The deck shuffle: Outdoor joys close to home

May 16, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

Because of their affordability and ease of construction, outdoor decks are among the most popular home-improvement projects. But if you think a mere wooden platform outside the back door will automatically transform the backyard into a civilized and hospitable resort, you may be disappointed.

The downside to a run-of-the mill deck is its inability to adapt to changing circumstances. True, it does provide a uniformly flat surface that, at first glance at least, would seem to facilitate sunning, lounging and outdoor cooking. But that's true only under ideal and temporary conditions -- during the day, when the sun is out and the temperature is mild.

What an ordinary deck will not do is shield you from the sun during the hottest part of the day. Nor will it allow you to enjoy the outdoors during a warm summer rain. Nor will it protect you from flies or mosquitoes.

Just as bad -- perhaps worse -- is that a plain deck has all the charm and character of a helicopter landing pad. Even during the best of weather, it can leave its users feeling emotionally exposed and isolated and vulnerable, as if they are sitting on an empty stage. Even lounge chairs and umbrella tables may not be able to overcome such feelings of unease.

Visualize yourself using your outdoor room. What is it you want to do out there? Read, relax, soak up the sun, dine, entertain? Do you want a place to have breakfast in the morning as well as cocktails at night? Do you want to be able to use the deck during a gentle summer rain as well as during a bright and sunny day?

Check building codes

Before you begin the deck-building, check your local building codes to make sure your project complies with all regulations. Also, keep in mind a deck's true purpose: to expand your home's livable space beyond its four walls for either all or part of the year, and to, in effect, serve as an outdoor "room." Simply building what amounts to an outdoor floor, however, is not enough to achieve those goals. Just as an indoor room has shape, dimension and character, so should an outdoor room.

What to do? Consider the following options:

* Combine a deck with an attached-to-the-house screened-in porch that can provide shelter from the elements and protection from insects from morning until night. If you plan ahead, you can build the deck this year and add the screened-in area next year.

* In lieu of a porch, consider adding a gazebo (screened or not) or a pergola -- a small structure consisting of vertical columns or posts topped with beams or rafters. A gazebo usually has open sides and a solid roof; a pergola has open sides and an open roof. But, as open as they are, both structures can provide shade from the noonday sun, give you an alternative place to lounge and provide some sense of enclosure while relaxing or entertaining. Plant climbing roses or vines around a pergola and in a couple of years you'll have an outdoor room that's leafy-green and fragrant.

* Approximate the enclosing effect of walls and increase privacy by putting up see-through lattice-fencing around one or more sides of the deck. For visual interest, stagger the height of fence sections. Or put up vine-covered trellises around the deck, interspersed perhaps with ornamental trees.

* Instead of railings around a deck -- which can give you the feeling of being inside a corral or a playpen -- consider a series of benches and planter boxes of varying heights. Plant the boxes with a combination of perennial and annual flowers, for summer-long color, and evergreens so that even during the winter the deck looks attractive from inside the house.

* Instead of one large deck with a uniformly flat surface, think about several smaller contiguous decks at different levels. This is a good way to subdivide the deck into functional zones. One zone can be for sunning, another for lounging, and a third for barbecuing and dining. Make the two or three steps between the sections shallow but wide, so they can accommodate potted plants and double as seating or lounging areas.

* For more visual variety and decorative impact, install the deck lumber on the diagonal or in a herringbone or checkerboard pattern, rather than just straight across the deck.

* Don't forget about lighting. A deck that's usable only during the day is not living up to its potential. Low-voltage landscape light fixtures are ideal for lighting around the perimeter of the deck and the steps. Up-lighting spots or floods can illuminate nearby trees, making for a spectacular and dramatic nighttime scene. Avoid down-lighting floodlights that cast sharp shadows (and can obscure steps) and exposed light bulbs. While you're at it, have your electrician install a series of exterior electrical outlets -- for the hedge trimmers, a portable fan (an effective, non-toxic way of keeping mosquitoes at bay in the evening), a television or even table lamps.

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