Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Designer Decks

Thinking of building a deck or expanding an existing one? Your timing is right. Today’s decks are often larger and more customized than ones built even just a few years ago. Not only is there a broader choice of decking materials, but you can also take advantage of increasingly popular design elements such as a recessed hot tub, a brick or terra cotta fireplace or firepit, an outdoor couch or even a full-fledged outdoor kitchen. A new deck designed to comfortably accommodate your family’s lifestyle outdoors is a deck well done.

Over the past couple of years, several trends have emerged that make new decks more exciting and user-friendly than ever before, including freeform deck shapes, tiered decks, the increased use of low-maintenance materials such as composites and exotic (tropical) woods, and more built-in furniture, including benches and end tables made from the same material as the decking. 

Locating Your Deck
One of the most important decisions a homeowner needs to make when planning a deck is where to put it. Location criteria include the sun/shade factor, easy access from the house and traffic flow, as well as ensuring privacy and maximizing views from the deck. For some families, situating the deck for optimized sun at desired times overrides other considerations. For example, you might choose to locate the deck so you can use it to enjoy sunny breakfasts and shaded dinners, regardless of how far it’s located from the kitchen.

New Decking tends to include free-form shapes, multiple levels and built-in benches made from the same material as the decking.

Photos courtesy Trex
Commonly, decks are located just outside the kitchen, the dining room or the family room. A wraparound deck can offer easy access and traffic flow from two or more rooms.

Multiple-level decks, which transition across grade changes, are becoming very popular. Even if the difference between the levels is just a couple of feet, this design element can make even rectangular decks more inviting, as well as more functional by creating several distinctive user areas. The use of walkways to connect segments adds interest and accommodates obstructions, such as trees or bushes near deck space.

Another growing trend is the inclusion of a ground-level patio accessible from the deck. The patio can serve as an additional seating or gathering area.

Homeowners are installing larger decks in order to accomodate pools and outdoor kitchens and fire pits.

Photos courtsey Fiber Composites.

Sizing Your Deck
Today’s decks are built in just about any shape that can comfortably hold tables, chairs and other outdoor furnishings. However, homeowners should consider a number of factors when determining the size and shape of a deck for a specific location.

“For custom decks, design should take into consideration whether your family is linear and likes 90-degree angles or would prefer sweeping curves and interesting shapes,” explains Mike Reeder, owner of Archadeck of West Columbus, Ohio. A national network of custom-deck designers and builders, Archadeck currently consists of about 80 locally owned and operated offices in 31 states. “Too many angles can make a deck too choppy, and too many curves can interfere with functionality,” Reeder adds.

Experienced deck builders generally will have portfolios of finished decks, which can help you visualize what your deck will look like if you decide to deviate from neat and square.

Photos courtesy Trex

It is important to build a deck large enough to be useful, points out Garland Gravely, president of Gravely Enterprises, a patio and deck builder located in Clemson, S.C. At a minimum, a deck should extend 10 feet out from the house to ensure adequate space for a dining table and chairs, while a distance of 12 to 16 feet out from the house will provide additional entertaining space and make the homeowners more comfortable, he notes.

To gain more square footage, rather than extending a deck beyond about 16 feet out, Gravely recommends “increasing the [deck’s] width along the house,” which will result in a better utilization of the added space.

“Installation of outdoor fireplaces generally increases the size of the decks,” notes Mike Beaudry, executive vice president of the North American Deck and Railing Association, located in Quakertown, Pa. “Whereas the average deck used to be 16 by 20 feet [about 320 square feet], homeowners are now frequently installing decks in the 500- to 700-square-foot range, so they have enough space not only to grill and eat but also to soak in that hot tub, lounge under the pergola and enjoy the glow of a firepit that, in warmer weather, might even convert to bubbling rocks.”

Pergolas create dappled sunlight and shifting shadows throughout the day.

Photos Courtesy Archadeck
Decking Materials
There’s a broader choice of decking materials than ever before, ranging from familiar materials like pressure-treated yellow pine and natural early-weathering woods to exotic hardwoods from Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, and composites that look like wood and require little maintenance.

While pressure-treated pine is still the number one product used for decking, primarily because of its relative low price, other options are gaining in popularity. Just a few years ago, composite materials, usually made from recycled wood fibers or sawdust mixed with resins, were used to construct perhaps a quarter of new decks, but in some markets composites are now used to construct 40 to 60 percent of new decks.

Composites look and feel like natural wood but don’t have to be stained or treated with preservatives like natural wood. Unlike most woods, which expand and contract in response to moisture cycles, composites only minimally do so. Composite decking will not rot, because it doesn’t absorb water. And options in colors and textures are expanding. While the most popular color is gray, followed by cedar redwood, new tropical colors are gaining ground. Composite decking can also be manufactured in custom colors.

In addition, skilled installers can bend and shape composite decking to create distinctive curves and patterns that would be difficult to achieve with wood. For example, composite planks can be bent into wavy patterns, curved to form borders or even shaped to resemble leaves or similar designs.

When used for decks, exotic (imported) woods are long lasting (25 to 40 or more years), resistant to splintering and naturally resistant to decay, fungus and burrowing insects. They’re also generally very dense and hard, so they’re more difficult to drill into, resulting in a labor-intensive installation process.

Tropical woods are often rich in tone, and will weather naturally with no need to apply preservatives. “They age well and take on a nice patina [over time],” says Stacy Shamblin, owner of Archadeck of Austin, Texas. “If you prefer to keep the wood at its original natural color, you can use penetrating oil such as Australian timber oil every so often.”

Ipe is one of the most common exotic woods used for decking. In its natural state, its color is somewhere between golden russet and reddish brown. Other hardwoods used for decking include Tigerwood, which is light brown to reddish brown in color with brown and black streaks; mahogany, which is knot-free and has a tight grain; and Angel’s Heart, a yellow- or tan-colored wood with dark red and brown vertical grain running through it.

Other woods used for decking include cedar and redwood, which are domestic rather than imported. Western red cedar in particular is well known for its ability to resist decay for decades. In addition, it neither shrinks nor swells appreciatively as the weather cycles through dry and wet periods, so there’s a lower likelihood of splitting or of big gaps opening up between planks.

Most deck designers recommend subdued lighting for decks.

Photos courtesy EverGrain Decking/TAMKO Building Products

Railings and Lighting
Homeowners also need to consider the deck railings. Wood pickets of about an inch and a half in diameter are traditional, but some homeowners opt for custom alternatives that create a sleek or airier look. Options include railings with clear or tinted glass balusters (the vertical supports), which allow unobstructed views for those seated on the deck, and decorator aluminum balusters, which give the deck a more architectural look.

Other railing choices include stainless steel cables that run horizontally between wooden or aluminum posts, and glass or acrylic panels set between posts that, themselves, can be topped with glass post caps. White vinyl railings, which are low maintenance and will not chip or peel, can work nicely with wood or composite decks.

And don’t forget lighting for safety and atmosphere, and to extend usability past twilight. Low-voltage lighting is easy to install. Popular types include under-rail lighting strips, step lighting and lamps atop stairways or railing posts. Dekor, for instance, recently introduced its Millennium recessed LED light kits for rails and steps, which help improve deck safety.

If the deck includes a pergola, you can suspend a pendant or chandelier for general illumination. Most deck designers note that it’s important not to overdo deck lighting. Subdued illumination usually casts the right light.

Fencing on the side of a deck near a hot tub affords privacy from neighbors or the street.

Photos courtesy Archadeck

Outfitting Your Deck
Around the country, between 15 and 30 percent of new decks include hot tubs. Because they are usable year round — the water heats up to 105 degrees — it’s a good idea to locate the tub near the door to the house. Immersing the sides of the hot tub into the deck about 15 to 20 inches enables the top ledge to serve as seating and provides an easy way for people to sit down, swivel around and get into the water, rather than having to climb over the whole three-foot depth or step down into a completely recessed hot tub. That height also prevents accidental falls into the tub.

If you need to include privacy screens or fencing on one or more sides of the deck near the hot tub to block visibility from neighbors or the street, including cutout patterns in the fencing will help avoid a closed-in feeling.

You can install a fully functioning outdoor kitchen, either L-shaped so the cooking unit is away from the house or as a freestanding island. A full complement of components can include a grill or cooktop surface, a stainless steel refrigerator and a counter with a sink, drawers and waterproof storage, and even a pizza oven or wine cooler. Noncombustible precast concrete pavers designed for installation on decks in front of the cooking area can easily wipe clean of dripping grease or food particles.

A retractable or fixed awning or canopy can shade the food-prep area, while a pergola creates dappled sunlight and shifting shadows throughout the day. An outdoor radiant heater that warms the air with infrared energy and runs on propane or electricity is an increasingly common way to extend both the evening hours outside and the outdoor cooking/eating season.

Finally, if the budget allows, you may want to add a weatherproof outdoor LCD TV (yes, that’s an emerging category) and a music system, creating an outdoor media room. Indeed, when it comes to today’s decks, the sky really is the limit.