ALL EYES ON DECKS Smart designs elevate backyard woodworks


Once underused and often unattractive, the lowly deck has evolved into an elegant, nearly indispensable amenity for homeowners of the '90s. Expanding numbers of new homes and a relentless interest in outdoor living have fueled a demand for decks, a demand that in turn is fueling a rapid growth in deck-building firms. These firms are competing vigorously to capture the market with smart designs and snazzy flourishes.

No longer boring and boxy, decks these days reflect purpose. Eye-catching angles and levels create not only visual movement but distinct areas for dining, children's play, spas and other uses. Ungainly open steps no longer just go down or up. Now closed off, widened, and lowered into gracious platform stairs, they lead to scenic overlooks, rooms inside the house, the garage, as well as to the yard. Railings don't just protect; they also minimize or enhance views.

We spoke with several homeowners to learn how their decks evolved from the idea stage to thoughtfully designed structures. All started with a sense of what they wanted, then searched for a firm that could envision and construct it. It wasn't always easy to find the right fit: One couple's search took three years.

"Nobody wanted to build this deck!" exclaims the co-owner of a Howard County home aptly nicknamed "the Treehouse." Sitting high on stilts among 100-foot-tall pin oaks that border a meadow and trout stream, the house offers a magnificent view from the inside -- and a formidably steep slope that limits access for builders.

Added to the access problem was a design challenge. Avid observers of red fox, hawks, great blue heron and other wildlife, the owners wished to preserve their unrestricted view from the interior of the house as well as outside. The wife, who notes that "the attraction's not the deck," had played with some designs and decided she liked multiple levels. But she could not find a way to minimize the railings on her designs; they blocked the view.

After soliciting a dozen small deck firms unsuccessfully -- the companies were scared off by the challenges -- the couple found a large company to design their dream deck. Long Fence built for them a soaring, two-level platform deck. It's 19 feet off the ground at its highest point.

To salvage the couple's cherished view, designer Ed Dent avoided front railings altogether on the walkout level, which is accessed by both the living room and the master bedroom. Platform stairs link the walkout level to an expansive lower platform deck. The deck's protective railing doubles as a stair rail between the two levels.

Mr. Dent gave the deck a sense of flow by drawing the inside of the house out: The shape of the upper deck echoes that of the kitchen island.

Intrigued by the possibilities their aerie offers, the wife has been toying with the idea of making metal pickets for the railings (metal is better for minimizing a view than wood) and of drawing their interior dining area further outdoors by replacing its window with a greenhouse-style glass wall.

Her husband has discovered a very different dimension to the new addition. "I have to tell you," he says, laughing, "that deck's awfully romantic!"

A Baltimore couple who moved near the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County needed a bigger deck when they built their new swimming pool -- and definitely didn't want "just stairs" traversing their sloping lot.

The wife envisioned something "modern and free" that not only extended their living and entertaining space but also the architectural lines of their house -- particularly their airy great room. "I'm trying to find a way to get outside more," she confesses. "I'm not an outside person."

She contacted Jeffrey Slutkin of Archadeck, who unified the lines of the house and pool with striking angles and levels. Six-foot-wide platform steps and broad cap rails open up the original "starter" deck and descend to a benched platform that invites lingering just above the pool. An overhead trellis, angled stairs and a landing form an elegant transition between the pool and elevated areas.

Easily accessible through two 8-foot-high glass doors leading from the great room, the upper deck functions as an informal outdoor eating and overflow area during parties. While entertaining, the wife finds herself settling on the lower deck, "where I can see everything," both up above and by the pool below.

She indeed finds herself outside more, and has plans to put canvas shading on the lower deck so she can sit there and gaze out at the Magothy River.

Her husband's only regret is that the lower deck is not high enough to "float" over the pool fence; budget restrictions prohibited the additional construction costs.

After the new deck was finished, he tackled the landscaping around it. A woodland garden with an Oriental motif now graces the far side of the pool fence. Other finished projects include a handsome waterfall and a fishpond constructed of Pennsylvania quarry stone.

At night, low-wattage lighting in the landscaping and pool softly illuminate the darkness.

A deck located near Oregon Ridge in Baltimore County not only works well but hard, according to its owners. "I live out here!" proclaims the hostess of Saturday breakfasts with neighbors, Sunday brunches among church friends, and late-summer crab feasts.

She and her husband, both Midwesterners and outdoor lovers, had a strong sense of what they wanted in a deck: minimal stairs, multiple levels and a gazebo to keep the bugs out.

Although well over a deck dozen firms vied for the job, only one satisfied the couple's wish for minimal stairs, the clean look of which they enjoy. American Deck needed no more than two steps between each of the four levels of the 60-foot platform deck it built for the couple. Two steps link the deck to the brick walkway the wife created alongside the house.

The deck is stained a light gray to match the siding of the house. The gazebo the couple wanted is a cupola-topped double-roof model that was prefabricated by Amish workers.

The couple splurged on decorative touches for their deck: diagonal floor planking, a starburst floor in the octagonal-shaped deck and Chippendale railings.

Rather than weighting the deck with extensive built-in benching, the owners gave it buoyancy and flexible seating with whimsical wrought-iron chairs, prefabricated Chippendale-backed benches stained to match the deck, and bright pillows.

Roses, clematis and wisteria climb the boxed-in deck posts.

Happy with the results? The wife couldn't be more satisfied. "It's the best investment of the house!" she exclaims.

Function is the secret to a well-designed deck these days. Whether rehabbing an old deck or planning a new one, consider your lifestyle and what you'd like a deck to do, advises Archadeck's Jeffrey Slutkin. He adds that space designed to accommodate the needs of a large family may not at all resemble that intended for couples who enjoy formal entertaining and privacy.

"Think about how you'd like traffic to flow," says Dave Lombardo of American Deck. Do you really want kids running from the deck into a formal living room?

Finally, once your deck is built and you're enjoying the good life outdoors, the time begins to give some thought to its care. Says Mr. Lombardo, "Although the contractor may design and build the deck, the homeowner needs to clean and maintain it regularly. It would be a waste of money otherwise."

New Looks for Older Decks

Dave Lombardo, president of American Deck, has these suggestions for sprucing up an existing deck.

* Install a do-it-yourself lighting kit.

* Add post caps (tops to rail posts).

* Rout edges (rail caps, rail posts, fascia edges, benches, stair treads, beams) for a finished look.

* Box in posts to give them a finished look.

* Palm-sand railings for a smoother look and feel.

* Add a stain. Just doing the verticals (posts, pickets) and railings makes the deck look nicer.

* Add built-ins: benches, planters, tables and more.

Pub date: 3/17/96

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