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.
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?
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
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.
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.
- Newcastle, WA: read the full story here
2. Kirkland, WA; read the full story here
3. Snohomish, WA.
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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