Builders of award-winning decks typically don’t set out to snag honors and accolades, says Colorado deck builder Barry Streett; they aim to design structures that will please their clients and suit their lifestyles.
The key: “You have to listen to them,” advises Streett, owner of Rolling Ridge Deck in Evergreen, Colo., and winner of multiple awards from the North American Deck and Railing Association. “They’re going to tell you what they want, but they don’t always know what they want. Listen in general terms, and then specifically think about how you can deliver it.”
Even then, notes Justus Lambros, owner of Signature Deck in Maumee, Ohio, not every fabulous deck delivers a prize. “Some amazing decks have won those awards,” says Lambros, another NADRA winner. “You couldn’t just put those decks on the back of a subdivision home. You have to have the right site, the right view. I’ve done only two in my career that would qualify for that type of award.”
Those award-winning decks feature attention to the minutest details—from curves and angles that drop the judges’ jaws to hidden fasteners and above-code framing that add an unseen something to the finished product.
“It’s really easy to build a square deck,” admits Dave Kramer, sales manager for D.G. Liu Contractor in Dickerson, Md., a Chrysalis award winner. “But if you can add a little personality to it, that raises you above the pack. There are a bazillion deck builders out there who can put up a deck fast, but they don’t pay attention to finish details so they can charge less.”
Here are 10 best practice tips from award-winning deck builders:
1. Show off your curves. The hottest trend in deck design is curves, says Mel Karlson, senior marketing manager for composite decking manufacturer Trex. “They add drama to a deck,” says Karlson, who observes that most award-winners incorporate curves on edges and accessories.
Tim Stephens, winner of multiple National Association of the Remodeling Industry Contractor of the Year awards, says a rounded deck is a natural extension of a landscape that features curved planting beds and curved sidewalks. Stephens, owner of Archadeck of West Central and Southwest Ohio, curves the boards’ edges to transition from one level to another, and favors curved deck-top planters and wet bars.
“What we’re going for is the deck not to look like an attachment to the house, but to blend in with the back yard,” he explains.
2. Don’t block the view. Most building codes require railings only on decks that sit three feet or more off the ground. So Stephens skips them when they’ll obstruct an especially spectacular view. To define the deck’s edges, he suggests crafting benches from the same material as the decking. He made one award-winner pop with faux stone bench legs.
Lambros agrees: “Whatever features the landscape has to offer, the deck should be an avenue to enjoy the star attraction, which is the landscape. The deck might be an award-winner, but it shouldn’t steal the show.”
3. Design an outdoor room. More homeowners are building decks to expand their living space—and to bring their lifestyles outdoors. Stephens notes that his clients want an outdoor setup that mimics the indoors: kitchen, living room, dining area. Some designs simply accommodate a grill, a table with chairs, and a few pieces of patio furniture, while larger decks have room for separate, wall-less rooms on multiple levels.
Even in chilly Colorado, homeowners want to use their decks nine months a year, notes Streett, who incorporates infrared heaters, gas heaters, and fireplaces into his designs. “Everybody here has that mindset,” he says.
4. Light up the night. Low-voltage lighting—atop rail posts, along edges, on stairs and between levels—is more than a safety feature required by some local codes. “Lighting is cool,” says Lambros. “It adds a whole other level of enjoyment for your customer.” Plus, he notes: “Most people can afford to do it,” because low-voltage lighting doesn’t require an electrician.
5. Toss in some texture. Incorporate stone, brick, stucco, or another contrasting texture into fireplaces, columns, and architectural details on a wood or composite deck. For a homeowner with contemporary taste, Kramer’s company crafted rails from stainless steel pipe and positioned them horizontally between posts made from Brazilian ipe like the deck. Streett has borrowed textures from the home’s interior to repeat on the deck, like distressed wood and exposed beams on outdoor deck roofs.
6. Minimize maintenance. While wood remains dominant in decking, more and more award-winners are constructed of composites. Stephens says most of his clients request it because it’s low-maintenance and comes with a warranty against fading and splintering.
Kramer advises builders to heed manufacturers’ specs for installation—even for out-of-sight framing—to keep from voiding the warranty and having to repair or replace a disappointing deck on your own dime.
7. Rally around rails. Rails and posts can be a deck’s “wow factor,” says Lambros, who mixes the components of color-matched pre-fab kits with custom-made post sleeves and dreams up creative alternatives to wood or wood-look rails, like glass and iron. “That will set you apart,” he notes.
8. Frame the picture. Placing deck boards in well-considered alternating patterns gives the builder the chance to make each deck unique. Lambros favors “picture framing” the perimeter of a deck with boards that go in the opposite direction from the decking on the rest of the surface. Other simple techniques: placing boards on each half of the deck diagonally facing the center of the structure or using a lighter or darker color around the edges and at transition points between levels or at steps.
9. Cool things off. A pergola, retractable awning or vinyl canopy can shade a deck and allow the homeowner to use it when the weather is especially hot. It also can add an unexpected design touch and make the deck look more finished. Stephens’ tip: While you can’t use composite decking to build a shade structure, choose a low-maintenance product. “Nobody has the time or inclination to maintain it,” he says.
10. Keep what’s out of sight top of mind. The homeowners might not notice when the builder takes the time to hide fasteners or install joists that are a step above code. But they’ll notice if you don’t, says Kramer, when they feel the boards bounce or snag a bare foot on a popped-up nail.
Thanks to Sharon O’Malley, contributing editor at Building Products magazine.
1. Curved elements, like rounded deck edges, soft corners, and curved planters.
2. Multiple levels, often divided into functional areas for cooking, conversation, and eating.
3. Two-story decks with plenty of room on the paved bottom level for furniture and entertaining and with drainage on the elevated deck so rain doesn’t drip downstairs.
4. Outdoor kitchens, which more homeowners consider functional, convenient—and a status symbol.
5. Low-voltage lighting for safety and ambiance that can also extend the use of the deck into the night.
6. Water features on the deck or nearby to create calming white noise and add a point of interest.
7. Fire features like fireplaces or fire pits that sit a couple of feet up from the walking surface, especially those with the latest gadgetry, like gas burners that fire up pea-gravel or glass rocks in place of wood logs.
8. Sound systems designed for outdoor use with speakers built into rail posts and jacks for weather-safe home theater equipment.