How do we get from “here”—a bare backyard—to “there”—a successfully completed deck project that accomplishes the homeowners’ design goals? Simple … we ask the homeowners for their guidance.

One of the lessons I learned in my career at America’s DeckBuilder, the company I founded in 1999, is that homeowners usually know what they want, even if they don’t know how to articulate it. The trick is to ask the right questions, and learn how to read your clients’ cues.

...and After

Start With a Checklist

Information gathering should start with the first phone conversation. My company developed a simple checklist that we used to collect not only the contact information of a prospective client but also basic details about their project goals.

One of our first questions was to find out whether there was an existing deck. If there was, we asked if the caller wanted to replace the deck, or if they were simply looking to resurface it. If the latter was the case, we politely declined the job. In our experience, it wasn’t profitable to try to bring existing framing up to code and make it safe.

We also wanted to know if the prospects were interested only in PT wood decking, or if they were willing to consider manufactured decking. To help them get focused, we would ask them if they had done any research or seen any decks that had inspired them. In addition, we wanted to know whether the deck would be elevated, which would open up more material and design options for our clients.

Finally, we noted how the clients found out about our company. Knowing whether they found us on the internet, through a referral, or through advertising helped give us a better idea of where to target our future marketing efforts.

There is probably software or an app that helps collect and organize this information, but it’s not necessary. Our system wasn’t fancy: We wrote the information on graph paper, which we could add to later as we learned more about our client and worked on their design.

Schedule an Appointment

When setting up appointments for my first site visits, I wanted to make sure that all of the decision-makers would be present. Sometimes, a husband or wife would make the initial contact, saying, “My spouse asked me to meet with you first.” While I tried never to make assumptions about partners, I always explained that I would be providing a boatload of technical information at our meeting, and I needed both partners to hear my presentation and be able to ask follow-up questions.

I also tried to schedule times when there would be as few distractions as possible. I like kids, but I always tried to meet parents when their kids were otherwise occupied.

Even before meeting up personally, I was on the alert for red flags. The first one was any mention of the word “budget.” I didn’t consider myself a budget-priced builder, and I wanted to make sure the visit would be worth my time. It’s important to know what your niche is.

Another red flag was the desire to save money by using PT decking. There are valid reasons for choosing PT wood over other types of decking, but saving money isn’t necessarily the best one, after factoring in maintenance costs and longevity and measuring anticipated resale value. Homeowners who were simply looking for cheap weren’t our kind of customer.

The First Site Visit

When I first arrived at a potential client’s house, I tried to make a good impression. Some might argue that showing up directly from the jobsite wearing jeans and a T-shirt covered in sawdust screams “authenticity.” I think showering, shaving, and wearing clean clothes—perhaps with a company logo that matches the logo on your vehicle—screams “professional.” I wanted prospective clients to trust me and to think of me as their deck expert.

I made it a point to be on time and to come prepared with a good tape measure (I left the ratty ones on the jobsite), 1⁄4-inch graph paper, an architect’s rule, and some pencils so that I could sketch out designs right there.

Of course, I also brought along a laptop with pictures of our work. To make it easier to find specific examples, I arranged the pictures by subject (for example, railings, skirting, lighting, stairs, and the like) in separate folders. I also kept product samples in my vehicle, so that clients could actually see and handle them.

The Consultation

Keeping track of important client information on 1/4-in. graph paper allows you to also quickly sketch out the home's critical dimensions and even a preliminary deck design during your initial client visit.
Keeping track of important client information on 1/4-in. graph paper allows you to also quickly sketch out the home's critical dimensions and even a preliminary deck design during your initial client visit.

I liked to control the “job interview” by having our conversation outside where the deck would be located and by asking lots of questions. While taking measurements and jotting down notes, I “grilled”—in a friendly way—the homeowners about the size of their family. I also asked if they liked to entertain, and if so, I asked about the size and frequency of their parties. I wanted to know what the neighbors were like, too, to find out if privacy would be an issue, or if they were trying to preserve the view.

While listening to my clients’ answers, I also tried to read their reactions and interactions with their spouses. People don’t always say what they’re thinking, and if I sensed a disconnect, I’d follow up with additional questions.

Meanwhile, I would take reasonably accurate measurements of the back of the house, noting elevations and major features that I would sketch out on graph paper. I then would use the clients’ answers to my questions to draw a preliminary design following my general principles of traffic flow. At this point, I wasn't too worried about nailing all the details, and I continued to take notes for later reference.

Sure, it looks nice...but dividing this small deck into two separate spaces with an awkward step makes it less functional, especially when traffic flows right through both areas.
Sure, it looks nice...but dividing this small deck into two separate spaces with an awkward step makes it less functional, especially when traffic flows right through both areas.

Boiling Deck Design Down to the Basics

When I designed a deck, I liked to break down the process into three basic components:
• Aesthetics
How will the deck look?
• Economy
How much will it cost?
• Function
How does the deck work?
How does traffic flow?
Where does everything go?
In my initial designs, I always focused first on function and the way people would use the deck, knowing that cost and appearance would later play a role in my customers’ final decisions. My goal was to include both traffic routes and static areas, where relaxation could happen without interruption. Whenever possible, I liked to route traffic flow away from the middle of the deck and along the house or towards the perimeter of the deck. If there were deck furniture or a grill or cooking area, I made sure these areas didn’t interrupt the flow of traffic. If there were stairs, I located them against or near to the house and oriented them so they led toward a destination, such as a basement entrance, a pool, the driveway, a play area, or even nearby woods.

Unless I was designing to fit specific deck furniture or a feature such as a hot tub, I never split elevations on decks with less than 500 square feet of surface area. This may look good on paper, but in practice, the split level sacrifices function for aesthetics.

It's easy to sketch out different options while discussing the design with the homeowners and taking plenty of notes.
Once the design is finalized, it's possible to draw up a construction plan based on the field notes.

I also strove to minimize waste in my deck designs. For example, if there would be a picture-frame border, I sized the deck so that it measured 20 feet 10 inches wide instead of an even 20 feet, allowing me to use full 20-foot deck boards within the border.

Typically, I would be able to sketch out a basic design during our first meeting, using my clients’ reactions to that sketch to either modify the initial design or to totally start over. This is when we would talk more specifically about materials, railings, lights, and other features that would have a major impact on the appearance and cost of the project.

From before...
The homeowners should be involved in every step of the journey, from first sketches to the completed design. After. Try to involve the homeowners in every step of the design process by asking questions and listening closely to their answers.

Before leaving, I would have a pretty good idea of what the final deck design would look like, and have sketches and notes on my original contact sheet to complete the working drawing back in my office. Later, I would schedule a follow-up meeting, when I brought my soon-to-be new customers wine or beer and something for their kids, which always made it easier for them to sign the contract so that we could get started on building their new deck.