Well-developed 'specs' can leave you in good shape


June 11, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

People who are contemplating a home-improvement project are often haunted by the fear that they will pick a contractor, sign a contract -- and get a finished project that is not what they wanted, or less than they expected.

All construction projects involve a surprise or two, but you should still end up with the kitchen or deck of your dreams. Besides good communication with the contractor, the best way to ensure you'll get what you want is to get a good set of specifications.

"Specs" are a written description of a project. They set out exactly what work will be done and what materials will be used. If you start with a good set of specs, you'll know what you're getting. (Good specs also make the bidding process smoother, because you can see clearly where contractors' estimates differ.)

Say you're thinking of building a deck -- a lot of people are thinking of that about this time of year. What should you be looking for in the deck proposals you get? Even if you're planning to do the work yourself, it doesn't hurt to follow professional standards.

Here are some things to think about in deck construction.

* A good spec will allow you to make comparisons among work contractors propose. A contractor framing with 2-by-12 lumber is building a much sturdier deck than one who proposes framing with 2-by-8s. Two-by-8s are also a lot cheaper than heavier boards. How sturdy you want the deck will depend on how big it is, how much weight it will have to bear, how long you want it to last, among other variables.

* Specify good supports for your deck. Pressure-treated 4-by-4 posts can warp; instead specify a larger post, such as 6-by-6. The difference in price won't be great if the deck is close to the ground; if it's more than a couple of feet off the ground, the heavier posts are especially important.

* Embellishments that put extra weight on the deck, such as spas and planters, require more support.

* Deck boards should be screwed down with galvanized drywall screws, not nailed. Pressure-treated boards can warp and bend, and need the extra security of screws.

* Pressure-treated wood takes a beating from the sun. The wood should be treated as soon as it's installed, using a sealer that contains protection from ultraviolet light. The sealer should be reapplied every other year -- unless the deck starts to look dry and crack, and then the treatment should be done every year.

* Specify a safe and sturdy railing, so people can lean or sit on it. Balusters should be close together -- 4 inches or less -- so a child's head won't fit through.

* The deck should be well secured to the house -- bolted and not nailed.

* Make sure footings for the support posts are deep enough to meet code requirements in your area. They need to be below the frost line. (This differs around the country; in the Baltimore area it's 36 inches.) Most jurisdictions want to measure and inspect footing holes before the concrete is poured in.

Here's a sample spec for a simple deck that might help you decide whether or not you're getting what you want.

Proposal: Exterior rear deck

1. We propose to construct a pressure-treated deck at the rear of the house to measure 18 feet across the rear of the house and 15 feet from the rear wall into the yard.

2. We will support the deck with 6-by-6 pressure-treated posts set on 36-inch deep concrete footings and will bolt the deck to the rear of the house. Deck to be framed with 2-by-12 pressure-treated joists at 16 inches on center, which will rest on two sets of doubled 2-by-12 pressure-treated girders. We will use galvanized joist hangers or angle connectors at all wood-to-wood connections. Deck posts to sit on galvanized metal bases bolted to the concrete footings.

3. We will raise an 80-inch width of the deck up two steps to provide additional headroom to the basement stairs.

4. We will frame an L-shaped set of stairs to the rear yard with a 4-by-4-foot landing, supported by 6-by-6 pressure-treated posts. The stairs will end on a new 4-inch thick, 8 foot-by-10 foot concrete slab.

5. The deck surface, landing and steps will be 1 1/4 -inch-by-6-inch rounded-edge, pressure-treated wood decking. The decking will be screwed to the joists with 3-inch galvanized screws.

6. The railing design will be pressure-treated 2-by-2-inch balusters on 4-inch centers secured to the deck framing with galvanized screws. Railing top will be enclosed with top of 2-by-6 and sides of 2-by-4 lumber. Railing to be installed on three sides of deck with intermediate posts of pressure-treated 4-by-4 lumber.

7. We will seal and stain the deck surface, railings and steps with a sealer that provides protection from ultraviolet light.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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