No matter how complete you make your landscape design, you won’t use even the most luxurious deck if you can’t see it from the inside, if you don’t provide an easy way to get to it, and if its uses conflict with the uses of the adjacent interior room. These factors—visual access, actual access, and compatibility—can spell the difference between successful and unsuccessful designs.
At its most basic level, visual access means that you can see the deck—or a portion of it—from the inside. Ideally, however, visual access should also extend a palpable invitation into the space.
Windows and see-through doors provide visual access, but you don’t need to see the entire deck to want to get out and enjoy it. In fact, just a glimpse of the space can actually draw you in more effectively than a complete view. When landscaping your deck, try to include ways to entice guests outdoors by providing visual hints of the destination. At least some of the area should be visible from more than one interior room. The most complete view of your deck should be from the room that adjoins it.
Actual access refers to the physical method by which you get from inside your home to the deck outside. Actual access should be easy. Whenever possible, avoid having to step too far up or down to move from the interior to the exterior of your home. That means that the level of your deck should be as close as possible to the level of the interior floor. (From the doorway to the edges, however, the surface should slope slightly for proper drainage.)
If the deck is significantly lower than the doorway from the house, add a landing or an entry deck to avoid having to step down immediately as you go outside. Such a threshold gives you the opportunity to get your bearings as you move from indoors to outdoors. If a landing is out of the question, build steps—and make them wider than the doorway to create an illusion of spaciousness. Each tread (the part you step on) should be no less than 12 inches deep so the stairs don’t appear too steep.
If you don’t use your deck as much as you thought you would, perhaps it’s because the design doesn’t allow sufficient visual or actual access.
For example, if you feel you’re on display while meditating on the deck, the site probably allows too much visual access. Look for ways to shield the area by adding a fence, shrubs, or an overhead structure. Areas for private use require limited visual access. Areas for public use can afford to be more open to outside views.
Inconvenient actual access from interior rooms can also reduce the use of your deck. If you feel that getting to your deck from inside is a journey full of obstacles or is circuitous, rearrange the furniture. Add a landing to even out the levels of the deck surface and interior floor. Improving access is often all it takes to turn an underused outdoor room into a popular destination.
Easy and inviting
A deck that’s difficult to get to probably won’t be used. So make it easy. Start by making sure the main door to the deck is wide enough to permit an easy in-and-out traffic flow as well as provide an inviting view from inside the house. French doors, atrium doors, and sliding doors work especially well because they give a sense of continuity between the indoors and outdoors. If your house does not already have such openings, consider including them in your deck plan and budget.
Decks adjacent to the house should be as close to the level of the house floor as possible. If winter brings snow, set the deck 3 inches lower than the floor to keep snow out of the house. If rain is your primary concern, build the deck about 1 inch lower than the floor. If the drop to the deck level is greater than 3 to 4 inches, build steps.
You’ll spend a lot more time on your deck if you furnish it with features that turn it into an inviting destination. Consider what you’d like to do on your deck and design it to accommodate your needs. You can add something as elaborate as a spa or as simple as a comfortable spot to sit and have a snack. Although most people like to engage in some kind of activity, they will also look for places to sit, so you’ll probably rarely use an area that is designed for standing only.
The art of rearranging
When actual or visual access seems confined and unwelcoming, it may be the furniture, not the amount of access itself, that’s the culprit.
Examine the placement of both interior and exterior furnishings. Can you see at least a portion of the deck from indoors? Is there a welcoming path from indoors to outdoors, or do furnishings impede the progress of guests on their way outside?
On the inside, rearrange the furnishings so you can see some of the deck from the family-room table or your favorite chair. Rearrange furniture inside your home to improve both visual and actual access from within.
Outdoors, if a large table limits movement around your deck, think about replacing it with smaller tables that you can scatter among chairs in less dominating locations. An objective eye and simple rearranging transformed the deck below from crowded to inviting. Finding a new site for the grill and picnic table reduced clutter. Opening up floor space improved access. Use accessories in moderation. Too much of a good thing becomes overwhelming, especially in a small area. If your love of collecting exceeds your display space, alternate what you exhibit. This keeps the outdoor space from becoming crowded and gives it a fresh look from time to time as well.
Even when all of the other design elements are complete, the success of your deck may depend on how you use the nearest indoor room. That’s because you’ll most likely use your deck more often when the general purpose of both the indoor and outdoor spaces is similar. If the primary purpose of the outdoor area differs substantially from its connecting indoor room, you’re less likely to make full use of the space.
A small deck for coffee and the morning paper, for example, will feel just right if it’s adjacent to your bedroom. But the same site would not work for party space. For frequent dining, put the deck close to the kitchen, even if you plan a completely self-contained outdoor kitchen. And remember to build in storage for the trash. That way you avoid carrying it inside, only to have to carry it outside on collection day. For entertaining, plan a location that’s close to the public rooms of the house. Decks that serve more than one function should be large enough to be accessible from several rooms.
For private areas, look for ways to limit access, such as shielding your deck behind hedges or fencing. For entertaining, look for ways to increase access. For example, consider adding doorways from rooms where you would entertain. Also think about exterior walkways that allow guests to move to and from your deck without traipsing through the house.
Which way does the traffic go?
You may find that changes to the interior of your home will improve its indoor/outdoor connection. Sketch the floor plan of your house, and label each room. Show the location of doors and windows. Examine the flow of family traffic and how people move into and out of your house. Mark these routes with arrows. Then rearrange the furniture to open views and paths to the outdoors, or consider converting existing windows to French doors.
To evaluate the compatibility of your indoor and outdoor rooms, consider how they relate to each other. Take a careful look at your floor plans and list how you use each room. Then label each use as active (such as entertaining) or passive (such as reading). Although each room may be home to both passive and active uses, one type of use probably dominates.
Where an active area meets a passive area, you can either change the use of the indoor room to better suit the nature of the outdoor area or change the outdoor room so it complements the interior use. For example, a deck favored by the kids riding tricycles will see lots of active use. This deck would be compatible with an active playroom, family room, den, hobby room, or kitchen. It would not be compatible outside a quiet area such as a bedroom, study, bath, or formal living room.
Potential solutions include converting the bedroom into a playroom until the children are older, finding another place for tricycle riding, or limiting outdoor access to the deck by adding a gate, blocking off the route with planters, or replacing a paved walkway with stepping-stones to discourage the use of riding toys.