Hit The Deck

People love their decks and spend serious money on building and furnishing them. Just don't ask them to spend a lot of time on maintenance.

July 21, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

This spring Paul and Corally Sleeper paid the company that constructed their beautiful 4-year-old deck good money to tear it out and build a new one. Same size. Different material.

This time around, the Hunt Valley homeowners are convinced, they got it right.

The pressure-treated wood of the first deck looked great, but Paul quickly tired of the maintenance. Meanwhile, Corally had decided they needed to screen in a portion of it. The house is close to the woods in back, and bees were a problem.

Their old deck, constructed by Archadeck of North Baltimore, cost $9,000. To build the new one, the Sleepers spent $20,000 -- even using the original footings.

They don't have a regret in the world.

"We designed this deck with the thought that this would be our last home," says Paul. "It's gotten a lot more use than even I thought. We sit out here when it's 100 degrees. With the screened porch's ceiling fan, it's very comfortable."

The Sleepers' story isn't as unusual as it may seem.

"The deck is a family room outdoors," says Sal Alfano, editor-in-chief of Remodeling Magazine, the professional contractor's bible. Deck building isn't a trend-driven industry, he adds, but if there is one trend, the Sleepers are a prime example of it. "People have really had it with deck maintenance."

The industry has been growing steadily as more and more people have made their decks extensions of their homes. In 1999, American homeowners spent $5.62 billion building decks -- the latest figure available, according to Alfano.

The Sleepers' new deck looks much the same as the old one except for the screened porch. The structure is multi-level, with an octagonal extension. The first level has a gas grill, an umbrella table and comfortable chaise lounges. Paul can sit in the sun here till mid-afternoon when the woods in back start to shade the deck.

Although she doesn't consider herself a serious gardener, Corally fills terra cotta pots with whatever catches her eye at the nearby nursery. This year the deck is decorated with geraniums, marigolds, gerbera daisies, dusty miller and asparagus fern.

"I plant and he waters," she says with a laugh.

Up a level is the screened porch, which Corally has almost finished decorating.

"When I thought screened porch, I thought wicker," she says, so she furnished it with a Lloyd / Flanders loveseat and two matching chairs with fat, flowery cushions in yellow, green and white.

"I added the rocking chair because it reminded me of an old porch," she says, "and I wanted to break up all the wicker."

This is where the couple spend most of their time, reading, entertaining or just looking at the woods. It's also their dog Madison's favorite spot. The Sleepers are empty nesters, but they made sure the deck was big enough for their two children, their spouses, and the grandchildren when they come for a visit.

For the new deck, Jeffrey Slutkin of Archadeck used a composite material of recycled plastic and hardwood that's guaranteed for 20 years, with no maintenance other than to power wash it every so often. Composite decking doesn't quite look like wood, but the newest ones have a wood grain to lend a more natural appearance.

Though safety wasn't a primary concern for the Sleepers, many people are choosing synthetics these days because the EPA recently banned the residential use of the most widely used pressure-treated woods, beginning in 2004. (One chemical involved is arsenic.)

The alternatives are composite decking; a less toxic, more costly pressure-treated wood; and exotic hardwoods like ipe -- trade name Pau Lope -- also known as ironwood. The most high-end choice, hardwoods are also the most durable of the all-natural choices. But labor costs are high because they are, well, so hard.

"Ironwood is so dense it sinks in water," says Slutkin. For most of his customers (70 percent of them), the satisfactory compromise is synthetic.

Hardwoods may be right for you if a natural look is the most important consideration. Bees and other pests aren't attracted to them. They have a rich grain and can be maintained for a lifetime simply by applying rosewood oil, says Doug Sheredos of Maxalea, a local landscaping company that also designs decks. Of course, even that could be more maintenance than you're interested in.

"We use them with bronze tubing for balusters, which disappears into the landscape," he says. "It's a beautiful look."

Whatever material you end up choosing, expect the cost of building a deck to rise once the EPA ban goes into effect.

After building two decks in the same spot in four years, Paul and Corally Sleeper could be considered experts from the homeowners' point of view.

Here are their suggestions:

* Look at what other people have done. The Sleepers drove around checking out neighbors' decks before they made any decisions.

* Spend time looking at photos of decks the company has built. Visit some projects if possible.

* Think about space requirements. It's easy to build a deck that's too small.

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