How Will You Use your Deck?
Aspecial place to relax with your morning coffee or catch up on your favorite book; a spot to unwind after a hard day’s work; a front-row seat to outdoor vistas; an area for festive parties: Your deck can serve any one—or all—of these purposes. How you design it will depend largely on how you want to use it. In short, deck design begins with a look at your lifestyle.
If your needs are simple—for example, adding an outdoor space for getting away from it all—a small, unused side yard might be the perfect spot for a ground-level deck. Keep it private with a few screening plants. Add accents and some built-in or movable seating and you’ve transformed an area you used to mow into a low-maintenance private room. Remember that even small areas require comfortable seating. And if the space will double as a spot for family gatherings, you’ll want enough seating and table space to accommodate everyone.
Deck space for parties is like guacamole dip— there never seems to be enough of it. So if you entertain—even infrequently— that narrow side yard just won’t do. Consider guests in your decks plans. Decks are an ideal way to relieve a cramped kitchen and can quickly turn an overflow crowd into a festive occasion. Small groups may not require much more space or furnishings than your family would need. But large gatherings need seating, cooking, and dining areas. If you have teenagers—a deck can offer them privacy and at the same time reward you with some peace and solitude.
Play Space for Children
Decks can be perfect for children’s play, but your plans need to account for both the ages of the kids and their number. Sandboxes are good adjuncts for toddlers, but when the kids grow older, they’ll need tree forts, swings, and things to climb. Plan your space so you can phase in these activities in the future.
Good planning means taking a thorough look at both your lifestyle and various aspects of the landscape. Here are some factors to keep in mind.
- TRAFFIC FLOW: If your deck lies between the house and other destinations in the yard—a utility shed, for example— add space for 3-foot walkways to your plans.
- VIEWS: Keep natural views in your vision of your landscape. Orient the deck to make the most of a pleasing view. Arrange furnishings so you and your guests face the landscape. Don’t hide the yard behind planters and decorative elements.
- SUN, SHADE, AND WIND: Nature’s forces can turn an otherwise perfect deck into an unusable spot. Note the patterns of the sun and wind. Shade is a movable feast—use lightweight, portable furniture to take advantage of it, or create shade with an overhead structure. Plan attractive windbreaks to thwart prevailing winds.
A tall hedge or lattice fence will knock the wind down and muffle street noise, increase privacy, and hide unsightly views.
STORAGE: Make a list of implements and equipment you need to stow away, and plan storage that’s easy to get to. Attach a small “backpack” shed to the wall of the house if you don’t have room for a separate structure.
Good News for Old Decks
Even a deck in the most beautiful location won’t be used much if it isn’t convenient and attractive. If cooking space is cramped, guests are sitting sideways, or its surface is fraught with splinters, your deck probably won’t attract activity. If you’ve inherited a deck that doesn’t invite you out of the house, don’t dismay. Enhance it strategically. Often, adding just a small addition, constructed from the same lumber and finished like the existing deck, can not only increase your comfort, it can also improve the looks of your landscape.
Be adventurous and mix materials. A ground-level flagstone or brick surface will go well with an existing redwood platform deck. And if there’s no room adjacent to the deck, build a detached area and unify the two spaces with a river-rock path. Whatever the nature of the improvement, build on what you have if possible. Could you extend the deck into the yard, creating room for a fire pit or a water garden? Wouldn’t new paving stones—or even decking on sleepers—do nicely on top of the old slab? How about recycling the concrete by breaking it up and using the pieces for a garden wall?
Think of your landscape as an outdoor room and approach its design as you would the rooms inside your home. Planning a deck is really not much different from planning a family room. Though it might not be apparent at first, your outdoor room will have a floor, ceiling, and walls. The floor, of course, is the decking. It defines the purpose of a room and blends it with the overall style of your house.
An outdoor ceiling can protect you from the elements and provide a sense of enclosure. Ceilings can also increase privacy on a deck, blocking the view from second-story windows—either your own or your neighbor’s. What’s an outdoor ceiling? Well, you might already have one and not realize it. That old oak tree might be the outdoor ceiling you’re looking for. It not only can cast some welcome shade on your backyard retreat, it can give you a sense of protection. If nature hasn’t provided your deck site with such a ceiling, make your own by building a pergola or arbor overhead.
Outdoor walls do the same thing that indoor walls do—they separate one kind of space from another. But their function extends beyond marking boundaries. Walls also create a sense of enclosure, increase privacy, act as a backdrop for decorative elements, screen out unsightly views, and mollify harsh winds. You can do all these things with solid walls or fences, of course, but let your imagination go and you’ll see that shrubs, hedges, even plants set out in containers on the deck surface can function as outdoor walls.
Getting the family together
Lifestyle is a family matter, and so is planning a deck. Get the whole family together for a freewheeling discussion so everyone can propose ways to use this new outdoor space. Make a wish list and be prepared to compromise.
- Start with things you absolutely must have, then add elements that are desirable but not required.
- Cooking and eating areas are primary. Parties will need extra seating and conversation areas.
- Plan for use first, then incorporate your deck aesthetically with the rest of the landscape.
Although you hope your deck project will sail smoothly along until it’s done, climate and cost can often interfere with the best intentions. Flexible plans will keep you on course. If your summers are short, add an enclosure to your landscape plans. A summerhouse or gazebo will let you entertain when the weather turns chilly. Contain your costs by using materials that are local to your area. For example, where native stone is abundant, a stone retaining wall may end up being less expensive than natural timber. Avoid basing your plans on budget alone, however. Balance budget, structures, and materials to meet your needs.
A Juggling Act
Getting the maximum enjoyment out of building and using your deck may require you to juggle a variety of factors: how you intend to use the space, the complexity of any structures you include, your skill level, how much time you have, your materials, and your budget.