If you want to build a deck but aren't sure how to start on a design, help is at hand -- or at least no farther than your local library, bookstore, or home-improvement center.
A couple in Chapel Hill, N.C., wrote to say a deck gets high priority on their list of new-home improvements and they need ideas. They've already got one of the best ideas: "We have a hot tub we want to build the deck around."
There's a wealth of information out there. A newly published book from Rodale Press, simply called "Decks," by Tim Snyder (co-author with Norm Abram of "The New Yankee Workshop"), offers a couple of designs that incorporate hot tubs. Besides photographs of the project, this book offers a framing plan and a materials list. Even if you don't build it yourself, the book will help you explain to a contractor what you want.
Two other deck books we've seen are "Decks," by the editors of Creative Homeowner Press, which gives step by step instructions for a number of deck projects, and "Popular Science Decks & Sun Spaces," by Alfred Lees and Ernest V. Heyn, which also offers photos, framing plans and plenty of graphic instruction.
These three are just the tip of the iceberg; check out local sources for other books on the subject.
The Popular Science book is especially good for information on unusual shapes and structures, offering detailed plans and framing instructions for such things as unusual shapes, bump-outs and planters.
While building a deck -- plain or fancy -- is not something an unskilled homeowner should tackle with a hammer and a hand saw, a dedicated do-it-yourselfer who has a wide range of hand and power tools and some experience in framing and construction should have no problem following the techniques in a good deck book.
We have a lot of faith in rehabbers' skills, which puts us somewhat at odds with the reader in Gaithersburg, a residential estimator with a lumber company, who wondered if we were going to offer individual deck counseling to baffled homeowners.
He makes some good points, however. If you're not doing it yourself, an odd-shaped deck might be more expensive than a plain square one. He's concerned that novice do-it-yourselfers might become involved in a project that's too complicated. It's up to the individual homeowner to decide whether he can realistically tackle an intricate deck design. Even if he or she decides to go ahead and then gets bogged down, it's always possible to turn to a professional to complete the project.
The best protection for inexperienced rehabbers is what we say about every project: Plan, plan, plan. The more you know about what you want, the better chance you'll have of getting it.
This reader also pointed out that pressure-treated lumber -- which a Baltimore deck-building expert had suggested be confined to structural supports -- is much less expensive, and more readily available than redwood or cedar. He's right, if expense is your main concern and you live in a smaller community where anything else is hard to obtain.
Our concern -- and the deck expert's concern -- was that people are settling for an ordinary, generic deck because they don't realize there are alternatives. We also wanted people to know that, in an era of increasing concern over chemicals in the environment, it isn't necessary to make exclusive use of heavily treated building materials.
The reader also suggested that using the best grade of pressure-treated wood -- No. 1 -- will result in the fewest problems -- a point we all agree on. But we don't agree that it will be maintenance-free. It will still need periodic cleaning and sealing.
On another topic, a couple in Baltimore who are contemplating building a 10-foot addition onto the rear of their house wonder of the footings for the new construction will damage the roots of "a great maple shade tree planted in 1954 that shades our whole house."
Currently the tree is about 17 feet from the exterior wall of the house. "What sort of a professional should we consult to find out if an addition to our house will compromise our tree?" they ask.
According to Randy Bernstein, owner of Arbor Masters, of Randallstown, the best advice comes from a licensed and insured "consulting arborist."
Mr. Bernstein, who happens to have just that credential, said the main concern with the proposed addition is how much of the tree's root system will have to be destroyed.
As a rule, for every portion of the root system that is removed, Mr. Bernstein says, an equal portion of foliage on the same side of the tree has to go.
That's not something that's easy for the average homeowner to determine. In any case, Mr. Bernstein says, if it's a large percentage of the roots, the homeowner may want to reconsider the addition plans.
In general, Mr. Bernstein says, he tries to discourage people from keeping large trees -- 70 to 100 feet tall -- within 20 feet of the house.