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I expect you have seen in a neighbour’s or friend’s garden a horizontal wooden structure covered in deckchairs, barbeque and other items showing that this person’s family spends a lot of time living in their garden. I expect you have wondered what this structure is and how you go about getting one of your own. Today we are going to discuss and compare the various factors to be considered when building a deck, how much it will cost and who can build it for you.
At its very simplest a deck is a wooden platform slightly raised above the level of the garden on which people can rest, sunbathe and entertain without worrying about getting themselves muddy or destroying the lovely lawn. People like rooms, either inside or out, and if they can recreate as much as possible their indoor rooms in their garden then they will be happy.
At its most lavish, a deck can incorporate:
In fact it is an outdoors living room, play area, kitchen and entertainment centre combined.
Before we talk about who we can hire to do the job for us, we must know a little bit about what kind of decks are available and discuss the pros and cons of each type.
Commercially available decks are available in three types of materials.
Composite. Composite materials are typically made from recycled plastics and wood fibres.
Vinyl. PVC is a common manmade substance used in the manufacture of decks, windows, doors, fascia boards and other extruded building materials.
Wood. This category includes pressure treated softwoods (such as pine), redwood, cedar and hardwood.
Each material has its own advantages and disadvantages which can be summarised as follows in the table below:
|Pressure treated softwood||Redwood & cedar||Hardwood||Composite & Vinyl (PVC)|
|Maintenance||This has the highest maintenance costs of all the materials. This material splits easily with exposure to the weather and with age. Over time it will require replacement boards and need regular staining and sealing.||Although the wood is more durable than pressure treated, it still requires regular sealing to maintain its performance.||Although this is the best wood option regarding strength and endurance, it still needs regular sealing to maintain its high performance.||This material has the lowest maintenance requirements; it needs only a regular wash with household detergent and water to maintain its appearance. Its colour and texture is very long lasting, especially PVC.|
|Performance||This material will physically split, crack, form splinters and eventually warp. Its appearance is easily bleached by the sun and accepts stains and scratches readily. Poor resistance to wood boring insects and rot.||Readily cracks and splinters. Resists fungal rot and wood boring insects. Easily stained and sun bleached. Scratches easily.||Does not easily splinter. This material resists deterioration and does not bleach, stain or scratch easily.||Overcomes the main problems found with wood. Composite materials stain, bleach and scratch but PVC and capped composites resist this better.|
|Lifespan||If properly maintained and repaired this material can last for up to 15 years.||If properly maintained and repaired this material can last for up to 20 years.||When properly maintained and repaired this material can last for at least 40 years||Although reputable manufacturers give guarantees and warrantees for about 25 years, if properly maintained this material will last much longer.|
|Cost factors||This has the lowest initial cost but highest maintenance costs.||Higher initial cost than pressure treated wood but less maintenance costs.||Higher initial cost than cedar & redwood but less maintenance costs.||This has the highest initial cost but its ongoing maintenance costs are virtually zero.|
Irrespective of which material you have chosen, all types of deck should be inspected at least annually for damage, wear and safety issues. They should also be cleaned regularly with mild detergent and water and any scuffs touched up with the appropriate stain and sealing system.
Although the designs of available decks are limited only by your budget and your imagination, there are certain standard types which can be the inspiration for your custom made structure. An understanding of these types and their advantages and disadvantages will make the final decision an easy one to make.
Platform Decks. This kind is the simplest style. They are built close to the ground with typically two or three steps up from the garden level. They are usually built on level ground and can be attached to single storey houses if needed, thus being the first area encountered when walking out of the rear entrance, French doors or sliding patio doors. Because they are so close to the ground, perimeter railings are not usually needed although they are recommended if you have small children, or elderly relatives. If railings are not used then use another way to indicate the perimeter such as raised planter troughs or bench seating. This style works well when using angles, sweeping curves and a gazebo with screened panels.
Platform decks with waterproofing. Because platform decks are so close to the ground, it is often difficult to protect the base and the underside from water related problems. All structural parts should be pressure treated or otherwise rated for ground contact. Give at least two coats of protective sealer and preservative to all underside components before construction.
Raised decks. If your garden slopes away from the house you may require a raised deck. All raised decks, no matter how they are built must have safety railings, to prevent accidents, and stairs to provide access to the garden. When raised decks are completed they will have exposed foundations and foundation posts that may be concealed using considered planting or skirting. Skirting is usually made from lath or lattice fence panels completely enclosing the underside of the deck. It is important to include in the design a loose panel or a door to allow access to the underside for maintenance purposes. This may also be useful as a place to store garden furniture or other items during the winter.
Two storey decks. Two storey decks will provide access to the upper levels of your house. They can incorporate balconies for the upstairs rooms with easy access to the rear garden. Although useful as a fire escape they can also cause security issues with private upstairs rooms being open to trespass. While the extra access is an advantage, the additional foundation posts and structural bracing can detract from the beauty of the structure. With careful design the required 12”x 12” posts and bracing can be incorporated into the overall scheme to provide aesthetic features.
Exposed posts. Sometimes exposed structural beams and posts, although complying with the building regulations and codes can appear spindly and unsafe. In this case it is worthwhile disguising them with decorative boards or use larger than required cross sectional beams to give the impression of sturdiness and strength. Another way is to use stone or brick pillars to support the deck structure.
Multilevel decks. This type is made from a series of decks connected with steps or sloping walkways. It is used if your garden slopes away from the house and you don’t want a raised deck. It is useful as an alternative to a raised deck when the level is required to be near the ground at all times. The deck follows the ground level contours and is useful for situations where you do not want the view obscured. The multilevel platforms provide variation and interest and can separate different areas for different purposes, for example sunbathing, barbeque, children’s play area etc. This style can also exploit the various microclimates within the garden such as having one area with shade from nearby trees, another positioned for maximum sun in the morning while another is used for sun in the evening.
Freestanding decks. These are not attached to the house at all. They are useful when either the construction of the house is not suitable for a deck to be fitted to it or the layout of the garden is such that the deck is required elsewhere. This can take advantage of natural shade or sun or a view that would not be possible if the deck was attached to the house. They become more like a part of the garden rather than an extension to the house. They are usually built using the platform or multi-level methods and use the same basic techniques as the attached deck except that nothing is fixed to the house.
It is easy to transform your new deck into an outdoor living area that reflects not only your lifestyle but your sense of design and artistic style and can provide an addition that will add value and kerb appeal to your property if you ever decide to sell.
Most people that want a deck will at some time in its life want to have lighting and the use of at least one electrical power socket. Doesn’t it make sense, rather than worry about trailing extension cables, to have the electrical services installed when the deck is constructed? All cables can be hidden within the structure and post supports can be installed to carry electric lighting. For safety and legal reasons you will need a qualified and registered electrician to install any mains electricity cables, sockets and lighting. All outside mains voltage services must be fitted using circuit breakers and exterior rated fittings. Of course you can easily install DIY solar powered lights and low voltage decorative lights but depending on the sunshine you receive that day, it may not be enough to power your lights for the all-night party you are planning.
That depends on the level of complexity you wish your deck to have. A simple platform deck would be well within the capabilities of the average DIY person as long as any plumbing or electrical work is done by a registered professional. The construction methods are simple and no advanced knowledge is required. The deck is near the ground so any necessary safety considerations are not too difficult to implement. You have to remember that your deck can potentially have many people together with furniture and other things which together can be very heavy. You do not want the structure to collapse due to faulty construction methods and someone get seriously hurt or even killed. So be extremely sure of your capabilities before starting to build a deck yourself. If in doubt get advice from a professional carpenter.
If your garden slopes or has irregular contours and you require a two storey or multilevel deck; or the deck requires support from the existing house structure, my advice is to employ a contractor. A good reputable carpenter or specialist decking contractor will have the advanced woodworking and construction knowledge required to produce a safe and good looking addition to your garden.
If you decide to attempt the job yourself, it would be advisable for you to seek advice about construction codes and principles and about the necessity of obtaining a permit from a professional. Your local or state construction planning department will be able to advise you about the legal and permit situation. A qualified person such as a carpenter or architect will be able to advise you about construction methods and an experienced garden designer will be able to help with your design and how it can blend into your existing environment. If you are just asking for advice any national or local government body will usually not charge you, although there may be a nominal charge for administration. With the construction and design advice, you might be lucky and find someone willing to provide the benefit of their experience free of charge, otherwise expect to be charged for their time. Although this is an additional expense you probably could do without, you will find it invaluable in the long term as it will save you a lot of time and money if you find you have made silly avoidable mistakes.
There are many contractors available who can construct a simple or more complex platform deck. Any contractor who says they are able to build a multi-level or multiple storey deck without a full set of plans will be one to avoid. Multiple storey decks require structural calculations that only an architect or structural engineer is qualified to attempt. The multilevel decks may not require the structural calculations but will require other calculations necessary to incorporate the different levels seamlessly into one coherent structure pleasing to the eye.
If the proposed deck is to be constructed from ‘real’ timber cross sections and lengths available from any sawmill or building & construction supplier, then a reputable carpenter is all that is needed. If however you want a deck made from one of the many pre-moulded decking brands, then you will need someone who has had the training to work with that particular brand. Most good deck moulding manufacturers provide training courses for contractors and if someone is advertising themselves as a decking contractor then they will have had training in at least one decking system.
While we are talking about manufacturers, it is worth mentioning that they usually supply a design service and will do the structural calculations for you, free of charge, specifying their own particular components. If this is what you want then you should do your homework and look at a few manufacturers’ websites to see what they offer. Get a selection of ‘no obligation’ quotations from them for your desired deck design. Another advantage of using a specialist contractor will be that he will either also be registered as an electrician or will be able to subcontract any electrical work to someone who is registered.
You must realise that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg”, so a certain amount of upheaval is to be expected. Having said that, a reputable decking contractor or professional carpenter will try to minimise any upheaval or damage that takes place within your garden. More importantly they will reinstate your property to its prior condition as much as they are able with the added advantage that you will have a new deck.
Make sure that there is a clause in your contract stating who will be cleaning up and the extent to which any upheaval will be minimised and any damage will be made good. Bear in mind that in order to fulfil his obligations he may need special vehicular access to the garden to remove waste or he may have to charge you extra on top of the original invoice. Either or both of these are acceptable practice and you should expect additional charges when necessary. These should however be mentioned in the contract so you know what extra items are to be expected.
As always, when looking around for a good contractor there are many tried and tested methods to find suitable candidates.
Do not neglect the power of social media and personal interactions with family, neighbours and friends. Find out who has had work done previously and whom would they recommend.
Contact decking manufacturers who should have a list of local contractors that have successfully passed their training courses.
Ask the local building supplies retailers.
Ask at larger garden centres. Most of these companies supply decking materials and would be able to suggest someone who can help. Usually contractors take advantage of building suppliers and garden centres by leaving their business cards on view.
Remember that if a contractor uses these places for advertising, it does not mean that they have been recommended by them. Whether their standard of work is enough to satisfy your requirements is completely up to you to decide.
There are professional associations for deck builders. In the USA there is the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA), while in the UK there is the Timber Decking and Cladding Association (TDCA). Both associations will give advice on choosing a contractor, how to correctly specify, plan, install and maintain decking. They list approved suppliers, building regulations and codes, industry standards and useful press articles aimed at manufacturers, wholesale and retail suppliers, inspectors, contractors, general users and any service industry connected with the industry. They both try to increase the safety practices of deck design and construction and improve the quality of workmanship of deck contractors. NADRA organises professional development courses designed to assist contractors with updating their current certification. TDCA is recognised as a technical and advisory organisation in the UK, assisting not only large commercial contractors but also individuals planning a DIY project.
When you have decided on a shortlist of possible contractors get in touch with them and ask the following questions:
An idea of how much construction experience goes a long way when deciding who to choose. But don’t dismiss newcomers to the decking industry if their previous work involves transferable skills. Ask them why they think their skills suit them for building decks.
A good contractor will need insurance to cover negligence or omission at work, injury or death to you, your family or anyone else, insurance to cover him and any employees while working on your property. Don’t just take his word for it, ask to see the documents and find out the name of his insurance provider. Some disreputable contractors can forge the insurance documents so contact the insurance provider yourself.
This includes the quality of the materials as well as the handiwork, although the manufacturer will usually back the quality of materials as long as certain requirements have been met.
You may need permits to attach structures to your house and there may be building codes or regulations which the construction must comply with. Usually, if the proposed deck is within 8 ft of a property line you will need a permit (in some areas it is even less). Check with the local building codes to confirm one way or the other.
Make sure he can start reasonably soon but don’t expect him to start next week. Unless he has had a cancellation in his schedule, he should have a list of people waiting for his services. If he hasn’t then you must ask yourself if there is anything wrong with his quality of work.
Obviously you will want the decking finished as soon as possible so you don’t want the work team arriving halfway through the day and leaving early whenever it is good surfing weather. Discuss what the core hours will be with the supervisor or contractor and suggest a penalty payment if the project’s duration overruns. Remember that sometimes a late start or early finish time are unavoidable if they need to collect materials, but there is no excuse for it to happen more than about twice a week.
Will there always be a supervisor on site during the working day?
Work involving building codes or specialist knowledge will require someone on site qualified to make decisions or take charge in case things go wrong.
Some contractors or carpenters will have experience in one or two decking systems but very little experience in another system. Find out which ones are the contractor’s specialities and which ones are their weaknesses.
Follow these up and ask to see the work the contractor has done. Were there any problems which had to be overcome? How professional was the team? How close was the estimate to the finished price and was the work completed on schedule? Ask how they would grade the contractor’s follow up service if any was necessary.
From your shortlist, you can now invite two or three contractors to your property to have a look at the job. You can then ask them for a written estimate of costs for the proposed job. Remember that the contractor will need something to calculate his costings from.
Be prepared to supply him with drawings or plans of the proposed deck together with dimensions and desired materials. Talk about anything unusual or extra you want incorporated into the design so he can allow costs for speciality contractors.
When you have made your decision on which contractor you would prefer. It is time to sign the contract confirming that you want the work done by this person.
The following items should be clearly documented in the contract:
Some contractors supply a file at the completion of the job showing photographs at each stage together with copies of material specifications and amounts supplied. In fact everything needed to prove that they did the job you asked for. Encourage your contractor to do this, it might save problems later.
A copy of the contractor’s license and his insurance documentation. Remember to check this independently. Some contractors have been known to forge documents.
The start date, expected completion date and how any delays will impact the total cost.
Details of permits, building codes & regulations and design approvals.
A detail of clean-up, during and after work has completed. Who is responsible for this?
An assurance of responsibility for any damage done to your property by the contractor and his team or subcontractors.
Site rules for his team. Don’t forget to query this if things have been omitted in your opinion. Will they be allowed to play music? Do you allow smoking on site?
Are there any safety requirements needed during the work. Will the area be fenced off from the rest of the garden? Will the workforce be wearing appropriate protective clothing at all times?
What are your responsibilities during the work? Do you have to exclude children and pets from the work area (a wise precaution); provide electricity and water when needed? Provide access and parking areas for vehicles.
Qualifications. Your contractor will need to have appropriate training and experience, not only with carpentry in general but also with the specialist decking system you have chosen. Contact the manufacturer to see if his claims are real. Find out if he is a current member of any professional trade associations such as the NADRA in USA or TDCA in the UK.
Certification. Some states require a contractor to be certified and others do not. If in doubt, check with your local city or state building codes or planning office.
License. He will definitely require a contractor’s license. For any specialist licenses contact your local planning office for advice. On no account let anyone install electrical or plumbing fittings without being a registered electrician or plumber.
Insurance. Every contractor must have insurance to cover
Be aware that any insurance documents you are shown may be forged or may just be valid for that day. Contact the insurance provider to confirm he has cover. Make sure the amount of cover is enough for your circumstances.
Although the installation cost for composite decking components is definitely going to be more than for wood, when factoring in maintenance and repair costs over the lifetime of the deck, there probably isn’t much difference in the total cost. The material costs for an average sized platform deck would typically be as follows:
|Pressure treated timber||$6000|
Typical local deck building contractor costs to maintain the wood decks will probably be as follows:
|Initial stain and seal||$700|
|Stain & seal at 2 yearly intervals||$700 every two years|
|Strip and sand every 6 years in addition to the bi-annual stain & seal.||$900 every six years.|
You can see that by year 12 you will have spent on maintenance (not including any repair work) about $6000 and you will still have a wooden deck that can split or splinter at any time. Compare this to a composite or PVC deck where you will have very little outgoings at all. Remember that extra items included in your deck, such as planters, benches, tables and electricity will increase the initial cost accordingly.
Whenever you employ a stranger you are running the risk of falling for a scam. Most local deck builders are honest hardworking men and women who are only interested in doing a good job for a fair and reasonable price. There are, however a minority who think that contracting is easy money and are prepared to lie and steal from their customer, who has probably saved hard to pay for their new deck. Be on guard for the con artist, they can come in many guises. The following points are just a few of the scams that are commonly used.
Contractors take advantage by offering a low price for the project, asking for a deposit payment in cash and then never coming back.
If the price sounds too good to be true, it usually is. You should expect to spend on average at least $10000 on a good quality deck. This price will depend on materials, size and design.
If the price is less than about $10000 then a deposit should not usually be required. A reputable contractor will be able to afford to do the project without a deposit.
Before you part with a bank cheque, ask for the contractor’s details such as his name and address, vehicle registration number, license registration number. You should already have most of these from the contract, but it won’t hurt to ask again.
A big decking project can be overwhelming for the average layman, so take time to consider your options and do not feel pressured into accepting a contractor’s offer, no matter how low his price is or how much he presses you.
Offering discounts for your project in return for finding new customers.
Having surplus decking materials left from another job. Even if this is true, you will probably find that the decking materials have already been paid for by the previous customer, so they aren’t the contractor’s to sell.
Only accepting cash. This implies that the contractor doesn’t want to have a paper trail either for tax evasion purposes or so he can scam you.
Insisting that you get the required building permits. If the contractor insists on you doing this, then probably he is not a bona fide contractor and has no proper contractor’s license.
Wanting an immediate decision. Any reputable contractor will appreciate that you are signing away a large amount of money and you will want to discuss this with your partner or family.
Asking for the entire project payment up-front. There is never a good reason for asking for full payment up-front. If the project is a large one then it is acceptable to ask for a deposit and have payments at agreed stages.
Suggest borrowing money to fund the project from a lender the contractor is associated with. This reeks of con-men and high interest loan sharks. Refuse to employ them and report the contractor to the authorities.
Be sure the materials come from a known source. Ask for documentary evidence such as invoices from a reputable supplier.
I want one!
Yes, I am sure you do. But let’s just recap on the things we have learned about today before you make up your mind.
Decks can be made from wood or manmade materials. Anything structural that isn’t going to be seen will probably be pressure treated timber, brick or concrete. The remainder can be wood or manmade. Choose wood if you want a lower initial cost but aren’t worried about maintenance costs and lifespan. Choose manmade materials such as PVC or composites if you would prefer to pay more up front for the luxury of not having to worry too much about maintenance.
Ask yourself questions about what is the deck’s primary purpose. Where do you want it placed? All these are just some of the questions needing answers.
Choose your contractor wisely and don’t take any special offers that appear too good to be true. If organising a contractor feels like you are getting out of your depth, seek advice from one of the professional bodies devoted to the decking industry. In fact if you are planning a DIY project, the organisations supply a wealth of information designed to assist the contractor and householder alike.
Are you sure you still want one? Then go ahead and make the first step.
So you have designed your deck, chosen your contractor, drawn up the plans and worked out the budget. The job is now finished and you are the proud owner of a deck. You have just finished waving to the construction team as they disappear down the driveway in their truck. You decide you will have a barbeque with the family before the sun goes down and maybe spend tomorrow lazing in a deckchair with a good book on your new deck.
It was worth every penny.