Design a Deck that Fits

Despite the chilly weather outside, it’s a great time to think about how you’ll spend those long, sultry summer evenings after the day’s work is done. Will you be gathering with friends and family for supper outdoors, curled up with a good book or lounging in a comfortable chair with a cold drink just enjoying the view? A deck can be a perfect spot for all these activities, but to make one really fit your life – and how you want to spend your free time – some planning is in order.

All too often, decks are an afterthought – a no-man’s (or woman’s) land attached to the back of the house that holds a few cheap, pre-molded plastic chairs, a grill and perhaps a table. Usually neither house nor garden, most decks have little more than level footing to offer, and they certainly are not
welcoming to human visitors. (Patios or terraces are much the same, and the design ideas given here apply to them as well.) Decks also are commonly cluttered with gardening supplies, tools, barbecue equipment, toys, refuse or recycling cans and outdoor recreation equipment.

Whether you have an existing deck that could use a facelift or you want to add one to your home for the first time, creating a design that really fits your life starts at the same place: Begin with a careful evaluation of what you want the deck to be. The suggestions here will help you evaluate your needs and create a design that not only complements your house and garden, but also fits your life and how your family will use the space. Once you’ve done your homework, you can take your ideas to a contractor, or, if you plan to build the deck yourself, get started with construction.

Deck Design 101

Ideally, a deck should be so connected to both house and garden that you can’t imagine one without the other. That’s the way it was with our first deck, which my husband and I added to our stone-and-cedar farmhouse several years ago, as well as with the deck we’ve added to our current home. In both cases, our main objective was to carve out more level living space on a steeply sloping site, but both decks also function like an extension of the living room – albeit an outdoor one filled with plants, birds, butterflies and fresh air. Our decks started out as notebooks filled with ideas, including photographs of the house and site, drawings of designs we liked, pictures clipped from magazines, and notes about features we wanted to incorporate into the final design. Our notebook also was accompanied by a small stack of books and magazines studded with sticky notes.

Start your own deck-design notebook by making a list of all activities you’d like your deck to accommodate, such as outdoor dining, cooking, container gardening, and sitting and visiting with friends. Also estimate how large these areas need to be: Do you want to seat six at your table or 16? Don’t worry if you end up with a jumble of sketches and notes. It’s better at this stage to have too many ideas than too few.

Go with the flow

Start your planning from the indoors, because it is important to consider how the design will flow among the house, deck and garden. There’s no better place to start than a room that will be (or is) adjacent to the deck. If you already have a deck, think about the features you like about it as well as things that you could change to make it easier and more comfortable to use. Spend time looking out each window and door of your home that will be, or could be, affected by your deck. Jot down notes or pictures of what you see or could see. Keep in mind your design can take advantage of nice views or help obstruct unattractive ones.

A digital camera is a handy design tool. Photograph the views you want either to highlight or hide, and take photos of your house from several different angles to see how a deck could (or does) look. Also snap photographs of special features you’ll need to keep in mind during design and construction, such as tree roots that need protecting, septic fields, walls or garden beds. “Before” photos are a great record of where you’ve started – you’ll want to refer to them to see how your landscape has improved over the years. They also offer a practical way to experiment with designs. You can draw design ideas on the computer or print out photographs and sketch your ideas by hand. If you’d rather circumvent the computer, have enlargements made of snapshots and draw ideas on tracing paper laid over them.

Creating outdoor rooms

Even though each deck is unique, they generally share some basic features of outdoor rooms. In addition to a floor, most also have walls and a ceiling, just like indoor rooms do. The walls of an outdoor room create a sense of refuge and security, and they can consist of shrub and tree plantings, fences, trellises or even large container plantings. Annual vines grown on strings can provide a seasonal visual screen that makes your deck feel cozy. Use different screening elements at varying distances from the deck to create an open, but secluded, feel. You may need a trellis covered with thick vines on one side, and a mixed planting of dense shrubs and trees to block the wind along another side. Avoid enclosing the deck with tall plantings on all sides, or you’ll end up with a claustrophobic feeling and reduced air circulation.

Shade makes any outdoor space more comfortable. Outdoor ceilings consist of elements like a vine-covered arbor, overhanging tree branches or even an awning. An 8-foot ceiling is the minimum height so that people will feel comfortable standing and walking, but a taller structure creates a more open feeling. Planting trees around a deck offers a longer-range solution that has decided appeal.

If you’re lucky enough to own a site that’s already shaded, a deck is the best option for creating a level outdoor space under trees. That’s because, unlike terraces or paved areas, a deck can be constructed with minimal disturbance to tree roots. If you have trees that you would like to incorporate, consult an experienced landscape architect to minimize root damage. During construction, place barriers around the outside of the drip line (where the tips of the branches end) to prevent soil compaction and other plant damage.

Transitions and storage

Especially during the summer months, a deck can become the hub of family life, and that means traffic. Will you have children running from the yard into the house? If so, an entrance straight into the living room may not be the best idea. An extra door into the kitchen – or better yet mud room – might be in order. If your house is on a steep site, you may want to design a deck that offers a route over uneven terrain. If possible, make it wide enough to accommodate both traffic and chairs – 8 feet is adequate. If you have (or will have) a high deck, with no convenient way to get down into the yard, you might want to consider a series of steps and landings to complete the connection from house to garden. You also may need a plan for hiding the undercarriage of the deck with shrubs or flowers, or a plan for using the space underneath it for storage. Make a list of all the items you routinely store on the deck – hoses, garden tools, barbecue equipment and what-have-you. As your design develops, you’ll want to incorporate storage facilities for some or all of these items.


Effective lighting is a vital part of a well-designed deck. You’ll want to illuminate walkways, steps and any other changes in level. When planning and installing lights, think about your neighbors – and the dark tranquility of a summer evening – and try to keep light on your own property by directing it down and keeping it at low levels.

Special Structures

If you plan to place really heavy items on your deck, make sure the structural design accommodates the extra weight. Hot tubs top the list, but masses of container plants or a large water garden also qualify. If you remember the old saying, “A pint’s a pound the world around,” you’ll understand why it takes special planning to accommodate a hot tub on a deck. With 8 pints to a gallon of water, a single gallon weighs 8 pounds. That means the water in an 800-gallon hot tub weighs 6,400 pounds. To accommodate the extra weight, the section of deck under a hot tub should have double posts and twice as many double-thickness beams. You’ll also need a well-lit area so users can get in and out of the tub safely.

Work up a drawing

An accurate scale drawing of your site is an invaluable tool for both designing your deck and for planning the land-scaping around it. You’ll use it to determine how much space you have for a deck and all possible configurations.

Draw the relevant parts of your house to scale. (Don’t bother to draw the whole house, just the walls where the deck may be attached.)

If you already have blueprints of your house, use them as the basis for your drawing. Try to include all parts of your property that will be affected by the design. Put the house at the top or side of the paper to leave room for other landscape features, trees or other elements.

Once you have the basic house and features in place, add other items that will affect your design, including:

• Doors, windows and house features.
• Landscape features like cement or brick walks, walls, terraces or fences.
• Traffic patterns, including formal walkways and unofficial routes.
• Sun patterns to help when deciding the location of trellises or awnings.
• Trees, shrubs and other plantings.
• Views, both unattractive and attractive.
• Areas where storm runoff may affect your design.
• Underground cables, water mains, well heads, septic fields and other utilities that will affect your final design.
• Slopes and other problem spots where it will be difficult to set posts.

Organizing your ideas

Once you have a working drawing as well as a design notebook chock-full of notes, photographs and scribbled drawings of ideas, start sketching designs. Spread everything out on a table around your working drawing. All you absolutely need for this process is a pencil and tracing paper for overlays, but if you want to get fancy, consider having colored pens, pencils or markers on hand, too. Place a sheet of tracing paper over your working drawing and mark a prominent corner of the house or some other feature so you can line up the overlay easily. Then start drawing possible deck shapes that accommodate the uses you’d like to incorporate. Fine-tune your design by firming up the ultimate size and shape you’d like to have. As necessary, add a new overlay on top of the one you’re using, transfer essential details from the previous copy and begin again.

Once you have a design you like, try to “poke holes” in your ideas. Use a measuring tape to visualize the space you’ve allocated for furniture, remembering that you need room to pass on both sides plus room for diners to sit with their chairs pushed back. As a general rule, you need an 8-foot-square space for a table for four and a 12-by-8-foot space to accommodate a table that seats eight. More usually is better. Visualize and remeasure areas for seating, storage or other uses to identify problems before construction.

If you are building the deck yourself, once you’re happy with your drawing you’re ready to get the necessary building permits and begin construction. Or, take your design to a contractor. He or she should have plenty of experience building decks and valuable suggestions for handling problem spots and standardizing measurements to use materials efficiently. A contractor also should be able to help you phase in a design, if the deck you want is bigger than your budget allows.

Create outdoor living

The most useful – and most used – decks offer elements of both indoor rooms and outdoor spaces, so don’t forget the details once your deck has been completed. Creating a deck that is comfortable, safe and appealing to use involves elements of both home decoration and garden design. Details matter here. You won’t be tempted to use your deck if the chairs aren’t really comfortable, or if there aren’t ample places to set down drinks or put your feet up. Containers filled with colorful and fragrant flowers add appeal to any outdoor living space, and a deck is no exception. Flowers make the deck feel like it is right in the garden, but with the added advantage of many indoor conveniences like flat floors, conventional furniture, and water or electricity. Add structures for shade, trellises for privacy, and other comforts such as lighting and convenient storage, and you have a deck you’ll want to use anytime the weather is nice, and even sometimes when it isn’t.   

Experienced garden and landscape writer Barbara Ellis takes a definitive look at thoughtful deck design in her latest book, Deckscaping: Gardening and Landscaping On and Around Your Deck.

  • Published on Oct 6, 2008
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