Outdoor Living: Decks

Decks are relatively quick to build, and innovations in materials mean less upkeep and more years of enjoyment

By: Gretchen Cook

Floating Rooms

More than 30 million American homes have decks, and demand is growing. There are always innovations—such as planks that stay cool on hot days—and designs can match almost any house style.

Decks offer one of the best returns on your home-improvement dollar—as much as 100 percent.

A deck is a relatively quick and simple way to get more use from your property—and to add a wow factor. “It’s a much bigger idea than a patio,” says Hyattsville landscape architect Sandy Clinton. “If you float a deck above the ground—either four inches or eight feet—it’s a very different feeling.”

Do It Yourself?

A small deck for basic use is one of the easiest home projects. That doesn’t mean everyone should try it. Professionals know how to avoid mistakes as well as where to find the latest designs, materials, and techniques.

Stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have tutorials on their Web sites (lowes.com and homedepot.com), and how-to computer software is available; examples can be found at decksusa.com, punchsoftware.com, and homedesignersoftware.com.

Most homeowners hire help. Professionals use computer-drafting programs that give virtual tours of the plans, from how the deck will look to where the sun will shine.

General contractors can usually cover all of the construction and design bases, but businesses that build decks exclusively sometimes have advantages in experience and material sources.

“A simple deck is not rocket science, so people think anybody can do it,” says Cliff Whitmer of Whitmer Decks in Burke. “But then the contractor will just abandon the job because it wasn’t as simple as he thought. It’s a nightmare because nobody wants to take over a job that’s gone bad.”

You can find deck builders through associations such as the North American Deck and Railing Association (nadra.org) and the National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org)—but verify them independently, as membership doesn’t necessarily ensure quality.

The Better Business Bureau gets a lot of complaints about deck work. That may be because the construction boom has prompted more inexperienced builders to try their hand at jobs and because the building industry is prone to scams.

The best advice is to look at completed projects; start by asking friends and neighbors. Also check the builder’s insurance—liability as well as workers’ compensation—along with warranty policies and lien waivers. (Subcontractors and suppliers can issue liens against a property if the contractor fails to pay them.) Ask whether the builders will obtain the required permits—this usually also indicates they’ll build to code.

A project that’s more elaborate or requires special attention to the home’s character may call for an architect as well as a contractor. Because the outdoors is their turf, landscape architects may have an edge over regular architects in adapting the project aesthetically and proportionally.

Landscape architect Sandy Clinton says the most common mistake is building too small: “Anything outdoors needs to be bigger than what you would imagine. Space outside is diminished by the environment around it. A 10-by-12-foot deck can look like a pimple.”

Listings of architects are available at the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects (aiadc.com) or the American Society of Landscape Architects (asla.org).

Heavy-duty plans may require an engineer. A rooftop garden, hot tub, or staircase, for example, could call for a load-bearing assessment and reinforcements. Check with the Alexandria-based National Society of Professional Engineers (nspe.org) for information and referrals.

Price for a deck ranges from $18 to $25 a square foot, though high-end projects can cost more than $30 a square foot. Elements that increase cost the most include stairs, which are more labor-intensive, and trim (railings and posts). Projects needing extra structural support may also cost more.

Most decks are relatively quick ventures. Whitmer says a simple job should take a week; something more elaborate may take up to three weeks. The biggest timing challenge often is getting it started when contractors are in such high demand.

“If you want a spring deck to enjoy for the season, sign up in January,” Whitmer says. Builders who schedule jobs sequentially rather than simultaneously are more likely to get the job done fast.

Wood and Beyond

Synthetics are being touted as the solution to high-maintenance, warp-prone wooden decks. They’re more expensive than wood, but manufacturers say they’re stronger and easier to care for. The price gap is also narrowing as lumber prices rise.

Despite high demand, material costs have remained surprisingly steady overall, according to Stoney McGowan of Smitty’s Building Supply in Manassas. He says a two-by-six-inch 16-foot plank of wood runs $23 to $27; composites and vinyls are $32 to $55.

Wood: Wood is still the most popular and least expensive material. It’s versatile, as it can be stained or restained any color. “Wolmanized” pine—the term for pressure-treated lumber injected with a preservative and fungicide—has been the most popular for years. It’s the cheapest wood option and requires the most maintenance.

Higher-grade woods such as red cedar and redwood are more resistant to rot and insects but are pricier and usually used for accents such as posts and railings.

Newest on the market is ipe, a dense tropical hardwood harvested from sustainable forests, mostly in Brazil. It’s the strongest and most durable decking wood and generally comes in a rich brown with hints of red and amber. While lower-grade woods need stripping, cleaning, resealing, and sunscreens, ipe needs only an initial sealer on its ends and will usually last about 20 years, McGowan says.

Composites: Engineered or composite lumber is making strides. It can achieve a woodlike effect that’s authentic enough for many purists and contemporary enough for modernists.

Manufacturers say composites wear better than wood and are virtually maintenance-free. Composites, often made from waste wood and recycled plastics, are also environmentally friendly. Some are smooth on one side and imprinted with a grain on the other and can suit a variety of styles.

Construction with composites can be costlier, but it’s also easier because the material is flexible and more uniform than wood. It can look sleek thanks to invisible fasteners or more ornate because there are more pattern options.

Whitmer says about half the decks he builds are composites. He has just replaced his own wooden deck with a composite called EverGrain, which he likes for its natural-looking grain.

Vinyl: Like composites, vinyl decks are more durable and expensive than wood. Made from polymers, they’re not subject to mold, rot, and warping, which can plague the wood particles in composites.

It’s the most lightweight option, but the look is less natural, and styling options—colors and grain patterns—are more limited. That can be good for contemporary looks, especially those that forgo the wood look altogether with concretelike tiles rather than planks.

Some homeowners are using slate, shale, and even granite tiles for deck floors, though they’re the most expensive option and can have weight and cracking problems.

Time will tell if composites, vinyls, and other “miracle” materials stand up to claims. The composite Trex has been around 15 years and is still a top seller. The maker has made changes to the product and has switched its ten-year guarantee to 25 years. Early on, “there were all kinds of problems,” says Whitmer. “Nothing can replace real-world testing, and as the composites are out in the world longer, we’ll learn more about how they will perform.”

Problems such as fading—though most claim to be “colorfast”—may be hard to fix since synthetics can’t just be resanded and restained. Some composites may get hot if exposed to direct sunlight all day, though some stay cool. And even the most authentic wood look-alikes can’t fool purists.

“Up close, it looks too phony for me,” says Frederick contractor Doug Horsman. He says one composite made from recycled grocery bags looked even worse when it started to wear. “You could see it was made from grocery bags.”

How to Show It Off

Ideas about where a deck should go are getting more creative. It may be convenient to have it near the kitchen, but a freestanding deck in a corner of the property can provide more privacy and design flexibility than one attached to the house. A small outdoor space off the bedroom can add romance—or provide a haven.

Roof decks aren’t just for urban dwellers. Almost any flat roof, or one with a very low slope, can be covered with a wooden platform. Access and safety are the biggest challenges. A roof deck usually requires breaking through an exterior wall, and adding a door may complicate an inside design scheme. Erecting a staircase around the outside is an option. Often, exchanging an existing window for a door is the best approach. Doors must be well above the deck’s floor level to prevent leaks, and that can pose a problem if the ceilings are only standard height. Railings and other structural elements may have to comply with special safety codes.

Multilevel and wraparound decks give the illusion of more space by creating separate “rooms” for fireplaces, built-in barbecues, and hot tubs. Steps, partitions, and complex board patterns can add special dynamics, as can gazebos and arbors.

Railings, balusters, and posts are using stylish aluminum, glass, and steel. They’re going high-tech, too: Azek—a high-end synthetic trim material with a semimatte white finish and crisp edges—gets raves from Stoney McGowan: “It’s beautiful. It can be 100 degrees and it will actually stay cold.”

Permits and Rules

Deck building codes address everything from railings—gaps usually may not be more than four inches wide—to load capacity, beam and board dimensions, and joist spans. Zoning rules can dictate a deck’s location, the minimum distance between it and the property lines, and the height and size of the deck and privacy screens. Sometimes the appearance must be approved.

All of these rules and regulations are specific to your county or other jurisdiction—a good reason to get the builder to obtain the permits.