Deck Planning, How To Get Started

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Photo Credit: Ryan Frost

One of the most popular Home Improvement projects (and my favorite) is deck building.  Decks virtually add an entire room to your home–and are a great beginnerish level project for any Do-It-Yourselfer.  Not only can you say you did all the project work–a well done deck will add a ton of enjoyment and value to your house.  With something of this scale–it is pretty important to really plan it out down to the last detail before you begin tearing up your backyard with some heavy equipment.  Of course–if it were my house, I’d start with the heavy equipment–but that is why I am safely installed far away on the other side of the monitor and not in your backyard.  Naturally, before deck building comes deck planning.  Getting started is as easy as having the idea to either renovate (read: demolish) your old deck, or getting started on one that doesn’t exist yet.  Of course, you will want to check with the local building authorities regarding zoning, permits, and neighborhood covenants and such.  Before I get into too much trouble, I should mention the utility company as well.  You never know where lines, pipes and other things that need not be disturbed are.  Best to cover your bases before renting that excavator.  811 is a great service to “Call before you dig”, (although usage and rules vary from state to state).  Tools to have handy will be a tape measure that covers the entire scope of your dream deck, stakes to lay-out and visualize your deck, and some string to straight line once you have everything measured and laid out.

Before pounding a bunch of stakes–it’s probably best to play mini-architect and plan out what you want out of a deck.  Will you have a built in hot tub?  A specific area for grilling?  Multiple levels for your regal entrance into the backyard?  Obviously the size and location of your home will play a part.  Giant decks on smaller homes can look a bit odd, and a tiny postage stamp deck and a bigger house has the effect of an afterthought.  Orientation should be taken into consideration as well–depending on your climate–south and west facing decks can be really hot in the heat of the summer–conversely northern facing decks can be quite a bit cooler.

Once you have a good idea of the overall size of what you’d like in a deck–get out there and pound some stakes.  Pound them into the outer boundaries of what you envision.  Take your string and get a feel for how big (or small) it is going to end up.  You can even put a chaise lounge out there, and get an idea for how your other deck gear will fit out there.  (Be prepared for neighbor stares at this point of your planning).  Something to consider when planning the actual size of your deck is the forethought to the material that it will be made of.  Of course–structural lumber comes in 8′, 10′, 12′, 14′, and 16′ lengths.  See where I’m going with this?  Plan for two to four foot increments to maximize the amount of deck you get for the material you’re going to be purchasing.

I do not know the local building codes where everyone lives–but most decks don’t reach above 4′ above the ground without some additional requirements for the bracing of the framing.  Most of the decks I’ve built have fallen well beneath that–and I won’t get into cantilevered and knee-braced decks here.  There are also stair, and railing requirements.  One of my local requirements for railings is the “Baby Head Rule”.  It is just what it sounds like.  The railing spindles can’t be spaced far enough apart so that a baby’s head could get through them.  Typically that is about 4”x4” in any part of the railing (again, check your local code).  Another thing to consider in the cost of your planning.  Unfortunately–even if you don’t have babies that poke their heads through deck railings–building to code is pretty important for none other than the fact that trying to sell a house with out of code structure can be a giant pain, can result in loss of value, and babies could die.  No pressure.

Some structural considerations to remember in your planning are:  The railing materials, posts, and handrail.  Decking, joists (16” to 24” on center, typically), horizontal beams (you can build your own “beams” by nailing together 2x material), and the vertical posts.  For your posts–you want to have some knowledge of the ground you are building on.  Concrete plinth blocks work in a lot of situations, but may require more vertical posts than a post placed on poured concrete column.  Never a bad idea to consult with your local lumber yard, or DIY center to see what is the norm in your area.

Ok–I’m getting out of control here.  See?  I could talk about decks at ridiculous length.  They are just so cool. It really is a DIYer project that you can get a lot of use, and flair out of.  Angles, curves, multi-levels, around trees, rocks–if you can think it you can do it!  Keep checking back–and I’ll have more deck building tips and ideas just in time for deck building season.  In fact, next week I’ll be discussing deck materials.

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2 thoughts on “Deck Planning, How To Get Started”

  1. Just a quick note on 811. I was putting in a deck and knew there was buried phone and cable lines as well as a gas line in the area. Called 811. They covered phone and gas lines but did’t tell me until they were here that the cable company wasn’t one of their subscribers. It took an additional 4 days for cable to come out and mark their lines. You might want to check to confirm that ALL lines you suspect are covered by 811.

    • Thanks for the tip Liz. . . I wasn’t aware that certain organizations like monopolies cable companies can opt out of 811. Good thing to be aware of, although I say consider cutting the cord to cable anyway!


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