch-diameter
Figure 6.The basic frame of the deck is assembled
on temporary posts placed where they won't interfere with the
permanent posts (top). The site for each footing is determined
with a plumb bob, and the holes are dug by hand (above left).
Once the concrete piers have been finished flush with the grade
and drilled to accept an expansion bolt, the posts are fastened
to post anchors with a palm nailer (above right).
The piers themselves are poured directly into hand-dug holes
that have been widened at the bottom to increase the bearing
surface. (The rocky, clay-bound soil in our region provides the
only form needed.) The piers are filled flush with the ground
surface, making them inconspicuous. Although the code allows
buried lumber posts on concrete pads placed below the frost
line, I've seen plenty of rotted posts pulled from the ground
-- even pressure-treated posts -- after only 15 years in