Be it a postage stamp-sized outcropping making use of the last bit of space on a tiny lot, or a multilevel aerie overlooking the ocean, a thoughtfully designed deck is a world unto itself. It's an invitation to the outdoors, a source of sunlight or shade, fresh air and space. It can offer solitude or encourage socializing, or free one from the house while offering quick access to it.
The ill-considered deck immediately feels alien and uninviting; it will sit there unused.
While a developer's cookie cutter deck may not send a zing across a homeowner's heartstrings, decks are popular additions to Southern California homes. "They can expand the living space of the home at relatively low cost," says Greg LeBon, an architect with construction firm Taisei America in Long Beach.
Whether you build the deck yourself or hire a builder to do it, identifying your personal preferences will be the key to its success. "The planning stage is what all too many homeowners" tend to ignore, says Hank Rees, a professor of construction technology at Orange Coast College. "If it's going to be a focal point of your residence, spend the time and money in planning."
Decks can be designed to serve several purposes. One can have a space that's sized for intimacy, and another sized for a party, LeBon says. You can create distinct areas using several levels. An irregular shape can lend visual variety to the deck, and also helps integrate the deck with whatever surrounds it.
A well-crafted deck will provide climate control. It can be designed to trap sunlight, making it warm and cozy, or to provide shade, making it cool. Decide how much sun or wind you want or will tolerate, and how much of each your deck will get. To protect against too much sun or wind, you can use trees, bushes, screens, trellises or a higher deck.
While the deck's orientation to the sun can be important, more often placement has to do with the deck's relationship to the rear yard, says Chad Robert, a landscape architect for Capistrano Gardens Landscape in San Juan Capistrano, adding that "no one has any side yard. We do an occasional front courtyard."
Ask yourself what relationship the deck will have to the rest of your yard. Will children play there? What kind of lighting will you need? Will you want it fenced for privacy, or open to take full advantage of the view? Will you want built-in benches? An eating area?
The various areas of the deck must flow into each other, Robert says. A deck is a static space. By terracing that space, you create dynamic spaces that encourage movement. If you identify the dynamic space needed for traffic flow, you can place the static spaces off to one side where they won't interfere with movement. Railings can also be used to define space without closing them off from the outside or obstructing your view.
On any deck, try to break wide-open spaces up to create smaller, intimate areas. However, breaking up a small deck can create cramped spaces that won't be used.
As you're thinking about your deck requirements, set a budget for the project. This will help you determine which features are most important to you. If you go to a builder, ask for several bids.
While it is uncomplicated compared to the rest of the house, a deck is still a design and engineering feat best left to the experts if you're not inclined to detail work.
For the do-it-yourselfer, a deck is a feasible project. LeBon notes that many of the homeowners who tackle a deck do so with a friend who knows something about building. Decking ideas can be found in many do-it-yourself books; Sunset Books, for example, puts out a series that will give a good feel for what must be done.
Pay a visit to the city or county building department to find out what codes concern decks. The codes tell the builder how much weight the deck must be able to bear. Rails will usually be required if the deck is a certain height off the ground. The deck may have to meet fire and electrical codes.
There are good reasons for meeting building codes, says Floyd McLellan, manager of development services for Orange County. Because much of the county is hilly, an improperly built deck can disturb the stability of a slope and cause it to break away. The county has established depth ratios for the deck's foundation.
Another common problem is that the builder fails to leave adequate clearance between the underside of the deck and the ground. Because this closed area tends to be moist, particularly if it is near a pool, it is a haven for termites, McLellan says.
Builders also have to be able to recognize differential sediment, where the land is "part cut, part fill," McLellan says. Because the fill is softer than the cut earth, a deck will sag if it is not built on the proper foundation.
Builders design from the surface of the deck downward; once you know what will be there, you determine what to put under it for support. (And if your deck is raised, you'll avoid revealing a clutter of uprights.)