Can a Deck Be Compatible?
We’ve seen the ones that aren’t: too big, in the wrong place, speaking a language all their own. Here’s how to think about designing an outdoor deck.
Porches are part of the architecture, patios disappear at grade. But decks are in-between, with a floor and often integrated with the exterior, yet without historic precedent before the mid-20th century. • Whether an added deck is beautiful or ugly will be determined by its design and the materials used. Design encompasses its location, size, relationship to the house, and such details as the railing—plus practical considerations having to do with sight lines, drainage, and construction details that assure longevity. A deck doesn’t have to look out of place, even on a period house, as long as proportions and details are done well.
ABOUT HALF of the singlefamily houses in the U.S. have a deck, so the idea is here to stay. For a design compatible with an old house, look to traditional concepts that are similar: porches, patios and courtyards, pergolas and gazebos. Borrow from existing elements of the house, whether that’s a three-sided bay, a tower, or the porch railing. Learn from others’ mistakes: As you walk around the neighborhood or look at decks online, gauge what went wrong when a new deck appears awkward or ugly.
Before you hire a contractor or begin to build, consider the larger scope. Do you really want a deck, or do you want the front porch to wrap around one side of the house? Would a patio with an awning cost less and be less intrusive?
Don’t assume you know where the deck has to be, especially if the most likely location isn’t ideal. Let’s say your dining room has French doors that currently open to bare yard, and you’d like to add a deck for warm-weather dining. But a deck won’t fit or won’t look right at that location. Maybe the French doors could be relocated and a deck built to suit. Might the family room, with better access to the outdoors, swap places with the current dining room?
A session with an architect or designer is always a good idea when planning an addition, even one as apparently simple as a deck. From the start, pros pick up on the
bigger picture; following through, they’ll design compatible details.
Construction should follow best practice: a deck is open to weather. Deck and railing elements must drain or shed water. Be sure to provide adequate joist support beneath the deck. Use pressure-treated or rot-resistant woods. High-quality cedar, redwood, mahogany, and ipe are attractive and will last if they are maintained regularly. For elements in contact with the ground, consider a rot-proof composite material. Paintable modern materials make it easy to blend real wood with composites to create a traditional design.
Details of the apron or skirting beneath the deck are critical to traditional design. Continuous steps and risers keep it simple. A raised deck needs lattice to provide ventilation while keeping out leaves and skunks. Design the skirt like lattice panels under a porch: with a fascia board to transition from the decking, and framed lattice panels between posts or concrete supports. Don’t use garden lattice, as the holes formed by the crossing wood laths are too big; aim for about an inch to an inch and a half for the holes.
Never paint wood decking that’s open to the elements; the finish simply will not last and is hard to renew. You can choose a clear sealer or one that’s tinted. Stain won’t wrinkle or peel and it’s much easier than paint to refresh. Color stains run from semi-transparent to opaque, the latter being close to the look of paint. When the deck needs renewing, pressure-wash it and let it dry before adding a renewal coat of sealer or stain.
The two examples on these pages are at opposite extremes of deck design. ABOVE Decking barely above grade, just big enough to accommodate chairs with a view and with a “live rail” of shrubbery, has an ephemeral quality and little impact on the house. OPPOSITE The low Victorian porch offers inspiration for deck design, from the rounded corner and painted risers to style suggestions for an optional balustrade.
LEFT Ample in size yet neat and unobtrusive, this deck fills space in the corner between the main mass of the house and a wing. Continuous steps are unfussy and provide seating. BELOW The deck may be a connector. On the rear façade of a house in Maine, a new, open deck leads from the back door to a shed and a tiny bunkhouse nearby. Three steps go down to the yard.