Drawing a Base Map and Site Analysis

Putting plans on paper requires some discipline -- planning works best if you take one thing at a time.

All good deck plans start with a base map, which is simply a scaled drawing of your property. You can zip through this step by locating your plat map -- it's probably among the papers you filed when you bought your house. You may also find a plat map at your county clerk's office. If you can find one, take it to a copy shop and ask for a 1-to-10 enlargement that will put the image on 24x36-inch paper.

If you can't find a plat map, go out to your yard with a 100-foot steel tape measure, a sketch pad, and someone to help you, then start measuring and sketching your yard. Here's what a base map should include:

  • Dimensions of your property and location of property lines.
  • Outline and dimensions of the house and its position relative to property lines.
  • Exact locations of exterior electrical outlets, dryer vents, and water supply -- anything that protrudes from the side of the house where you plan to locate the deck.
  • Locations and dimensions of all exterior windows and doors, including distance from the ground and which room they go into. Show them all, not just those on the deck side; you may change your mind about the deck location.
  • Positions and dimensions of any outbuildings, such as garages and storage sheds, and other major landscape features, including large trees, playground equipment, and planting beds.
  • Dimensions of roof overhangs and locations of downspouts.
  • Locations and dimensions of existing walls, fences, stairs, walks, and driveways.

By gathering this detailed information you'll have everything you need to know right at hand when you plan your deck.

Making a site analysis

Once you have a record of existing elements in your landscape, note what's right and what's wrong with it. Tape a piece of tracing paper over your site plan and trace the major elements of the site.

A site analysis is a bird's-eye view of conditions in your yard, both the things you like and those you would like to change.

Note the prevailing winds; you don't want your deck in a wind tunnel, so you may need to move it or build windbreaks.

Draw arrows to indicate predominant drainage patterns so you can avoid putting your deck on swampy soil. If the best location is in a runoff area, you may have to build a drainage system to divert the water.

Indicate where the shade falls and where the sun is strongest during the part of the day you plan to use your deck most.

Make note of neighbors' views. You may need to plan for privacy. Also note the things you want to shield from your view.

You don't need to indicate solutions for each of these situations; that's a step you will address later.
Remember to include the elements you consider assets -- pleasant views, the direction of cooling breezes, or natural areas that you could link to your deck for outdoor walks and recreation.

Don't forget the views

Keep three views in mind: the way the deck looks to passersby, what you see when you are sitting on the deck, and the view of the deck from inside the house.

  • The view from the street: Though a deck is primarily a horizontal surface, passersby and neighbors see the vertical elements -- railings, steps, benches, overhead structures, planters, and skirting. If the deck has few vertical elements, budget for some furniture and flowerpots to dress it up.
  • The view from the deck: If the deck overlooks a beautiful view -- be it a magnificent hillside or a lovely yard -- orient the deck so that people can get a good look while they are sitting on benches or chairs. If you have small children, make sure you won't have to strain to see them while they play in the yard.
  • The view from inside: If you have a cherished view from your kitchen or living room, don't cover it up with a deck railing. If necessary drop the deck down two or three steps or build a deck low enough that it does not need a railing.

New life for an old deck

If you already have a deck that you don't use, the planning steps might show how to make it into an enjoyable space you would use. Start by noting faults and assets, just as if you were planning a new deck.

If the deck is too large, subdivide it into smaller, more intimate areas with planters, container gardens, or movable seating. Perhaps you could add an outdoor kitchen, fire pit, or water feature. Maybe all you need is a little more room for a barbecue. Add a dining space and set up a portable or built-in grill where the furniture used to be.

If the deck is too small for all your guests and is cramping your party style, build an extension or put in a paved area by the deck. If you don't have room to attach another deck to the old one, build a detached deck farther out in the yard and connect the two with a boardwalk or a third deck.

Computer deck programs

Many home centers and lumberyards offer computer planning software and employ staff who know how to work them. Bring in a rough drawing with dimensions (height, width, and length) and ask for help. If you're computer savvy yourself, browse the Internet for similar planning software.

Most programs produce several drawings -- a plan view, an elevation, and a perspective view. Many also will produce a list of lumber and materials.

Some of these programs have limitations, however, displaying only a few railing styles and lacking the capacity to plan an overhead structure or planter. Unusual or odd-shape designs may also outstrip the power of some programs. So might structural requirements that differ from typical building codes. Most professional deck contractors draw their plans by hand. It's quicker and more flexible.


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