Question from Jeremy - Backyard Living


"My wife and I love to host backyard BBQs in the summer and want to add a deck to the backside of our house for entertaining. I drew up a plan but don’t know what to do next."

Answer from Ross Sanders:

Hi Jeremy!

Adding a deck is a great way to expand your living space and enjoy the wonderful climate we live in! Before you embark on building, here are some things to consider:

First of all, be aware that building a deck will likely require a building permit; the determining factor is often height of the walking surface above adjacent grade. If it is over 30”, you will likely need a building permit. You may also need a zoning permit so you should check to see if your house or condo is governed by any CC&R’s (Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions) or any other guidelines that limit what you can build. Be aware that zoning requirements may limit the size or location of the deck; in some places a “permanent” deck may be built in a property line setback; in others it may not be allowed.

The size and complexity of your deck will affect more than just cost. Multi-level, raised (10’-ish) or spa-supporting decks may require full-blown engineering from a licensed engineer. Simpler decks can usually be designed according to a prescriptive guide available from your local jurisdiction. This document will describe footing sizes and depths, allowable spans, joist sizes, railing and step design, etc. They are very helpful, even to us architects.

There is a fun side to the design, though, and this is where you should dream big! Don’t be afraid of curves, openings, kooky stairs with sitting places, planters and other “custom” features. Check out some of the amazing stuff on-line for ideas - Houzz and Pinterest are a good place to start!

Choosing your materials is vital. Looks are important, but weather resistance and structural stability are arguably bigger issues. Luckily, there are products available today which balance great looks with exceptional performance… at a cost. Let’s look at a few common materials and their pros/cons:

1. Softwoods: Fir and Pine are cheap, readily available and can take paint or stain to provide reasonable performance at the lowest cost. Be aware that any wood in contact with the ground will need special treatment; ideally pressure-treating or similar. They may also be prone to splintering, especially during fastening. Cedar (e.g. Western Red Cedar) is a wonderful choice, with natural decay resistance and good looks. It tends to silver with age even with sealing, and as you might expect, is more expensive than other soft woods.

2. Hardwoods: Hardwoods tend to be more attractive, but also tend to be significantly more expensive than soft woods. Mahogany can be a fantastic choice as it has natural resistance to rot and pests, and can be stained or sealed to retain its color. Teak is similarly blessed, but both come at a high price. Ipe is a current favorite, and it is easy to see why! It has beautiful color and richness, resists rot and pests, and is so dense it even resists fire relatively well. An ipe deck using hidden fasteners can really make a statement! It can also make a dent in your wallet. With a wood, especially exotic hardwoods, be sure that your source is getting the wood from a sustainable source (not a rainforest). Look for FSC certification (Forest Stewardship Council) labeling to be sure.

3. Synthetic: There are plastic-based & composite products (like BearBoard, Evolve, Trex) which are designed to be rot, splinter and pest resistant, are pre-finished and readily available even in longer lengths. Cost can be an issue, but long-term durability and reduced maintenance make them attractive even if their looks don’t. They are definitely worth a look before you start loading your truck with ipe.

Of course there is no need to just stick to these materials. Maybe you want slate or another stone product on your deck, just be aware that you’ll want to beef up your structure and provide a sub-floor. Be creative! If I had my way, I’d be out building a deck of broken hockey sticks right now!

Go have fun.

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