Creating Privacy with Your Deck

Without something to define the edges, a deck can leave you feeling exposed and uncomfortable. You'll feel more at home sitting on a deck that offers at least a small amount of privacy and enclosure, enough to make the space around you seem secure.
Planning for privacy

Plan for privacy first. Can your neighbors see your every move? Is your deck open to view from the public sidewalk or street? If so, you need to make your deck private.

The solution may be as simple as building your deck on the least-exposed side of the house or tucking it into an exterior corner. No matter where you plan to build it, stand on your proposed deck site several times during the day and evening; if you don't feel a sense of security, add a privacy fence, wall, or trees and shrubs to your plans. While you're checking the site, make a list of unsightly views you want to hide.

Screening

Screening adds privacy or blocks out an unsightly view and comes in many forms. Which form you use depends on how you plan to use each area on your deck.

Cozy spots for reading, conversation, sunbathing, or meditation call for plenty of privacy. Pools and spas need privacy and a windbreak. Walls, high fences, or dense evergreen plantings are good choices for screening these places.

Areas for parties, large family gatherings, or children's play can be more open. Partial screens are adequate for these needs; latticework, low fence panels with open infill, airy trees, or seat walls are all good choices. They will also hide garbage cans, air-conditioners, the dog run, a heat pump, your neighbor's open garage, or parked cars. Train a vine to grow into the screen; the foliage ultimately will hide the screen and make it seem part of the landscape.

No matter what kind of screening you pick, make sure you locate it strategically. Study the location and the angle from which you see an unsightly object, then place screens to hide them. The closer the screen is to the object, the better it hides it.

The same goes for a privacy screen -- the closer it is to the deck, the more privacy it offers. Few decks need screening around the entire perimeter. Before you encircle your deck with a privacy hedge, find places where other people can see you. Then block the most revealing views first so you can enhance your privacy without barricading yourself in. Friendly, more open screening, such as lattice, picket, and ornamental iron fencing, often is all you need.

One caution: Without forethought, screening can quickly turn into a stockade. Build walls, high fences, and dense hedges only where you need maximum screening.

Defining space

Space usually doesn't feel like it exists until something encloses it. Defining space -- visually separating one area from another -- is an important aspect of deck planning.

You usually need some physical object to separate an intimate dining area from larger entertainment areas, for example. Otherwise you might feel like you're sitting out in a public place when you're trying to have a quiet family dinner, even if you are screened from public view.

Built-in or freestanding benches, raised planters, or even a change in decking pattern can distinguish private space from party space. These and other structures suggest walls or borders, so they set apart areas without completely enclosing them. They're useful when you need to separate two areas that have related purposes.

Low hedges and small trees can serve the same purpose in the larger landscape, to visually separate the deck from the yard for instance. Such implied walls separate areas but don't entirely isolate them. They block visual and actual movement, not the view, so they direct traffic and define space without making you feel hemmed in.

The outdoor comfort scale

To keep the scale of your outdoor ceiling at a comfortable level, use these design tips.

Even if you think that your lowest tree branches at 15 to 20 feet off the ground are not too high, that height might make people at a dining table feel uncomfortable. Fix a problem such as this by setting up a table with an umbrella.

In general, deck space that's intended for intimate activities such as family dining, reflection, or solitary reading should have some kind of cover 10 to 12 feet above the deck surface. Party space will feel just right with ceilings up to 20 feet high.

How much of the deck you should cover? In general, shelter at least a third of the deck's surface area.

Wall and fence heights

Before you build a wall or erect a fence, you should have a clear idea of what you want it to do. The adage "form follows function" has no better application than choosing the height of a wall or fence.

If you need a structure for security, a windbreak, or for total screening, you can make it 6 to 8 feet high. But structures intended solely to separate spaces can be as low as 6 inches or as high as 3 feet.

Fences and walls in general should be either well above or well below eye level. A wall or fence that cuts your view in half is an annoyance that keeps you constantly ducking or stretching to try to see what's on the other side.

Designing with materials

Choosing screening materials is an opportunity to bring in additional design elements. Select materials that go with the style of your home and landscape.

Brick or stone -- solid and imposing -- work well with stately classic or traditional architecture. Interlocking blocks, designed for retaining walls, look at home in most landscape styles. You can combine materials to bring more variety to your design and to create unusual or unique screens. Dress up a plain fence with an evergreen hedge or roses, for example, for a screen that's ornamental and impenetrable. Or enlarge upon a Southwestern design scheme by building low walls with adobe blocks and planting evergreens.

Overheads

Overhead space, or the lack of it, has a great impact on our comfort -- both indoors and out. For example, a vaulted indoor ceiling can be visually awe-inspiring but also a bit overwhelming. Low ceilings can make you feel confined. The same holds true outdoors. Many outdoor areas need some kind of physical limit -- but just in the right amount -- in order for us to feel comfortable. How much of an overhead ceiling you'll need in your outdoor room will depend on how you plan to use it.

For example, space designated for entertaining large groups will feel more comfortable if left open or with a high overhead structure. Private spaces, such as those you'll use for dining, talking, or relaxing, will feel more cozy with some kind of limit overhead. And just as you can imply the presence of a wall with plants and low structures, you can suggest a ceiling too. Train a vine across the back of the house about 8 feet above the deck and you'll find even this simple addition brings a sense of security to the corner you want for you and your Sunday paper.

You can of course come up with more elaborate solutions. You can build an overhead structure -- a two- or four-post arbor, a pergola, or a canopy. You can even install a retractable awning.

Such a structure will increase your sense of enclosure. It also provides protection from the elements and is a design feature that can turn an average-looking deck into a unique addition to your backyard.

Overheads with slatted roofs will put shade on the deck when and where you want it. With some careful planning and a thorough site analysis, you can control the amount of shade provided throughout the day.

No matter what kind of overhead you build, make sure it's an integral part of the design, not an add-on. Repeating a detail of your house -- a molding or post style, pitch of the roof, accent color, or building material -- will link the structure to your home.

 

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