Today’s shapes, materials, colors, and appliances have elevated the deck to a living room’s equal. How far can it go?
Gary Marsh, a much-published deck designer and builder in Northern California, still gets calls from people who want curves. When Marsh—trained as an artist, designer, draftsman, and builder—first launched his business, All Decked Out, curves were curiosities. That was 1979. Though design in California, where the biggest trees on the continent grow, has always made innovative use of wood, Marsh’s signature curves and organic shapes put his deck designs in another league. In his original mission statement, the contractor/designer announced that he was “striving to reshape the image of a deck.”
Fast-forward 38 years and the image of the deck has indeed been reshaped. Decks are not what they were, or at least they don’t have to be. What they were, in most cases, were rectangular wooden platforms on stilts, bolted to a house, a “builder’s afterthought” undone in a decade or two by the elements.
But in the last 10 years, an array of new products, what Matt Breyer, owner of Breyer Construction & Landscape, in Reading, Pa., calls “an ever-expanding catalog of colors and components, with more added every year,” has opened up for the deck possibilities once unthinkable. The uniform blondish brown of that pressure-treated pine, soon gone green-gray, has given way to the many colors afforded by (bendable) composites. “Take Trex [composite decking],” says Lou Pagnutti, owner of Decks Unique, on Long Island, and the biggest deck builder in New York state. “There are three product lines, and each line has four or five colors.” Meaning that, between them, there are really 50 colors to choose from.
Lighting? It used to be that decks were not only shaped like a stage, but lit like a prison camp. “Now it’s post caps with LED lights,” says Phil Brown, owner of Archadeck of Central Connecticut, in Wallingford, for ambient lighting and “riser lights”—recessed in the risers—to make a stairway not just safe but elegant, as, by leaving visible wood unblemished, hidden fastener systems made the finished product look like something put together by magic hands. “If you would’ve told me 20 years ago that I’d have to design a lighting system for a deck, I would’ve told you you were crazy,” says Matt LeFaivre, president of J.R. LeFaivre Construction Co., in Taneytown, Md., whose company is currently working on a deck priced in six figures.
Where’s the Party?
It’s not that there isn’t a market for those decks of old, the ones without lights. J.R. LeFaivre Construction still builds them, LeFaivre says, "for the people who bought a single-family home in a development that just want to put something on the back of the house.” In such a case, he adds, “I can quote a square footage price right there.” But on the more complicated decks, a design that moves through four or five revisions is typical. Forget deck furniture, we’re talking custom benches, water features, and cooking appliances. Not just planters but plantings. “Grandiose” decks on Houzz and Pinterest feed the frenzy.
“I’ve had people sit down with the 3-D rendering and move the furniture around,” Breyer says. “They want a six-person table here, an L-shape sofa there.” Others are, he says, “more concerned with the features and finishes.”
But they all want the same thing. To relax or to party.
“They want to be outside,” LeFaivre says. “They’ll spend less [money] inside, in the kitchen, to create space outside.” And since that space is for public consumption, they’re often willing to spend a lot. Both on square footage and that growing list of accouterments.
“For so many of these people, adding a deck is like adding a room,” says Andrew York, president of Pro Deck Construction, in San Marcos, Calif. “It’s like a permanent addition, and they’re planning to be using it for an outdoor kitchen and going to spend a serious amount of time there.”
Decks can now do or be just about anything. You can cook on them, watch TV on them, or dance to whatever’s coming over your entertainment center on them. For companies that specialize, “there’s much more logistical planning now,” Pagnutti says. “You’re dealing with two or three vendors for a project.” Plus an electrician and a plumber.
Meanwhile, the abundance of colors and materials has given rise to “picture framing,” which uses those elements to draw the eye to form by means of contrast. Light-brown fascia, dark-brown deck boards, black posts. Picture framing (see photo, below) can render a deck of ordinary dimensions—such as one that Archadeck of Central CT recently built in Shelton—into a well-blended piece of the house, going right down to the ground. “I’m function-driven,” Brown says. He’s also “anti-lattice,” he says. So, “when we build a skirt over a pressure-treated frame, we paint it black and put a screen over it.” He uses drones to establish the visuals that will enable perfect deck placement.
Personalizing the Deck
Of course, any homeowner doing a half-hour’s worth of research will quickly get a sense of the range of possibilities. All the images and products to be seen online have become a shaping force when it comes to selling deck design. Half the time when people come to Decks Unique, they already have fully formed ideas about what they want. “People do a ton of research,” Pagnutti says. “They’re into personalizing the deck. And everybody’s an expert. You try to educate them and sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t.”
LeFaivre says that he has often begun a deck conversation only to have the prospect suddenly ask: “Have you ever heard of ______?” At that point, he says, “I have to figure out where they saw it. Some projects that work great in New Mexico or Southern California aren’t going to work in Maryland.”
At ProDeck Construction, in California, York says he’s sometimes approached by people with deck ideas that are “ugly or nonfunctional.” Think small platforms, stacked on each other, a series of “barely usable spaces” connected by stairs.
“As long as it’s safe and they’re paying for it, I’ll do whatever they’re asking me to do,” York says. "But I try to give them a design that’s simple, functional, and looks good. It’s their ideas, with my adjustments.”
Hold the Curves
Not only are a growing array of design and functional options available, but the size of decks is growing as the outdoor living category has matured. “Often they’re multilevel decks,” Breyer says, or they include a patio or a sunroom.
“We went from building one or two big ones a year to a half a dozen,” York says. Many times that’s mixing and matching colors and materials, which has truly relegated yesterday’s decks to the dustbin. A typical York-designed project may involve a wooden pergola, composite deck boards, and cable railing. Since composite materials have made creating curves far easier to do—“It’s like hand-molding spaghetti,” York says—he estimates that 10 to 15 percent of his decks have curves.
Marsh, with his 40th year in deck design and building just around the corner, eschews composites and always has, unless clients specifically request them. He sticks to California redwood and cedar, his tried-and-true material of choice. He’s of divided mind about some of the decks he sees. It’s great that they can be all these things, but some are “overdone and almost gaudy,” he says.
And just because he’s known for curves doesn’t mean Marsh is going to design for them in every project. Today, curves are part of about one in five of All Decked Out’s designs. It’s not one element that makes a design special, he points out. It’s the combination, which in his case often includes water features. And even when people call him, asking for curves, they may not get them. “I’ll say: A curve doesn’t work in your situation," March says. "And then I tell them, 'Trust me that I’m going to give you something that goes with the house. Whether it has curves or not.'”