Assessing Your Site

Landscape features -- the terrain, vegetation, views, and climate -- have a large effect on the design of your deck and where you build it. Before you draw final plans, look around your property to see if anything might require changes in your deck's design or location.
Terrain

The contour is the most significant feature of your landscape. No site is perfectly level, but many are generally flat, and that will help keep deck construction uncomplicated. A slope, especially one that falls off sharply, might mean you have to grade the soil or build a retaining wall.

Hillsides -- as well as banks, ravines, and swales -- can offer more design opportunities than you might think. Because decks are supported by posts, they are the best structures to build on slopes, allowing you to capitalize on other characteristics of the terrain. For example, land sloping away from a high spot can create magnificent views. Land that slants uphill from a deck site can provide natural privacy and shelter from the wind.

If you have to level the soil for a below-the-slope deck location, either cut it to form a flat area, or fill in a low spot, or both. Both methods will create a surface of unstable soil that will settle unevenly and can stress a ground-level deck, weakening its structure. You'll need to tamp and firm the loose surface before installing such a design. Use footings, not piers, to support the posts, and dig the holes deep enough so the footings are in firm soil.

If the remaining soil in the slope is unstable, build a retaining wall to keep it from washing onto your deck surface. A retaining wall will also increase the sense of enclosure on a deck nestled into a hillside.

Soil

Soil composition and compaction, characteristics that can affect your site and how you prepare it, vary widely.

Loose, sandy loam absorbs water and drains quickly but erodes easily. Local codes may require posts set in concrete footings. Silted soil is also easy to dig and compact, and posts should be set in concrete.

Clay is dense and sheds water, which can create runoff problems. You may need to install drainage lines with storm sewers or catch basins.

Fix foundation drainage first

If you have water in your basement, don't build a deck until you've determined the cause and fixed the problem. The problem may simply be that the ground slopes toward the foundation of your home instead of away from it. Here's an easy solution:

First, slope the soil next to the foundation away from the house at least 4 feet. You may have to bring in new soil to make a slope of this width. Next, lay down landscape fabric to minimize weeds. Once you've set the deck posts, cover the fabric with rock or wood chips.

Faulty or inadequate gutters and downspouts may also be the culprits. Check the joints in the gutters and the outlets where the downspouts connect to them. Seal any joints that are letting water through. Often adding an extension to the downspout -- or even just a splash block -- will cure the problem.

What to do with the dirt?

Landscapers often use the soil removed from grading to level other parts of the work site -- a technique called cut-and-fill. Cut-and-fill eliminates the expense of disposing of excess soil, as well as the cost of purchasing fill dirt.

Cut-and-fill works best, of course, when the amount of soil removed equals the amount needed in fill areas. But if you still have excess from the deck site, use it in your landscape -- in planting beds, raised or flush with the rest of the lawn.

Because you'll probably remove more than just topsoil, not all of the excavated dirt will be suitable for planting beds. Instead, make berms with it -- low mounds of earth in a landscape. But don't spread excess soil around trees, even temporarily. Just a few extra inches of dirt over tree roots can suffocate feeder roots and kill the tree.

Sun, shade, wind, and rain

Paying attention to weather patterns can mean the difference between a deck that's pleasant and inviting and one that stands unused. For example, a deck placed where the sun beats down without mercy will not be comfortable. Harsh winds will likewise limit the use of the deck. Become familiar with the way the elements affect your site and plan accordingly.

As the sun passes overhead, the amount of heat and light will vary at different times of the day and year. The sun's movement causes shadows -- and shade -- to shift throughout the day. Because working with nature is more efficient than working against it, you'll want to place your deck so sun and shade patterns correspond to times when you'll use it.

Watch how the sun moves across your property at various times of the day during warm months. Drive stakes in the yard so you can keep track of moving shade patterns. Make notes and use them when you put your plans on paper.

Note wind patterns in your yard the same way, and if possible put your deck in a spot that's sheltered from strong prevailing winds. Build a slatted fence or plant a windbreak -- you'll transform a strong wind into a gentle breeze. To protect yourself from the rain, install solid roofing over a part of your deck.

Microclimates

If you've noticed that the temperature on a deck feels different from the air out in the yard, you've experienced the effects of a microclimate. Microclimates are small areas within a site that exhibit "weather" patterns different from the general area.

Microclimates result from a number of factors -- materials used, the location of a structure or area, and terrain.

Different materials, for example, absorb and reflect different amounts of heat from the sun. They also reflect different degrees of light. Unstained light-color decking will reflect more heat and light than a dark wood. Such a surface might feel comfortably warm, but harsh and glaring.

A dark wood like Ipe won't reflect harsh sunlight, but it will absorb heat, which can make the surface uncomfortable underfoot during the day. The stored heat, however, will radiate back during the cool of the evening, and can extend the use of your deck after sunset.

A hilltop deck will feel warmer on a calm day than one at the bottom of an incline because cooler air flows downhill. What's more, if you trap the cold air at the bottom of a hill with retaining walls, fences, or house walls, you might make your deck quite cool in the evening.

Walls and fences also can create microclimates. Where you put a wall or fence and how you build it can increase or decrease the force of the wind. Solid structures won't reduce winds. That's because they create low-pressure pockets that pull the wind into the very area you want protected. The wind swirls over the top and drops back down -- with equal force -- at a distance roughly equal to the height of the fence.

Louvered or board-on-board fences offer a good compromise. They are closed enough to provide privacy, but open enough to let filtered wind through.

If your proposed site is already shaded during the times you'll use the deck, that makes decisions about location less complicated. But even if you don't have much flexibility in where you put the deck, you can alter the environment.

If you need additional shade, you can make some. Add trees and other plants to shade a site that gets too much afternoon sun. A pergola can filter hot sunlight. So can a roll-out awning, which you can retract when it's not needed.

Let roses or vines climb up an arbor to create a private shaded spot for outdoor reading -- without blocking the breeze. Vines climbing up a lattice wall can cool off a site that gets hot in the late afternoon. Or you could try a compromise -- a location that features partial shade and partial sunlight during the hours of greatest deck use.

Picture-perfect plans

Carry your camera along and take lots of photographs when you assess your site. Photographs call attention to details you may have missed because you see them every day.

For example, you may have forgotten that the neighbors can see right into your living room window. The camera will remind you that you need to correct this in your deck plans. You may have gotten used to how unattractive your utility shed is. A photo will tell you that you need a lattice screen.

Photos are especially helpful when you begin putting your plans on paper. Your site analysis will be a record of the characteristics of the landscape that need attention. Use the camera to help you keep track of the ideas you want to include on this drawing.

 

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