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How much space will you need? Some designers say any outdoor living space should be about the same size as the interior room it adjoins. Others suggest it should be one-third the size of the main floor of the house. For many installations, both of these “rules of thumb” might result in about the same amount of space. “Rules” aside, the primary guideline is to make your deck large enough to accommodate all of the functions it will need to serve.

”Yevgeniy and his dad were professional, competent, and conscientious. The railings look great, and dealing with both of them, before, during and after installation was easy and reassuring. I would not hesitate to recommend them. “

Function First

How many functions will your deck serve? You can answer that by listing the activities you want to carry out on your deck. Assign each activity to a different part of the deck, allowing ample space for:

  1. the activity itself;
  2. traffic flow through and around the proposed area; and
  3. outdoor furniture (which tends to be larger than indoor furniture).

Perhaps you’d just like a place for family dining. In that case, you might get by with an area as small as 6×10 feet. But a hot tub will call for a substantial addition. Personal relaxation may not be possible in the same space where children play, and a basketball hoop could be disastrous near a dining area.

Where incompatible functions must occur close to one another, keep them visually separated with planters, trellises, benches, or even a change in decking patterns. Or employ structural solutions to separate one area from the others. Build a T-shape deck or tiers and connect them with stairs or ramps.

Testing The Site

The best way to find out if the size of your proposed deck will meet your needs is to rope off the area and move in the furniture and equipment you will use— tables and chairs, barbecue grill, lounges and recliners. If you haven’t purchased the furniture yet, use interior furnishings and add about a foot more space for each item. You can generally figure about 2 feet square for each outdoor chair, plus about a foot or do to push it back from a table. Tie helium balloon in places where new trees and shrubs will go.

Adjust the size of the space until you get it right for your needs and then draw the plan on paper.


Your deck design will, of course, be affected by your lifestyle and budget—things you can control. Certain legalities outside your control—building codes, zoning ordinances, deed restrictions, and easements—may also have something to do with how and where you build.

These regulations, enacted by your community, can have a major effect on where you put your deck and how you build it. Some preliminary research will save you time, effort, and frustration later.

  1. BUILDING CODES: Almost all communities enact building codes to ensure the safety and uniformity of building quality. Some communities consider decks as permanent additions and have regulations that define footing depths, material choices, and fence heights. Check with your local building department before you develop your plans.
  2. ZONING ORDINANCES: These provisions govern the use of property and the placement of structures on it.

They can establish minimum setbacks from property lines, easements, and the size of your deck. In recent years, many communities have become strict about the size of decks because large hard-surfaced areas can increase rainwater runoff into storm sewers.

  1. DEED RESTRICTIONS: Some communities have adopted deed restrictions to maintain control over local property values or architectural style. You may find restraints on the kind of deck you want to build, its style, and the materials you want to use.
  2. EASEMENTS AND RIGHT OF WAY: These rules guarantee access by local utilities to their service lines and may restrict your ability to build a deck exactly where you want to. If, for example, a utility company has a line running through your yard, you might not be able to build any part of a deck lying above that line.

The Shape Of Your Deck

Decks can assume a limitless number of shapes and forms. Your design will depend on the terrain and landscaping of your property, your proximity to neighbors, and how you plan to use your deck.

GROUND-LEVEL DECKS: Typically associated with flat yards and single-story homes, ground-level decks present fewer design and construction challenges than raised or multi­level decks.

Ground-level decks make pleasant entryways, breakfast spots, and outdoor mudrooms. Construction is uncomplicated and, because these decks are low to the ground, they may not require railings (but check your local codes to make sure). Bring together multiple ground-level decks and experiment with decking patterns to create a cascading effect down a slope, or form a pattern to define a garden space.
Ground-level decks can be supported by traditional post-and-pier foundations, by continuous footings, or by an existing concrete slab. For a design that seems to float, cantilever the edges so they extend beyond the posts or footings. Be sure to check with your building department to see what your local codes have to say about how far the cantilevered section can extend.

RAISED DECKS: Raised decks provide access to upper-level rooms and also can solve landscape problems caused by steep terrain. Making tall supports look graceful can be an exciting challenge. Slopes that fall away sharply from a house present special design and deck-building challenges. The easiest solution is to build a single-level deck that’s attached to the house and supported by piers and posts. Perched on a sloped lot, even a simple deck can offer good views and increase your living space.

Safety concerns increase with elevated decks. Be sure the height of the railing and the space between balusters comply with local building codes.

MULTILEVEL DECKS: These deck designs avoid problems caused by rolling terrain or naturally terraced landscapes. Sections can be different sizes and shapes, connected with stairs or walkways.

Multilevel decks built to follow the landscape are ideal for sloping lots. They cascade down a hill in stages, providing different views along the way. Multilevel decks are complex, however, and require precise planning. Stairs, railings, and all of the structural components must come together correctly.

You don’t need a sloped lot to build a multilevel deck, however. This design can create an easy, smooth transition from the ground to an upper level of your house. Instead of one long stairway, build a series of platforms to lead up the elevation.

WRAPAROUND DECKS: These are built along more than one side of a house and often feature multiple entries to the home. Wraparound decks are the perfect solution for lots that receive varying amounts of strong sunlight at different times of the day. They also provide an easy answer for families that need spots for private gathering and parties on the same structure.

Sinister Shadows

An upper-level deck can plunge interior rooms beneath it into a darkened gloom. If you’re designing a second-story deck, and your site and sun pattern allow it, slim down your design. Narrow structures can offer plenty of room for seating and enjoying the view while casting a smaller amount of shade. A deck no wider than 8 feet can strike a good compromise, offering ample floor space without darkening any of the rooms below.

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