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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 added profit.

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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).

Design

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.

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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, location, 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 cleaning maintenance.

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 landscape.

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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 apart.

Materials Matter

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 painting.

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.

Construction Details

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 concrete piers.

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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 service.