Key things to know when you want a deck of the highest quality

A deck is essentially an outdoor room, usually in a space you didn’t previously use. The extra space adds value to your home, but adding value to your life is a different story. A deck has to fit the way you live. And, of course, unlike the other rooms in your house, your deck has to handle exposure to the elements. Here are four considerations that will help you build the deck that best fits your lifestyle.

Lingo to know:
Joists: Structural lumber that supports the decking and runs from beam to beam or house to beam
Beams: Larger pieces of wood or steel that support the joists
Footing: A concrete pier that supports the deck posts. Make sure the footing is below the frost line in your area so it won’t move when the ground freezes.
Grade: Ground level


How big should you make your deck? Consider what you’ll use your deck for and size it to fit your needs. No decking material is completely maintenance free, so making a deck too big will mean spending time maintaining space you don’t use.

Don’t forget the space under your deck, either. Depending on how elevated the deck is, the space underneath can serve as storage. Or, if you include a product such as underdeck in your planning, it can be a shady space protected from the rain.

The size of the deck also has structural implications. Your architect, engineer or contractor should size the beams, joists, and pier footings so that the deck not only meets structural requirements but also feels stable to the people on it. The higher people are off the ground, the less comfortable they will be with the deck moving underfoot.
Also, keep in mind that in addition to increasing the cost of decking materials and labor, adding square footage will increase the number of concrete footings to dig and pour. Oversizing the deck by two feet in one direction may mean an additional row of footings. Discuss the structural implications with your designer so you can get the deck that is the right size for your family at the price that’s easiest on your pocketbook.


How will you access the deck? The more difficult it is to get to your deck, the less use you’ll get out of it. Here, large sliding doors open onto the deck from the interior. A sliding door can be left open if there’s a screen panel in place to keep the bugs out. If your plan calls for patio doors that swing outward, check the bug screen options before you commit. Rolling screens such as those from Roll-Away are an option, as are panels that flap down in place like curtains with a magnet to keep them together.

Stairs can connect an elevated deck to the yard below, but keep in mind that they also provide intruders with access to your second floor, making locks and alarm sensors necessary in places they may not have been before.


What deck material is best for you? If your deck is to be built at grade or on top of a roof, think about whether you will need access to the space below the deck in the future. The deck in the picture is built from modular panels that can be removed for access to the space below. If building over a roof or patio with a slight pitch, adjustable deck supports such as those from Bison can make leveling the deck much easier.

Composite decking, made of a wood and plastic blend, has become popular over the last decade. Although it does not require periodic sanding or sealing as wood does, it is not maintenance free. Mold and mildew can form on it depending on the conditions surrounding the deck, so be prepared to scrub your deck several times a year.

Decking tipsOnly certain species of wood hold up well as a decking material. Cedar and redwood have a natural resistance to the elements. Pressure-treated decking is a soft wood that has been treated with chemicals to make it weather resistant. The arsenic that was used in the past is no longer used, but if you are looking for a chemical-free deck surface, avoid pressure-treated decking. There are alternatives, but the structure of most decks will be built with pressure-treated lumber.

Although wood decking can be left to weather, some people don’t want a gray deck and choose to stain and seal the wood. This prolongs the life of the deck and gives you many color options. Depending on the exposure, staining will need to be redone every two to five years.


What safety features will you need? Unless your deck is built at grade level, you will need to have a railing. There are a few measurements to keep in mind. Limit the space between balusters or horizontal slats to less than 4 inches. This is required by code. Most building codes will allow a railing height to be anywhere from 36 to 42 inches, but keep in mind that a 36-inch-high railing tends to encourage people to hop up and use it as a seat, which defeats the purpose.

In addition to railings made of wood or composite materials to match your deck, glass panels, stainless steel cables and welded metal railings are also popular choices. If you decide on a composite railing to go with your composite deck, see if the distributor of your decking sells a railing kit. The components make it easy to put together an attractive railing.

No matter which railing you choose, make sure it is tied to the structure below and is strong enough to keep everyone on the deck. Steel brackets that bolt the railing posts to the deck joists and beams are usually the best.

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Ross Kennedy
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