Some home improvements are demanding not because of the large amount of work or the high cost but because of the numerous design choices that must be made. Building a deck is a good example; creating a structure intended for recreation and relaxation, limited only by your imagination, may tax your creative powers.

When trying to choose the right deck design, focus your process by asking a few key questions. An examination of your existing situation will reveal challenges and opportunities that shape what kind of deck you build.

  • Will your deck be used for entertaining? If you plan to invite the neighborhood to a deck party, you’ll need sufficient space—room for guests, a grill, a table, and perhaps a bar as well. A roomy, ground-level platform deck should be both large and safe enough for all invited. Stairs leading down to the backyard will allow the party to spread out further.

  • Is privacy a priority? Without a fence, hedge, or other barrier between you and your neighbors, it may be difficult to find privacy, even on your own deck. However, there are several ways you can transform the structure into a more discreet retreat. First, consider a raised deck built off the second story, which will make you a little more aloof in addition to improving the view. Latticework panels or a privacy fence integrated into the deck can further increase the levels of peace and quiet.

  • How much sun should your deck get during the day? In the US, a southern exposure often guarantees maximum sunshine. However, if you live in a region with sweltering summer temperatures, you may want to limit the amount of sun your deck receives. Keeping in mind that shade patterns are seasonal, study the levels of sun and shade in your yard during the times of the day when you would be most likely to use your deck. If the planned building site seems too sunny, you may be able to relocate to a spot where the house or trees cast a few shadows. If not, an umbrella or awning over your deck is an attractive and cost-effective way to shun the sun.

Deck Height

Decks can be low to the ground or raised to accommodate a steep yard or provide second-story access. Connecting decks of several different elevations with stairs is also an option.

  • Platform decks. Built low to the ground, usually on level lots, platform decks are generally expansive and safely able to accommodate a lot of guests. A low platform deck may also be the best design for parents of young children who might find a way to thwart safety railings.

  • Raised decks. If the first level of your home is above grade or if you have a steep backyard, a raised deck may be in order. A raised deck is also the obvious choice for a deck built onto the second floor; if your lot is flat, you could even add an under-deck patio below. Of course, reliable railings are a priority, as is maintenance that will ensure your raised deck remains sturdy for years to come.

  • Multilevel decks. Several platform decks, each at a different level, can be connected with steps to create a more engaging outdoor living space. Different levels can even be dedicated to different aspects of an outdoor gathering, such as grilling, mingling, or playing board games.

Other Design Characteristics

Looking at well-executed examples of decks is the best way to generate ideas. An experienced contractor can contribute by showing you examples of his or her own work. Far from being utilitarian platforms, you may be surprised at the design elements decks can incorporate.

The direction of the planks is one often-overlooked feature that can bring a great deal of dynamism to a deck. Aligning the planks at right angles or parallel to the edge of the house is fine, but installing the planks on a diagonal is generally much more visually interesting.

Rather than being a simple square, your deck could have curved sides. Although installing a curved rim joist—which involves making small cuts called kerfs into one side of the board to make it more pliant—might be too advanced for a do-it-yourselfer, a professional contractor will be able to handle the task without any problems. The final effect of a deck with curved sides will be to create a transition between the straight lines of your house and the more natural contours of your backyard.

Finally, remember that no deck is truly complete without some creative landscaping. Design your deck while keeping in mind which plants you’ll install to add shade or decoration. An outdoor lighting system can also make your deck beautiful and usable at night.

Making the Deck a Reality

When it’s time to move from the conceptual phase to something more concrete, drawing may be helpful. Measure the dimensions of your house and backyard, and then use graph paper or a ruler to make a proportional drawing of the area. Make the drawing large—perhaps using a one-inch-per-foot scale—so that you can demonstrate your proposed design in detail. Your contractor can elaborate on the design and eventually use the site plan to apply for a building permit.

Clearly, there are many design decisions that go into creating a deck. However, they’re easy enough to handle; you can get ideas by determining the main function of your deck, examining your existing backyard, and even sketching a scale diagram of your vision. Throughout the design phase, consult with a reputable contractor, whose years of experience may be your biggest asset.

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Sources:The Chicago Sun-Times; EBSCOhost Home Improvement Reference Center: Complete Guide to Decks and Home Planners Outdoor Living; North American Deck and Railing Association.

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