The Role of a Garden Designer Part 2: Deck Design

A beautiful home, a delightful young family, and a garden full of potential; I knew this was a design project that I was really going to enjoy. Adding a family-sized patio, kid-friendly play spaces that would encourage adventure and exploration, a new kitchen garden within an enclosed courtyard, and low maintenance, easy-care plantings that offered seasonal interest and encouraged pollinators and song birds were all priorities and relatively easy. What is proving to be much more challenging is resolving some major problems caused by an earlier deck addition to the second floor.

A second story deck addition by previous owners has created a number of significant problems, not least of all – how do you get into the garden?

The stairs from the upper deck take you….UNDER the deck?!

Entering the garden via the gate poses it's own set of problems including navigating a series of unstable "steps" up an equally unstable retaining wall.

As shown in the above images these problems include:

  • A hazardous retaining wall and steps that one virtually trips over upon entering the garden gate
  • A multitude of supporting posts now limiting access and creating something of a slalom course between the home and garden
  • Stairs from the upper deck that rather than leading into the garden, lead back underneath the deck, exacerbating the already compromised garden access
  • Deck railings not to code (a relatively easy fix!)

As I've spent the past few days consulting with professional colleagues and contractors, analyzing photographs, reviewing my data, and sketching out several options to resolve all these problems it occurred to me that it was time to address the question;

What makes a well designed deck?

Perfectly scaled and beautifully built by the handy homeowners, this deck creates a charming entrance to the home

Naturally it should be aesthetically pleasing but there is far more to it than that including:

  • Easy access (certainly from the homes interior, but often also to/from a garden space)
  • Sufficient square footage to fulfill its role (Does this need to be large enough for family gatherings or just a bench for two?)
  • Construction to meet all current building codes together with permits if necessary
  • Construction of a second story deck should not negatively impact the lower level in terms of access and functionality
  • Top quality workmanship
  • Attention to detail
  • Styling to work with homes architecture

So taking all that into account….

Whom should you ask to design your deck?

This will depend in part on the situation.

New Construction: Architect

In this instance your architect will already have taken a holistic approach to the overall design so asking him or her to include a deck makes the most sense. Having the deck built as part of the homes initial construction is also much more cost effective than doing so several years later.

Home Remodel: Designer-Builder or Landscape Designer

One of my favorite craftsmen is Cliff Chatel of Woodmark Construction. His workmanship is outstanding and I always look forward to collaborative projects with him. In this instance, I was the designer, Cliff built the deck and Berg's Landscaping completed the team to tackle drainage, patios, retaining walls, soil amendment and planting.

It isn't unusual for homeowners to consider the possibility of adding French doors or patio doors where previously a large picture window or single entry door has been. Since they may be considering this a home remodel rather than a garden renovation it may seem obvious to ask their builder or even a handyman to add a small deck to the new Master Bedroom addition for example. I suspect this is exactly what happened with my current project before this family purchased the home. And while that was a great idea in principle and the builder did what was asked, I would have to surmise that he or she isn't used to seeing the "big picture" as  a designer or architect would, hence the various challenges I am now trying to resolve.

Attention to detail – the sign of a true craftsman, in this instance Cliff Chatel

Far be it from me to suggest that builders shouldn't design decks – my point is simply that you need to assess your builders design capabilities, not just references and membership with professional organizations such as Master Builder's Association. Ask to see examples of similar projects to yours that they have done and if possible visit them or at least speak to those clients.

I might say that if the deck in question is to be at ground level, do at least consider a consultation with a landscape designer before you commit to something your builder has suggested. A one hour consultation and brainstorming session will cost you relatively little yet may save you thousands of dollars in the long run. A designer can quickly spot potential red flags such as poor traffic flow, landings that are undersized or steps that would be better with a shorter rise and larger tread. Design professionals will also have an eye to an overall cohesive look in terms of color and materials, and may even advise you as to whether a patio or deck would be best, explaining the pros and cons of each.

Garden Renovation: Landscape Designer

If you are considering re-thinking your landscape you may be wondering if you should have a deck built before you call in a landscape designer. In short the answer is "No", for all the same reasons why I explained not to build a patio or path before calling in a landscape designer in my earlier blog post The Role of a Garden Designer. I've honestly lost count of how many decks or patios I have had to re-design because they were too small or access was too cramped. Again it comes down to the difference between a designer seeing the "big picture" rather than just the immediate request at hand.

Here are a few "before and after" examples.

  1. Newcastle, WA: read the full story here

BEFORE: The tiny slab of concrete left by the builders of this new home was hopelessly undersized

The expanded deck I designed offers a much more usable space for this young family

2. Kirkland, WA; read the full story here

BEFORE: The only access to the back garden was across a raised deck that felt cramped and dark.

BEFORE: A poor transition between areas and materials didn't help things – or encourage venturing into the main garden

AFTER: this was one situation where a patio made better sense than a deck as we could improve the traffic flow between spaces, especially once we added new French doors to the back of the home. This has been one of my favorite design projects to date. Berg's Landscaping did all the installation.

3. Snohomish, WA.

BEFORE: While this deck was well made, and the integral screen/bench was a nice idea, the builder had clearly been focused on simply covering over the original aggregate patio rather than thinking about how much space was really needed. The low, wide step is too narrow for furniture so simply wastes space.

BEFORE: As for the BBQ, that has to be raised on blocks off to one side of the deck as there isn't enough room. Another problem is that when one opens the kitchen door, one walks into the side of the bench! It feels very awkward.

This project has been designed but installation has not yet started so I don't have any "after" images to show you but it's going to be really exciting, with French doors from the dining area improving access, and a much larger patio leading to a separate fire pit area. As with the Kirkland project, this was a situation where a patio made more sense than a deck.

Still not sure?

Take a moment to read The Role of a Garden Designer, to understand that we do far more than just choose pretty plants. It will also help you understand the difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer, get some ideas of what to expect during the design process, and tips to help you find the right person for your project. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

The best designs are those that are a collaboration between the homeowners and a passionate, knowledgeable designer whether an architect, builder or landscape professional. The best outcomes are when those early, tentative ideas and dreams are realized, enhanced, and executed to the very highest standards.

Do you dare to dream?

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