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.

Old House Journal - - De­sign - | BY PA­TRI­CIA POORE

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.

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