Build a deck that fits your budget and extends your outdoor life throughout the seasons
(Above) Renovation by Sweeten general contractor Mike in Chicago
Your living space is not confined to the inside of your home. Beyond the walls and windows of your home lies a paradise of fresh air, natural light, plants, and flowers—your backyard or side yard. The best way to tie these two living spaces is with an outdoor deck.
Think of a deck as the perfect segue from inside to outside. A deck elevates users from the ground and provides a unique vantage point to your property and beyond. Decks also can be a centerpiece of outdoor social life, a gathering place for barbecues, parties, or even restful solitude.
“Decks are a great way to add space to your property,” said Sweeten general contractor Chris. “By extending your outdoor living seasons, they basically make your home larger.” Sweeten, a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects, explains what you need to know about building or renovating an outdoor deck.
Types of decks
Freestanding decks, also called floating or ground-level decks, hug closer to grade than do attached decks. This type of outdoor deck can be built alongside the house or anywhere within the yard.
In many municipalities, building permits aren’t required for outdoor deck designs less than a certain height above grade (often 30 inches) and not built over a basement or lower story. The deck area may not be part of an accessible route to either of these lower areas. The deck, though, should adhere to all applicable building codes.
- Attached or fixed decks
Attached, or fixed, decks are more elaborate structures than freestanding decks. They rise over a minimum height, require special footings, use guards and handrails, and are attached to the home with a ledger board. Due to the complexity of this deck design, most homeowners will hire a contractor or other professional to build an attached deck.
Attached decks better integrate with the home, too, than freestanding decks. Maxx, a designer for this Sweeten general contractor in Chicago, said that his company aims to blur the line between inside and outside. “We allow the exterior to be an extension of the indoors,” he said, “and we like to have the indoor flow to the outside so that it doesn’t feel like an appendage. We like to take the whole-house approach.”
(Above) Fiberglass deck remodel by Sweeten contractor Chris in New Jersey
The steps to building or renovating a deck
Building a new outdoor deck will involve all of the following steps, while renovating a deck may require only part of the process. Usually, it takes between one and three weeks to build a new deck, though preliminary steps (such as digging holes for the footers) may have occurred earlier.
- The homeowner meets with the deck builder to discuss their vision for the deck. The builder will help advise the homeowner on appropriate styles and designs.
- A detailed blueprint is drawn up and materials are priced out so that the homeowner has a solid cost estimate.
- Deck plans are submitted by the builder to the building department. Technicians visit to mark the site for underground services.
- The site is prepared by staking out string around the outline of the deck. Any necessary sod is removed.
- After the position of the piers and footers is established, holes are dug and the piers and footers are set. The ledger board is installed on the house. Support posts are installed, followed by beams and joists.
- With the general structure established, decking boards are nailed in place and then trimmed.
- Additional features such as stairs and railing are added.
- If needed, the deck is stained and sealed for durability.
(Above) Outdoor kitchen by Sweeten contractor John in Long Island, New York
The lower, structural part of the deck is determined by code requirements and is usually made of pressure-treated lumber. However, there are several options available for the top deck. Removing old deck materials from an existing deck and replacing them is one way to renovate a deck. This reduces costs since the entire outdoor deck structure does not need to be rebuilt.
- Composites: Wood composites are created from recycled plastics and wood fibers. They are favored due to their softness underfoot and durability. Wood composite decks do not need staining or sealing, either initially or at any point in their lifespan. Composites’ colors can fade over time, especially in sunnier areas. While composites are low-maintenance, they are not maintenance-free. Like other decking materials, they must periodically be cleaned of moss, mold, and mildew, especially if the deck is shaded.
- Fiberglass: “Fiberglass deck material is very popular now,” said Chris. “It can be painted or stained and it lasts forever.” Slip-resistant fiberglass panels overlap to form a continuous solid surface, making it especially good when decking over a lower area that needs to stay dry. Fiberglass deck panels do not rot, rust, or harbor mildew; which makes fiberglass decking ideal for high-moisture conditions.
- Tropical hardwoods: Ipe and tigerwood are but two of the many species of tropical hardwoods commonly used as decking materials. These dense woods are difficult to cut and drill, but this density also means that the deck’s longevity will surpass that of pressure-treated wood, redwood, and cedar. Despite being expensive, tropical hardwoods help both the deck and the home maintain value over the years, even into resale.
- Redwood and cedar: Redwood and cedar are softwoods sourced mainly from western states. These materials offer a good compromise between expensive tropical hardwoods and pressure-treated wood. Imbued with natural tannins and oils, redwood and cedar do not require chemical preservatives.
- Pressure-treated wood: The most economical choice is pressure-treated wood, usually southern yellow pine that is pressure-injected with chemicals that help the wood resist rot and wood-boring insects. One disadvantage to pressure-treated wood decking is that the wood splinters easily and isn’t safe for walking on with bare feet. Pressure-treated deck materials should always be coated on top to extend their durability. Sweeten contractor Chris stated that, because of these issues, pressure-treated wood has largely fallen by the wayside for upper deck materials, though it is always used for the lower structure.
The best time to build or renovate a deck
Inclement weather offers few advantages to any type of building project. Tarping the deck during precipitation may improve conditions during construction, but crews usually work without a cover. Frozen ground can slow digging of the holes for the footers. While late spring to mid-fall is the most comfortable time to build or renovate, most deck builders work year-round. The trick to working through all seasons, said Chris, is to dig the holes for the footers in advance—before the ground freezes.
(Above) Renovation in Bridgehampton, NY by Sweeten general contractor John
Average sizes and costs of decks
The average national cost for a deck addition is $14,360, according to Remodeling’s Cost vs Value. Premium decks with full-service amenities similar to all-purpose outdoor entertainment areas range up to 2,000 square feet in suburban areas north of downtown Chicago but generally remain between 200 and 400 square feet. Deck sizes in downtown Chicago tend to be smaller but higher and multi-level averaging between 70 to 120 square feet. Costs range from $40,000 to $60,000, and near $100,000 to $150,000 when the deck sprawls and includes larger amenities, like a swimming pool.
For general contractor Chris, average deck size is in the range of 25 feet by 14 feet, resulting in total square footage of 250 square feet. Deck-building costs are highly variable, said Facini, depending on factors such as decking materials, condition of the site, grade, number of decks and height, along with special items like glass railings. Generally, expect decking material costs around $20 to $30 per square foot for composites or tropical hardwoods like teak. Overall costs generally range from $25,000 to $30,000.
Regardless of how much outdoor space you have, a deck brings the joy of expanding your living and entertaining area. Understand the costs, timing, and material choices, and you’ll be one step closer to your own patch of nature.
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