Free Deck Design Lesson
I apologize but this article is long.
It's kind like one complete free deck design lesson all in one. But
its also a pretty good reference and covers a lot of ground.
You may wish to print this lesson on deck design for future reference as you start planning your dream deck.
What becomes second nature to someone who has built decks for all
kinds of clients for more than 15 years, probably isn't second nature to
the beginner deck builder.
So I decided to write this out, rather like a lesson. Enjoy the free
tips, and hopefully you will be enlightened a bit after you have read
this from start to finish. Just click on the following headings to jump
to that section of the article.
What Do You Want From Your Deck?
A deck has the potential to literally be an extension of the living
space in your home. Decks expose us and connect us to our immediate
environment; an environment that can be as inspiring as the piercing
blue sky of an expansive vista, or a majestic mountain backdrop, or as
simple and peaceful as a place to sip morning coffee in a backyard
surrounded by full summer foliage and a warm breeze.
But more often than not, do-it-yourself deck builders spend zero
to little time actually planning their deck design before the first nail
And as a result, there are thousands of decks that look like
nothing more than an after thought; basically a planked floor randomly
attached to house.
Good deck designs can make your deck so much more. In fact with even
just a little bit of time spent learning basic design principles you
will be vastly more pleased with the outcome. You’ll build a deck that
is a seamless continuation of your homes architecture, without the
expensive architectural fees…
To start the deck design process off ask yourself what do you
primarily intend to use your deck for? Is it going to be a place for the
kids to play? Do you entertain lots of friends and grill outdoors
often? Is there a hot tub that you want to incorporate into some part of
the deck to create your own backyard spa?
Is it mostly for enjoying the sun or is it to get away from the sun
or wind? Do you want to combine some of these elements? Do you want
your deck to blend in with the architecture or do you want to want to
“import” design elements from another style or era?
Take some time now to answer these questions. It will get you
started in the right direction before you turn your mind to the next
topic – how to work with your site.
Work With The Surrounding Architecture and Landscape
Take a good look around your neighborhood. If the homes are all of a
similar era or architectural style you may find that if your deck were
to depart too radically from let’s say, the colonial or arts & craft
appearance, it may actually detract from your home. Some decks just
look better with a white colonial railing while others look perfectly
fine with natural cedar or redwood.
Organic and Imported Designs
Designs that build off or seem to naturally compliment the site or
architecture are often called “organic” whereas the alternative is an
“imported” design such as a southwest style deck on a Cape Cod beach
house - if you can imagine that. Not too appealing…
But if you import subtle characteristics, such as hints of color or
materials from another style you are more likely to successfully fuse
the two. But if this is your first deck you are building, you would
probably be best to stick with more organic designs.
Formal and Informal Designs
Keeping your surroundings in mind, consider whether your deck would
look better and fit in more if it were more formal by using symmetrical
shapes like squares or rectangles or traditional details in the trim or
railings. Or would a more informal deck design using curves or
asymmetrical shapes accent your home better.
Maybe so, if you are in a natural cabin or cottage environment. But
don’t throw in curves just to show off your carpentry skills. If you
are going to be more artistic and adventurous do it so that there is
some balance or a sense of purpose.
Basic Site Design
Once you have considered the following issues, it will be very easy
to determine where you would like to locate your deck. Or maybe you have
such a limited area to work with that there is really only one possible
place for your deck. Whatever the case, consider the following issues
so you can optimize your design.
Physical Obstacles or Attributes
Look at your site and take note of the physical objects that you
will have to design around. These will include things such as doors and
window locations along your house, drainage areas or downspouts,
underground utilities such as electricity, gas, phone or cable,
electrical outlets and hose bibs. Don’t forget to know the setback
distances if your deck will be encroaching a property line.
But also note the positive attributes that can really give you a
great opportunity to design your deck to compliment such things as
trees, gardens, large rocks or slopes.
Take a good look at the elevation of your building site. A flat site
will obviously give you different design options than a steeply sloped
site. But whether the land is flat or sloped you should take advantage
of it by working it into your deck design somehow.
Slopes can offer a great opportunity to take advantage of views or
introduce different levels or zones. Although it can be a challenge to
create separate areas with large elevation changes that actually feel
What often happens is that the lower deck level looks and feels
like a bit of an orphan. (talk about the krker job as way around this
problem). You can successfully overcome this problem by giving a lower
deck an identity of its own by creating an obvious purpose like a hot
tub area, a cooking zone or a sunning area.
Climate and Exposure
Make sure you know your directions. Take note of where the north,
south, east and west elevations are and be aware of the sun’s path and
height in the sky during the summer months when you will use your deck
Depending on your climate you may choose to position your deck to
take advantage of maximum sun exposure or maximum shade during midday.
Maybe it doesn’t matter to you but take a moment to think about it.
Also consider any prevailing winds that may affect your deck or any
open exposed views to other neighbors or high traffic zones if this is
relevant. You may choose to build a wind or privacy screen for your deck
Now that you have thoroughly examined the site and surroundings of
your deck, it’s time to start the actual design process. Design is
mostly an art but still relies on some basic rules of thumb.
You don’t have to rigidly adhere to any of these rules but by being
aware of them the result will inevitably be a deck design that scores
well for both form and function.
Creating Separate Areas on a Deck
Try to think of the areas or centers on your deck where people may
gather. If you deck is very small, this is not really a consideration
because space is at a premium. But it matters when you start designing a
Are there any social activities you envision and would like to
accommodate on your deck? Usually an eating area is common, but what
about a quiet area away from foot traffic where you can read or relax in
Hot tubs are a great addition when built into a deck and can be a separate center itself.
Nodes are like mini centers and take up less space. An area where
you have your barbeque grill and cooking equipment might be a node. It
can be positioned in a smaller area than a center but still should not
be directly in line with an established or frequently used foot traffic
area if possible. Built-in benches can have the effect of creating nodes
as well if the deck is all one level.
Level changes of 6” or 7” are excellent at defining breaks in
spaces. Contrasts in the direction of decking boards or perpendicular
perimeter decking can emphasize an elevation change.
By then end of this exercise you should have a clear idea in your
mind of the different areas on your deck and what their purpose is. If
you can’t define what their purpose is, chances are you are building an
area that will become useless space.
Stairs, Doors and Foot Traffic
Now that you have defined the different spaces on your deck you will
have to consider things such as doors, stairs, windows and foot
Where your deck is located in relation to the most popular areas on
the inside of your house determines how much it will be used. A deck
that is off of a master bedroom and is only accessible from the bedroom
will become a rather private space.
You wouldn’t expect to invite your friends over for a barbeque on
this deck as they would have to traipse through your bedroom each time.
Whereas a deck that is off the kitchen area is a natural
extension for an outdoor eating and socializing area. But will all of
the traffic through that patio door, be sure to set the eating area and
cooking area (centers and nodes) away from the direct line of traffic.
Where you locate a frequently used set of stairs will determine the
traffic flow. Think of the main exit of the house and the main exit from
(typically stairs) as points, which are to be joined by lines. You will
quickly see how traffic will tend to flow.
With that in mind, reassess your deck design to see if your quiet
reading area or hot tub area will be right in the way of a common
Remember people like to take the shortest route possible so if
traffic must cross the deck try to make sure it doesn’t cross directly
through an area you would like to be more tranquil. Try instead to make
the obvious traffic route follow along the perimeters of the deck
Transition zones from one center to another don’t have to be very
big. In fact 4’ or 5’ width is usually enough to create an obvious
pathway signaling to people that its not really a place to congregate.
The destination zone at the end would be more inviting.
You will see how people naturally prefer to gather in areas that
have focal points rather than narrow walkways. Use this to your
advantage when designing your deck.
Try to avoid having a railing meet the wall of the house right in
front of a window. It will never look good. Instead stop the deck before
or after the window.
Keep these free deck design tips in mind as they are the foundation
that you will build your design from. Now you can start thinking about
the finer more artistic aspects of your deck.
A good design must take into consideration the existing architecture.
If you completely ignore it, you will end up with what you typically
see on many homes – a deck that looks like an afterthought with no
particular sense of belonging.
So if you have a traditional New England style home you will
probably be looking at using fairly traditional styles and white color.
Contrasts and Continuity
Just because you may be confined with an existing architectural
style doesn’t mean you can’t find and use contrast to heighten the
senses. Contrast can be achieved through the use of color, material
changes in deck flooring, deck railing, posts or deck stairs.
Contrasts can be achieved by creating different sized areas on the
deck such as a large open area and then a smaller isolated nook with
benches or chairs rather than one big massive expanse of deck.
Glass or aluminum railings can contrast with a cedar deck floor.
Stair treads and deck boards can be a different color than the fascia
boards and stair stringers. Or the top rail of the deck railing can be a
copper color while the posts and balusters remain white.
You get the idea. Tasteful contrasts create subtle and attractive
differences for the eye and subliminally “sell us” on the beauty of a
deck. As a result it looks better, is used more frequently and adds more
value to your home.
Contrasts can be changes in materials, iron pickets, wood posts,
stone work around the deck against wood, or different colors, stucco
rail panels against a wood floor, connect two small decks with interlock
brick path, change decking pattern to contract levels.
Continuity simply refers to stylistic sense between the deck and the
house and surroundings. If you recall the earlier discussion on organic
and imported designs, its really the same thing.
Ask yourself if what you are designing actually makes sense. Ask
another person for their unbiased opinion. They will often pick up on
things right away that you over looked because you are so immersed in
The shape of a deck can sometimes improve its functionality and also
change the look of a house. A deck placed in the middle of a long
one-storey rancher can make the home look a little narrower.
Similarly a deck with noticeable horizontal lines can make a taller
house seem less so. Corners cut at 45 degrees can create visual
interest when not done excessively.
But sometimes simplicity in design says more than trying to overdo
something or else the deck just becomes too busy – too many focal points
- too many distractions.
Size and Cost
No residential deck ever needs to be more than about 14’ wide. In
fact 12’ is usually a good maximum to use. Beyond those numbers and the
deck begins to take away from its usefulness when you consider that 4
people sitting around a table don’t need any more than a 12”x12’ area.
There is a relationship between the size of a deck and cost but its
not always directly proportional. There is a little leeway. If you keep
in mind that most of the cost of building a deck is in the labor for
preparing the footings, posts and beams.
By keeping the same number of posts and beam length you can move
the posts and beam further out from the house and cantilever the deck
structure a bit more without increasing your costs. You will have to
increase the size of the joists and space them a bit closer but you
still are saving money.
Running the deck boards perpendicular to the house will increase
your material cost because the joists have to be run parallel and then
Beams mounted perpendicularly to a home are more challenging to
attach and this will increase your labor and likely the number of posts
But maybe the cost is worth the final look for what you have in mind.
Re-working Your Deck Design
Having just been inundated with all of these free deck design tips
and techniques its time to start drawing up the first of several deck
Start with a plan view of the lot and the house will all windows
and doors, electrical outlets, hose bibs, gas outlets, trees, rocks and
any other physical markers. Note the slope to or from the house with
arrows and include the North direction.
Draw several different versions of your deck shape playing with the
location of stairs, and the different zones. Note any level changes.
Show the direction of the deck boards and use arrows linking entry and
exit points of the deck to indicate expected traffic flow.
This is where some good deck design or layout software really comes
in handy. Some of the software we have found includes calculators for
stairs, joist spans, beam spans and deck load specifications.
They also tell you how big your beams and joists should be to
support the weights you anticipate. And then prints out the material
lists for you. Check them out.
By the third or fourth drawing you should be very close to your final design.
Well, you’ve covered a lot. But you are now armed with all the basics on deck design.
Now Go Design Your Own Deck!
Use this free deck design lesson to give you some inspirational ideas
for great deck designs of your own. Just a little bit of know how (which
you now have) and your own creativity is all it takes to build a wood
deck that tastefully stands out from the rest of your neighbors.