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March 05, 1989|JOHN O'DELL | Times Staff Writer

A deck, in Southern California home improvement parlance, most often is a redwood structure hanging off the second floor of a home or cantilevered out over a hillside.

A patio, on the other hand, usually is a flat concrete slab at ground level.

But it doesn't have to be so.

A deck can be built just about anywhere a patio can be poured, and the warmth and texture of wood, combined with its relatively easy maintenance, makes a wonderful replacement for concrete.

And for the do-it-yourselfer, a ground-level deck isn't all that difficult or expensive to build.

When Michael and Lois Mirkovich moved from a tiny Balboa Island apartment to a 1,200-square-foot condominium in Irvine's University Town Center, creating an outdoor area was a priority. They wanted to extend their space for entertaining, exercising and relaxing, and provide a clean, safe place for their son, Adam, to play.

The two-bedroom condo had only a small rear yard--no hillsides and no upstairs family room to give access to a second-floor deck.

Still, the Mirkovichs, neither of whom was enamored with concrete, decided to install a wooden deck. They just put it where most people put a patio.

The result, after six weekends of work: a beautiful herringbone-patterned redwood deck-cum-patio, fitted neatly into a pocket of yard framed on three sides--by the window wall of the living room, the sliding glass doors of the dining room and the stucco fence that separates the Mirkovichs' back yard from the neighbor's. The deck extends out an additional 6 feet into the main portion of the rear yard, giving it an overall dimension of 12-by-16 feet.

Michael Mirkovich, an attorney, decided to tackle the project himself because he enjoys working with his hands.

He had learned construction skills when, after graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a master's degree in social ecology, he was recruited to play water polo in Australia for the University of Queensland club team in 1976-77. "I played water polo for free," he recalls. "They got me a construction job to pay the bills."

But almost anyone who can swing a hammer and handle a power saw can follow the Mirkovichs' example and build a lasting and good-looking ground-level deck.

The 12-by-16-foot deck described below will cost between $1,000 and $1,200 to build yourself, which is competitive with the cost of hiring a contractor to put in a standard concrete patio. "And aesthetically, it is so much nicer," Mirkovich says.

Not only do the wide, "V"-shaped herringbone pattern and the warm reddish color of the wood give the deck a level of character that few concrete patios can match, it also wears well.

Wood doesn't crack or chip at the edges like concrete. And Mirkovich avoided a common deck maintenance problem by refraining from painting or staining the deck. Instead, he applied clear water seal to each board before fitting the pieces together. All he does to keep the decking looking its best is to swab on a new coat of water seal every 6 months--a process that takes less than 2 hours.

To keep the deck level with the floor of the house and still avoid the rotting and warping that will occur if wood is placed directly in contact with the earth, Mirkovich built it on a series of prefab concrete piers with mounting brackets for 4-by-4s. After installing the piers, he laid a layer of plastic sheeting on the ground to keep weeds from growing and to serve as a moisture barrier.

To avoid attaching the deck to the house so there would be no building code problems and no chance of water running indoors, Mirkovich built it as a free-standing structure.

Here's how you can do it:

(Because building codes differ from city to city and the characteristics of each project can vary widely, use these instructions only as a guide, making sure your project complies with your local building codes.)

The Foundation

1. Instead of fastening a portion of the framing to the walls or foundation of your house, install prefab piers so that the mounting brackets are about 4 inches from the wall. Set them so only an inch remains above ground. If your lot slopes, adjust the depth at which the piers are buried so the exposed tops are level. The distance between piers should be 5 to 6 feet. A line level, attached to a length of heavy string that is fixed to the house at floor level, is the best device for leveling the piers. A slight slope away from the house will keep rain water from running inside.

2. Cut treated fir 4-by-4s to the appropriate length. Measure the distance between the ground and the level of your home's floor, subtract the 1 1/2-inch thickness of the decking boards and the distance the piers extend above ground level.

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