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What's Up Magazine

Composing the Perfect Deck

Jan 12, 2011 05:31PM ● By Anonymous

So, take your time and, as you compose, consider carefully your deck’s location, materials, form, and response to your home’s architecture and landscape. Don’t forget to think about its height, views, exit, and entrance, and what happens to your deck as the sun travels across the sky. How these facets interact will define your deck’s cadence and its song, whether bluegrass, jazz ensemble, Bach fugue, or your own improvisation.


Start your masterpiece by answering some basic questions: how do you plan to use your deck? Do you plan casual gatherings with family and friends, cooking and entertaining on a larger scale, or a partyland for the kids? Do you want to create a simple retreat or perhaps an area with a little of everything? If so, your deck may include a broad expanse for socializing and, for quiet moments, a pergola, gazebo, or "bump out" such as an octagon for eating or relaxing.

Next, focus on location. Often, because of your lot size or setbacks, you must work with what you have. Many people choose to build a deck outside of a kitchen or dining room. However, before deciding, check out the weather conditions during all seasons. If your deck gets only shade, you will not use it as much. Or, if it gets too much sun, you will avoid it. The best decks are sited where they take advantage of all outdoor conditions, instead of succumbing to them, says deck specialist Tom Silva, contractor for the popular design television show This Old House. He suggests that you choose a location that gets sun and shade at different times during the day. He explains that decks that wrap around a house corner usually provide cool air movement even in hot weather as well as a sheltering wall no matter which way the wind blows.

Now you are ready to contemplate shape. There are many options and variations. Some decks unobtrusively extend living space, others break from traditional squares to include pie-shapes, octagons, curves, and even, in one daring case, two decks joined together in a yingyang symbol. Some decks have two and three stories; others are cantilevered. Some are designed to let sand blow right in from the beach and out the other side.

The creative land design professionals, and homeowners, in Annapolis look at obstructions such as hills, streams, or giant trees as design opportunities. This is how Annapolis Ballet Theatre of Maryland Board President Lawrence Earle dealt with a giant oak tree. Earle entertains the Company at the start of every ballet season on his waterfront deck. When he built his deck, instead of chopping down a mature tree that happened to be in the way, he incorporated it into the overall design. Now, the deck circles the tree, which has become a playful variation in theme, a melody. During the winter, the bark’s figurative dimensions become a focal point. And, during spring and summer, the tree’s canopy provides shade and shelter for wildlife.

When it comes time to selecting materials, keep in mind that there are many available, from solid wood such as cedar and redwood to eco-conscious composites. These, in general, are made from recycled plastic and wood fibers. Composites do not rot, splinter, and resist pests. And, you do not have to stain, paint, or seal them. However, they often cost more than wood and can vary widely in quality.

You will have to decide for yourself if a manufacturer’s product really “looks and feels like real wood.” If you prefer to use solid wood, you can still make “green” choices by using lumber from sustainable forests. When in doubt, look for the Forest Stewardship Council seal. Something in between composite and solid wood is bamboo decking. Its fibers are compressed to form wood blocks that can be milled. Be aware that glues may be used in its manufacturing. If you want to stay green, check to ensure that urea formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals are not added.

One way to be green is to choose wood with exceptional durability and longevity—because your deck will last up to a hundred years, which will delay destruction of new trees. If this sounds like you, think about choosing Ipe, a tropical hardwood from Brazil that does not need coating or refinishing. Though a little pricey, Ipe is an especially popular choice in this area because it can endure salt, wind, and water, and its dense grain is less susceptible to warping. Ipe appeals to traditionalists because it is subtle, yet has a lustre that deepens with time. Tigerwood, on the other hand, is a showier exotic hardwood. Because it is somewhat rarer than Ipe, it may be more expensive. It is distinguished by its amber grain and dramatic tiger striping. If it’s drama you’re after, consider this beautiful wood, which is a certain conversation-starter.

Now that you’ve covered some of the larger facets of your deck, do not ignore newel posts and railing. These operate kind of like background notes or leitmotifs and add richness and depth to your composition. Just because the deck is a somewhat modern invention does not mean that yours cannot look old fashioned. In fact, some victorian- style homes in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore have new decks fitted with nineteenth-century style balustrades, scrollwork, and ornamental embellishments. In the West or even mountainous areas of the mid-Atlantic, deck railings tend to be wide and pronounced. They draw the gaze up and beyond the rail to mountain views. However, in waterfront locales such as Annapolis, this is not the case. A glance around this region reveals cable-wire railings and, lately, glass railings, especially paired with contemporary or modern homes.

These minimal materials do not interfere with views yet still provide safety and a sense of enclosure. And, because they have the look and feel of boat halyards, they echo Annapolis’ nautical sensibilities. These are the major design elements you must make choices about but there are many more things to consider. Take your time and don't be afraid to change your mind several times or even to become tempermental. Your deck will last a long time, it will transform the appearance of your exterior, and, after all, you’re the composer.

Kymberly Taylor, home editor of WhatsUp?, has a new appreciation for decks incorporating things like trees in their design.