A deck can be more than just a functional platform for grilling and lounging. With the right design and materials, a deck can be a stylish and personalized extension of a home that reflects a client’s personality and preferences.

Choosing the right materials, knowing how to use them to the best design advantage, and intuiting which additional features will be most valued by your clients are beneficial skills to learn.

Material Might

It’s not even a question that composite decking is the primary material used by decking professionals in 2023. “Pretty much across the board, everybody wants composite,” says Sean Collinsgru, chief vision officer at Premier Outdoor Living, a design-build firm that specializes in outdoor living spaces in southern New Jersey.

“They want low maintenance. That used to be something that people were kind of on the fence about, and they wanted to price it out. Now it’s like, nobody wants to even hear about a wood deck.”

A 30-foot curved leaf inlay from Graber Outdoors

In some cases, contractors have been finding that composite materials are the same, if not cheaper, than treated 2-by-6 wood boards. Composite decking is made from recycled materials that are resistant to rot, insects, fading, staining and warping. Composite decking also requires less maintenance than wood decking, which needs to be stained, sealed or painted regularly.

When it comes to composite, there’s also the added benefit of the deck boards coming in a wider variety of shades, allowing for even more customization for the homeowner. “We’re seeing homeowners become more attracted to high contrast colors,” says Blake Carter, owner of California Deck Pros. Located in San Diego, California, California Deck Pros is a premier decking firm that does work with hardscape, pergolas and patio covers as well as decking. “[That] opens up the opportunity to complement softer, natural tones with bold whites and blacks.”

As Collinsgru explains, the sky’s the limit. “We’ll do a cool inlay on the deck, like an outdoor rug built into the deck. Or if it’s a larger project, and we want something that isn’t as loud but subtle enough because it’s a lot of square footage, we’ll do something as simple as alternate 7 1/4-inch boards and 5 1/2-inch boards, and it gives that varied width, a little bit more dimension.”

Diamond area rugs from Premier Outdoor Living

Inlays are especially popular to delineate areas of the deck, such as the dining area, from the fireplace, says John Graber, owner of Graber Outdoors, a family owned outdoor living firm that focuses on decks and patios in Kansas City, Missouri.

“In the 2000s, you had all these multiple level decks. You would break decks up by putting steps into them, and what people learn is that the 3 feet behind the steps, and the 3 feet in front of the steps becomes easement space, so you’re actually losing square footage there. With composite coming in, all of a sudden people are using more than two colors of composites to break the floor up.”

From there, Graber says, people can get as elaborate or as simple as they want, from diamond inlays and Celtic knots to simple framing. “The inlay is basically a substitute for breaking up your deck without putting steps in it.” He adds that even something as simple as framing the stairs can add a lot of character to the deck.

When choosing from a wide array of color options or imbedding an inlay, Collinsgru says it’s important to take the architecture and aesthetics of the home as a whole into consideration as well. “If you have a colonial house and you throw a sleek, two-tone gray deck on it, something will seem out of place. Whereas if you do something traditionally—a wood tone—it fits better overall.” That’s not to say he’s against “unnatural” tones.

Fire element

“The way I look at it, we can do some really cool stuff with a gray deck, maybe a two-tone gray with black accents, that would look really cool. But that is much more dependent on the architecture and design of the house.”

“Every 10 years or so has its theme,” Graber explains. “The ’90s were big about wraparound benches and huge wooden decks, [and] the 2000s you saw a lot of multi-level decks. It seems like what we’re seeing happen in the 2020s is a lot more glass, a lot more floor inlays. There’s a lot of cool products out there, and it’s not expensive; it’s not hard to do.”

Function Matters

Sitting down with clients and discussing their needs and wants for their outdoor decking experience will help the project take proper shape. “I think the No. 1 thing people don’t think about is the functionality of the end user,” Collinsgru says. “They just draw up a design and then, when they’re done building it, it’s just like, ‘Okay, here you go, homeowner. Good luck finding furniture that fits in this space.’”

“When we really think about how the person is going to use their deck, like if somebody’s using their space more so for entertaining, we’re going to think about speakers and a kitchen and a bar space with refrigerators and a fire pit, so that people can keep using the space late into the night and listen to music,” Carter explains. “Versus maybe someone that’s just looking for a little balcony or deck to eat dinner on; that’s going to be designed more simply. We’re really just going to try to make that space function for what it’s being used for.”

Three-season room with radiant heat

Collinsgru recommends starting every design with furniture, drawing in dimensions of furniture as he goes to make sure it makes sense and that everything is going to—or could—fit. “I like to ask questions such as, ‘How many people are in your immediate family?’ That gives me a sense of, if it’s a regular weeknight, how many people might be using the deck.

“‘If it’s a random Friday night, and you’re going to invite a few friends over, how many is that going to be?’ Those are use-cases we want to design around to get the size initially. We’re counting seats; we want to make sure we accommodate a place for everybody.”

From there, he says, they’re able to start drilling down into use questions such as the time of day the clients are more likely to use the deck, and whether they’re more likely to grill or just watch a baseball game.

Water feature

“What I find is that a lot of people think an outdoor dining table is a staple of an outdoor living space, but really it’s going to be the last place that people choose to sit unless there’s nowhere else,” Collinsgru advises. “Because unless you’re all sitting down together at the same time, it’s a lot less formal outside. People are going to want to sit on the couch or sit at the bar top to eat. So those are the kinds of questions we ask: ‘How are we going to prioritize the space?’”

Another example is a rooftop deck, Carter says. “We build a lot of rooftop decks, and if you don’t put shade on top of them, people will not use them because they’re going to be too hot. So, you have to think about how the space is going to be utilized, the comfort of that person, the convenience of using it, and incorporate those aspects into your design.”
Pergolas, shade sails and other roof structures can give some height to the space, which, in turn, can elevate the design (pun intended), as well as providing shade and a cool space for the function of the deck.

Features and More

It’s been established that decks are no longer flat extensions of the home but organic and personalizable places to socialize and enjoy nature. With that in mind, it would be remiss to leave out mention of popular outdoor living enhancements that have taken off over the last few years.

One feature that has popped up since the COVID-19 pandemic began has been radiant heaters. While they’ve been in use for many years, especially in outdoor dining areas in cooler weather, homeowners were introduced to them in full force when outdoor dining restrictions were lifted, even if the weather wasn’t always permitting. These have especially taken off in states in the Midwest, where Graber operates and where chilly weather can make up much of the year, “All of a sudden, what used to be a six-to-eight-month outdoor space is now a 10-month outdoor space with the correct use of heaters,” he says.

Shade element

Grilling has always been popular among homeowners, but the explosion of demand for outdoor kitchens, especially since the start of COVID-19, has been unprecedented. Designing a functional outdoor kitchen is important if clients are actually going to use it. “When building an outdoor kitchen, you’re typically bringing things from the indoor kitchen out, taking things from the inside fridge out,” Blake explains. “So, it never makes sense to have your outdoor kitchen super far away from your inside kitchen, or else you’re not going to be using it.”

If there’s anything the decking professionals need, it’s a deck design software, Graber says. “Everyone wants to be a home remodeling software, and they just sort of splotch decking on there too. I’ve fantasized about simply building my own software, but I haven’t been desperate enough to do that yet,” he laughs. “We use JobTread, a construction slash job site management software. It’s the second most-important tool in my belt.”

“At the end of the day, everyone knows a successful business is filled with happy clients,” Graber says. “So, when you see an opportunity to improve their deck without, you know, blowing the budget, you can suggest a knot or a diamond inlay, or a little bit of DekTek tile where they can set a fire pit—it’s an extra $400 to $800, and it really makes the deck pop.” QR

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