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A raised deck with covered table and seating area.

Location


A good place to start is by surveying potential locations. Note existing elevations, property setbacks, soil conditions, views, and sun, shade and wind conditions. Consider that if the deck will cover vent pipes and electrical and plumbing outlets, access panels will be required. Before construction begins you’ll also need to address any repairs to foundation cracks, drains and other infrastructure that will be covered by the deck.

Functional seating area on a deck.

Functional Requirements


After choosing the deck style you prefer, list all of its functional requirements. These include areas for seating, barbecuing, a hot tub, a children’s play area, etc. For each function, define the number of likely users and the required support facilities. If you’ll be doing a lot of barbecuing on the deck, you’ll want that area positioned away from doors and windows due to smoke and smells. You might also want to have refrigerated storage and a water supply. A hot-tub area requires extra structural support, plumbing and electrical services, non-slip decking and privacy.

Also consider the deck’s multi-purpose capacities. These include a storage area underneath, provided the space is water proof and there is enough height clearance. A free-draining deck where the surface water escapes through gaps creates a shady, moist area below where weeds will proliferate. A thick plastic sheet or weed barrier covered with stone mulch should help combat them. Another option is to design bench seating as banquettes to provide increased storage. Finally, I’ve seen instances where hot tubs are designed with track-mounted roll-out decks for quick conversion to entertainment space.

Two wagon wheels act as a boundary between the deck and the garden.

To avoid conflict between the various functions, ensure there is ample circulation space, especially around the barbecuing area. Placing the seating around the deck’s perimeter helps free up space. Having a number of door openings from adjacent indoor rooms also greatly improves deck circulation. One of the most critical access ways is from the kitchen to the outdoor dining/grilling area.

Elevated deck with narrow design.

Size and Shape


A common criticism I hear is that the deck was built too small and requires an addition. To avoid this, measure the size of the furniture and other items the deck will accommodate. Accordingly, ensure you leave expansion space free of trees, walls or other constructions that would be costly and difficult to remove.

The deck’s shape is also a critical consideration. For visual harmony, the shape should be influenced by the outline of the adjoining house and the shape of the adjacent lawn, pool or flower beds. You can angle the deck to direct the visitor’s eye to various focal points in the garden.

A fenced deck with an accessible ramp.

Safety


There are numerous ways to ensure your deck is safe for users of all ages. Consider splinter-proof surfaces, child-proof barriers at steps and ramps, and secure covers for barbecues and hot tubs. Ensure the furniture is weighty enough to resist wind uplift. Also, the importance of proper lighting for evening use cannot be stressed enough.

A gazebo attached to the end of a deck.

Integration with the House


Installing French or sliding glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows enhances views and integrates the deck with indoor rooms. Extending floor patterns, colors and materials from the indoor rooms to the deck serves the same purpose. Also consider placing art work, wall sculptures and ironwork that is similar to that found in the house on outdoor walls facing the deck. Overhead structures such as pergolas, arbors and awnings that are connected to the house and span the deck should mimic the pitch of the roof. Such structures require professional input regarding weight and structural implications. To integrate detached stand-alone decks with the residence, create connecting paths using the same materials as or complementary materials to those used for other garden paths and patios adjacent to the house.

To visually integrate multi-level decks, handrails serve the purpose. The rails should be wide and strong. The area below the top and bottom rails could be translucent panels, plastic-coated wire mesh and cables, steel rods, wood balusters and other materials designed to maximize views to the garden. Confirm that the selected material meets applicable codes and meets the needs of small children.

Container plantings border a deck.

Integration with the Garden


This can be achieved in numerous ways. Urns, planters and water tubs located on the deck should contain the same types of plants as found in the garden. These along with decorative panels, planted lattices and screens can be used to divide the deck into secluded sections, screen objectionable views and provide added privacy. Skirt or flank plantings around the deck should be wide enough to be seen from a standing position on the deck. Taller plants such as delphiniums, lilies, Russian sage, coneflowers and the taller ornamental grasses help achieve this.

Sometimes homeowners save a mature tree by building the deck around its trunk, while leaving sufficient room for it to grow. Such trees provide a link to the surrounding landscape and much-needed shade. If the tree dies, its trunk can be recycled as support for a table top. Deck cut-outs, which work well in checkerboard-patterned decks, can accommodate a cistern-style fountain or rock feature similar to one found in your garden. Wide steps with low risers help merge the deck and garden more effectively than narrow, steep steps. Cantilever decks can extend over part of a koi pool, which creates interesting views and a sense of mystery as the fish disappear under the deck.

A house with several decks

Materials and Construction


Before starting construction, confirm whether a building permit is required and if any codes and regulations apply. When it comes to the building material, you’ll want to know its strength, longevity, ease of construction, warranties, cost and availability. Also check the material’s specifications for resistance to staining, warping, splintering, denting, rot, mold and insects.

A deck is an integrated construction that also involves footings, posts, beams, joists, handrails, steps, overhead structures, fasteners and accessories. Color coordination of the various exposed elements and compatibility with the adjacent house is crucial. Fortunately, specialized outdoor deck paints and stains and materials with permanent colored coatings are easy to find these days.

For many years, decks were primarily constructed of cedar and pressure-treated lumber, and to a lesser extent steel, concrete and tile materials. More recently, recycled synthetic, composite wood and plastic materials are being used. These newer materials are increasingly popular because of their wood-like appearance and the variety of colors available. Visit your local building supplier and talk to experienced deck builders to learn more about these and other materials.

Elevated deck with a gazebo at the far end.

Complex deck projects such as elevated and multi-level decks and those with overhead structures or cantilevered decks over water usually warrant the services of an architect, landscape architect or engineer who specializes in such projects. You’ll also likely need an experienced contractor to build the deck.

As a prestigious addition to any house, a deck adds valuable and functional outdoor living space. It’s an asset your family and guests will enjoy for many years.

Text by Frank Kershaw

Photos by Marnie Wright

Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience. He teaches garden design and horticultural courses at George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario, and at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Frank is also a presenter at the Lee Valley seminars at the Toronto stores.

Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over 30 years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.

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