Putting Deck Plans on Paper
You’ve pondered your deck’s function and style, and you’ve chosen the materials you’ll use to build it. Before you bring out the shovels and levels, however, it’s important to refine your plan, to clarify and map out precisely where all the final elements will go.
This is the time for you to put your plans on paper. Taking a little time now to set down all the details will save you lots of time in the long run—to say nothing of money and frustration. Plans will also help keep you on schedule throughout the construction process—and they will increase your satisfaction with your finished deck. Drawing a deck plan before you begin building saves you from having to make hurried decisions in the field. It allows you to experiment with the location of the deck, its contours, and the pattern of its materials. Paper plans can also give you a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, helping you discover design ideas you might not otherwise have seen.
Planning a deck requires more detail than planning other landscaping projects because of the complexity of deck construction. You’ll need construction drawings, such as framing plans and elevations, to keep you or your contractor on target.
Other dimensions are less critical. Label these measurements with a plus or minus sign. For example, the length of the deck from the tree to the house is better measured exactly when you install the framing. Placing the symbol in front of this measurement indicates that the deck must reach from the tree to the house, but the exact length is subject to on-site adjustment.
When measuring, focus on one feature at a time. Some dimensions are more critical than others. For example, if you plan to enclose an existing tree, the deck must be correctly sized to fit properly. Measure the edge of the deck starting from the tree.
Making a Base Map
As with any decisionmaking process, you’ll simplify the task (and reduce your confusion) by taking the planning process one step at a time. The first step is to draw a base map of your property.
- Location of downspouts and direction of runoff
- Where existing trees, shrubs, and gardens are planted
- Location of outdoor walls, fences, steps, walks, and driveways
Begin by walking around the outside of your house with a clipboard and a 100-foot steel measuring tape. You’ll be measuring and sketching in the outlines of structures and plantings and other major details. Later you will transfer these sketches more exactly to a graph-paper map. Even though you’re familiar with your own house and lot, avoid taking anything for granted.
BOUNDARIES: Start with the exact location of your property lines (look for metal markers, or use a metal detector to find them). Sketch in the outline of your yard and house, noting its distance from the property lines. Take accurate measurements from all property lines. Measure and record the dimensions of each wall of your house and the size of other structures, such as detached garages or sheds. Your sketch should include the distances structures are from one another.
LOOK AT SMALLER ELEMENTS: Include the little things on your sketch. They will matter when you build your deck. Here’s a sample list of items to watch for:
- Location of doors and windows, including width, height, distance from the ground, and what rooms they lead from
- Extension of roof eaves beyond the exterior walls of the house
You may be able to shorten the base-map process by using existing maps of your property. Start with the existing legal maps and descriptions of your house and lot. These documents— called deed maps, house plans, plat plans, or contour plans— are typically available from your title company, bank, mortgage lender, city hall, or county recorder’s office. You may even have a copy filed in your records along with the other papers you received when you bought the house. Plot maps do not, however, show every measurement.
Another, though more costly, option is to commission a survey of your property (a necessity if your plan includes extensive grading), but expect to pay several hundred dollars.
Next: Detailed Map
Once your sketch is complete, take it back indoors and transfer it to graph paper (24×36 inches is a good size, with a scale of !4 inch=l foot). Include all the elements on your sketch, and note all the dimensions you’ve recorded.
Be sure to include the location of windows, doors, hose bibs, and electrical outlets. Use dotted lines for any buried cable.
This is the time for precision. If you’re in doubt about any measurement, go back outside and measure again. This small step can save you hours of actual construction time. When you’re done, you’ll have an accurate map of your property drawn to scale.
Computerized landscape-design programs take the pencil (and eraser) out of planning. They’re easy to use and flexible, and can speed your progress from base plan to final design. One of a computer’s more appealing features is deletion—an electronic eraser that allows you to change your design without redrawing it.
The features are slick: Programs calculate dimensions of each of your proposed structures and areas of use. Most programs have a number of symbols for trees and shrubs, as well as elements such as furniture, pools, and decks. Some will even create side elevations and three-dimensional views of your plan. Other programs prepare materials lists and cost estimates.
Check your home improvement center, too. Many offer computer design services. If you’re not familiar with computers, you can take your rough drawings (including dimensions), and the store’s staff will computerize your project and produce a materials list and cost estimates. Ask for extra copies; your local building department will need them when you apply for permits.
When It’s Time for a Change
Did you inherit a dysfunctional patio or deck when you bought your house? Perhaps you built one years ago when your family’s needs were different. When it’s time for a change, here are some ideas for retrofitting a worn-out or out-of-date design.
- Is your deck larger than you need? Consider dividing it into smaller spaces with raised planters. Or cut through the decking and plant trees.
- Do you entertain on a regular basis, but your deck is too small to hold all your guests? Convert a flower bed near the deck to lawn where you can easily set up tents or party tables. Build a second deck and link the old and new spaces with a boardwalk or path so guests can move between the areas to socialize. Enlarge the space by installing a brick patio at the foot of a deck.
- Make the deck seem larger by removing hedges, fencing, or other obstructions whose primary purpose is decorative. That will open up the view and make the space seem larger. Be careful not to take out plantings or structures that were put there to increase privacy.
- Improve the view: Bring compost bins, garbage cans, yard tools, and heating and cooling equipment into a single service area rather than leaving them scattered throughout the yard. Then hide them all behind an attractive screen.