Designing the Perfect Deck

My backyard deck is simple, but beautiful. And though it may seem deceiving, a huge amount of design consideration went into it.

But how can I call it perfect, though? Well, as I see it, if you start out with some extremely careful thinking and develop a crisp/clear end-vision which you can morph into a reality that meets (or even exceeds) your design criteria — then I think you’re allowed to say the end product is perfect. Because you’ll surely feel that way!

One thing for sure – designing and building a deck is not a small project.

And for the effort you’re going to put in, the money you’re going to spend – and the amount of time your deck will be a permanent part of your home — some serious advance thought is definitely warranted.

In the summary that follows, I’ll lay out the thinking and steps that went into my deck design. This will include deck design images (slides I created), deck design photos (actually high-quality “renderings” from a deck software design package that I used), contractor engagement nuances – and then we’ll wrap up with several actual construction photos.

You’ll get the whole process, soup to nuts.

Backyard Composite Elevated Deck with Lattice

Some Key Considerations & Deck Design Ideas

To begin, I made a list of everything I could think of that mattered to me. This was the second time I was designing a deck from scratch, so I had a little experience. Still, though, it pays to be exhaustive in your thinking. Keep in mind how much money you’re going to be spending – you *really* want to do this right…

A wooden deck or composite decking material?

The substructure will almost surely be constructed with treated lumber – but the decking itself can be wood or one of a variety of composite materials available today. My first deck was wooden, and it looked beautiful – but I found it to be a lot of maintenance. This time, I decide to try a composite decking material.

What type of rails for your deck?

Here again, I had wooden rails on my first deck. You can get some absolutely beautiful balusters/spindles with wood. But, this is also what I did with my first deck – and I was really concerned with minimizing maintenance this time. (Painting rails & spindles is absolutely no fun at all.) So, this time, I decided to use PVC rails – not generally as ornate, but neat, clean and lower maintenance. This is a little more expensive than standard wooden rails, though.

A multi-level or single-level deck design?

This is completely personal, but in my opinion if you have a smaller deck – keep it to one level. If your deck is on the larger side, though, breaking it up into multiple levels can add quite a bit of character, and you don’t need to have more than a single step up/down to get this effect. I decided to go with two levels, with a single step-up.

How many stairways from the deck to the ground? Where?

This all depends on your yard, of course, and what you need to get to. You’re surely going to have at least one way on/off the deck to the yard. I went with two staircases.

Will gates be required for your deck?

This can be a great safety feature, especially for small children on an elevated deck.

Orientation of the deck in the yard for future enhancements?

What do you expect the yard look like in 10 years? Will you add a pool? A garden with a walking path? If at all possible, before making a huge improvement like a deck, have a sketch of what you envision your property looking like 10-years down the road. See if you can accommodate those future nuances in the deck design today. Naturally, you don’t want to add something if you’re not sure you’re going to use it – but if there’s any way you can accommodate without making things look unfinished, then surely try to do so.

Additional decking supports for future structures? (Maybe a hot tub one day?)

This is a *perfect* example of something you cannot go back and do AFTER your deck is built. If you think you might one-day want a hot tub on the deck (even if its part of the 10-year plan), put the infrastructure in place now.

Sun exposure for your deck?

Will your deck be baking in the sun all day? Will it be baking in the sun at 4PM when you think you’ll be having BBQs? Before you build, consider carefully the path of the sun and how it might impact your ultimate plans for using your new addition. Should you perhaps anticipate an awning if you have too much sun?

Existing hose bibs, electrical outlets and dryer venting to accommodate?

When you consider the positioning of your deck, know that any existing items like hose bibs, dryer vents and electrical outlets can be moved – but will you be losing anything you need? Is it really necessary to mess with this stuff, or can you tune the position your deck to avoid this?

What fancy touches can be cheaply designed into your deck from the get-go?

Finishing touches absolutely make a huge difference in just about any project, and they don’t have to cost a lot. You’ll see in my deck design below, I cut the rails at 45-degree angles on one portion of the deck, as I thought it might look kind of cool. Turns out it did! And it didn’t cost anything extra. I also added lattice. I love lattice… costs more, of course, but it really adds so much to the aesthetic especially if you have some significant elevation, as I did.

A “trap door” (removable panel) for storage or deck substructure access?

Okay – this may sound a little weird, I know. But here’s the thing: I did indeed design in a removable section of the lattice in my deck. And over the past few years – I’ve used it at least 3-4 times. If you can do this, *do* this. You never know when you might need to get underneath, and you might just find you’ve created a nice storage area as well. I didn’t pay a penny extra for this – the crew just needed to know that I wanted it, and where to put it.

Initial Drafts of your Deck Designs

The onus is going to be on you to communicate with crystal clarity what you really want (to the construction crew and to your township when you apply for permits), and the best way to do this is with pictures.

And frankly, once you start drawing some pictures – you’re going to see things yourself that you don’t like and/or want to tune. I started with some basic measurements (knowing where I wanted the deck to be positioned by spray painting lines on the ground and walking the area with my wife), and simply make a slide that I modified about 15 times.

Two of the final versions are below… they’re quite intentionally simple and clear.

Fundamental Deck Design Image 1

Fundamental Deck Design Image 2

It’s really important to convey that the above did not take 20 minutes. There were multiple versions, even with these simple pictures. I’d say this effort spanned at least a week. Drawing a few versions, sleeping on it, marking up the grass in the yard differently, drawing some more, etc…

There’s no rush here. Get it right. Make sure it feels good to you.

Beyond Pictures: A 3-D Deck Software Design

There’s plenty of low-cost software available today to take fundamental designs (like those shown above) and allow you to model them on any PC in 3-dimensions. You can add colors and textures, and once you have a design essentially “built” in your computer you can essentially “walk around it” in your virtual backyard.

Here again – this takes *hours* to do right. Don’t think this is easy – it’s true work, but keep thinking about the price tag on that deck. Is it worth going the extra mile and extra hours to make sure you really know what you want?

Below are a few of my renderings – you can see the deck almost coming to life now, and it’s rendered right in your [virtual] backyard. If you look carefully at some of these pictures, you’ll see I even added in a swing set, a play area and a shed… those were really there already – and everything was measured to their precise dimensions.

Deck Software Design - Image 1

Deck Software Design - Image 2

Deck Software Design - Image 3

Deck Software Design - Image 4

As you can see from the screen shots above, I used a version of Punch! Ultimate Deck & Landscape software to create these visuals. It works beautifully – and I’ve also used it to model and visualize various landscaping designs at my home quite recently as well. You can take a look at this software tool via the link I provided just above, or you can click on the image below if you like. This was unquestionably well-worth the investment for me.

Not only did this software modeling effort allow me to tune the design further, but can you imagine what the design crews thought when I eventually showed them my 3-D illustrations? Two things: 1) this guy knows what he wants, and 2) this is going make our lives easier – we know what will make him happy.

I genuinely find that preparation like this sets everyone up to succeed.

Engaging your Deck Construction Crew

Now it’s time to start interviewing construction teams. The best way to find such folks almost warrants an article on its own – but I generally work only with word-of-mouth referrals, and I *always* prefer local folks. Furthermore, I work exclusively with company owners. If I can’t meet all of these criteria, I almost always keep shopping around.

At this point, you’re going to be in amazing shape – because you’re not only going to tell them what you want, you’re going to hand them a “package” of pictures: some of the 2D shots (with measurements), along with a number of the 3D color rendering shots as well for the more “real-life” look and feel of what you want.

I always end such packages with a slide like the one just below – made intentionally clear and concise, addressing some final questions and logistical concerns.

Contractor "Request for Quote" Package Slide

So, given the above, I met with three different companies. The variation in prices I received spanned roughly 100% — in other words, my lowest price was half of my most expensive price. I find this is not-at-all uncommon. Price variation can be through the roof, which is another reason you need to be as prepared as possible and only work with highly credible referrals. Understanding the breakdown for the pricing is also imperative. It might very well be that someone’s price is cheap because they plan to use cheaper materials. Get ALL detail so you can make the best decision.

And ultimately, go with the person you feel you can trust.

Another key tip at this point with regard to the decking material: get samples.

Once I had decided on a contractor and we discussed the various decking materials, I had a choice of three colors. I had the contractor get me three small samples, about a foot long each. I poured oil, coffee, fruit punch and beer on them. And I let them bake in the sun. Why? Well, aside from the fact that this was fun (which it *really* was), I wanted to see how much abuse they could take – and I discovered some very interesting facts:

  • Nothing stained the decking except for oil – meaning I had to be careful with grease splattering by the BBQ
  • One color in particular remained much cooler in the sun than the other two, and fortunately that was the color I was hoping to use.

I think of this every time I walk barefoot on that deck now in the summer – and definitely anytime someone drops a hot dog!

Deck Construction Photos – The Deck Design Comes to Life…

Finally – construction begins. It took more than a full week to construct this deck.

The time progression photographs follow…

Deck Construction Photo 1 - Lumber Delivery

The core materials are delivered.

Deck Construction Photo 2 - Footings

The footings are poured – requiring an inspection sign-off from the township.

And now the substructure starts to take form:

Deck Construction Photo 3 - Substructure

Deck Construction Photo 4 - Substructure

Deck Construction Photo 5 - Substructure

Decking and railing  is now added to the substructure.  Note that the rail posts have true 4x4s at the core – they’re quite solid:

Deck Construction Photo 6 - Railings

Deck Construction Photo 7 - Decking and Railings

White lattice, cedar-colored flashing and the fancier white post caps (which I added at the very end of the construction in real time), I think, really add final character to the deck:

Final Deck Construction 1

Final Deck Construction 2

Final Deck Construction 3

And we’re done – it’s BBQ time.

I’m particularly proud of this deck, and maybe I’m lacking humility in saying that — but what could be better than having something this elaborate turn out exactly the way you conceived and designed?

I think when you pull something like this off, you have every right to consider it perfect!

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  1. Thank you so much, Jan! I’m glad you find the information helpful – and that’s very kind of you to say! I always find these BIG projects particularly nerve-wracking as you have only one real shot to get the design “just right.” Going back an making changes after (or during) construction is often just so costly and can be really frustrating as well. Best of luck with your deck!!

  2. Hi Mark
    I found your site from Mitz’s site – and wow it’s fantastic! We are going to be building a deck one day when we have the finance so I am book marking your site and will send your link to my handy man partner. There’s so much great information here.

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