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Wood Deck Design Fundamentals:

Engineer a Dream Deck Following Building Codes

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Leaves on a Deck

Deck planks with fall leaves

This article was updated on 08/22/19.

As fall approaches, DIYers look for exterior projectsexterior projects that will be ready to enjoy the next spring and summer. Wood decks are one of the most popular in that category. It’s also a good return on investment. For most of us, our home is our largest investment.

Building your backyard deck can be a straightforward DIY project as long as the right amount of planning goes into it during the research stage. First, do a preliminary deck design, research local building codes and zoning restrictions, sketch out your ideas, and get a green light from your neighborhood association.

It might still be wintertime and a wee bit soon to be shedding the parka and slapping on your tool belt to begin your New Year’s resolution of putting together the backyard deck of your dreams.

Don't Panic But don’t panic! Planning is the most critical part of building a deck. This article covers the deck building planning and fundamentals. Other articles focus on the details of actually building and finishing your deck. The links are at the bottom of this article so read on.

First, Research Your Local Deck Building Code

There are many potential factors that can affect building an exterior structure. Inform yourself to start off on the right foot. Your particular restrictions might include:

  • Neighborhood Associations: Ah, the people we love to hate. Do you as a homeowner require special and prior permission? How about special restrictions?

  • Zoning Ordinances: What is the percentage of a residential tract that may be occupied by a structure?

  • Building Permits: Does your city or municipality mandate building permits and/or inspections for this DIY project?

  • City or Municipal Easements: What is the proximity to your property line may you build?

  • Critical neighbors. Every neighborhood has one it seems.

Next, Choose the Best Deck Location

A great deck location has a strong bearing on how much you’ll be able to enjoy your deck. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Your View: There are several things to think about here. What view do you find most attractive? Where is the best place to keep a watchful eye on the kids when they play in your yard or pool? Are you going to add a hot tubhot tub? If so, what is the optimal way to avoid your nosy neighbor’s prying eyes when a midnight hot tub party happens? A row of privacy trees might be an idea to think about.

  • South, East, North, West: Your home's geographic zone matters. This will help you to figure out how your deck needs to be situated. Do you want to minimize or maximize the amount of sunlight you’ll be exposed to?

  • Access to the Deck: Do you have a back door available to access your deck?

  • Front or back? Most people think of the back yard first. But, having one in front, like a porch, is a good way to relax and watch the world go around.

Now, Make a Rough Sketch of the Deck You Want

Now that you've come up with a general concept of the orientation of your deck, it’s time to take a break to make a scale drawing of your proposed deck, the house, and your property lines. Float different ideas regarding the shape and the size of your deck. Make sure it works in the yard and on your property in general. Here are some things to think about:

  • Sketch in your existing trees and landscaping. Do you need to remove a tree stump?

  • Find and draw out your gutter downspouts, buried utilities, outdoor faucets.

  • Make a note of soil elevation changes.
  • Make note of the views and nosey neighbors that you earlier thought about.

  • If you plan to begin rainwater harvesting the elevated deck is the perfect place to place your barrel/s since the system operates on gravity feed. Sketch in a deck offshoot to serve as a platform.

Finally, Experiment with Deck Plan Design

Alright then, you’ve done your rough sketch and you've discovered the best orientation of your dream deck. Now the fun starts. Just one of the wonderful things about designing a deck structure is that there are many variances that you can include. Here are some basic styles:

  • The Wraparound Deck: This style of deck wraps around an outside corner of your house. This is a great style when you're contending with a the hot summer sun (or your nosy neighbor’s hot tub view).

  • The Basic Deck: This one is just a square or a rectangular shape, built with or without stairs/steps or handrails.

  • The Basic Deck Incorporating Cutoff Corner: This style is a more visually attractive version of the basic. The outer corners are sliced off at a 45 degree angle to allow stairs to the pool or yard.

  • The Hot Tub Deck: The hot tub (party, party) is at a raised level from your deck and commonly incorporates a lattice or wood skirt that covers your hot tub’s base.

  • The Freestanding Deck: This style of deck is not physically connected to the home via a ledger board or any other device. It is most commonly used in a garden or backyard pond setting.

  • The Multi-Level Deck: Why should you be happy with one level when more is better? Picture it; the ground-level structure comes off your house at back door threshold level and then a second deck ties right into it seamlessly and steps up 6 inches or so.

Did you enjoy this article on wood deck design fundamentals? Did you find it helpful? If you can answer yes to either of those questions, please share the link with friends and social media. And if you have some related ideas please share them with our readers in the comment section below. Thanks for visiting; we’re all in this together!

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This is just the first in a series of six articles in the deck design and building series. So stay tuned!

  1. Part 1: Wood Deck Design Fundamentals
  2. Part 2: Deck Design and Framing Concepts
  3. Part 3: Lumber Sizes And Spacing for Deck Building
  4. Part 4: Deck Design and Post Hole Layout
  5. Part 5: Setting Posts in Deck Construction
  6. Part 6: Deck Building: Beams and Joists
  7. Part 7: Trex Composite or Aluminum Decking vs Natural Wood
  8. Part 8: Popular Deck Board Patterns and Decking Installation Instructions

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About the author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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