Building a deck could take as little as a week or as long as several months, depending on the size and complexity of the design and on unpredictable events such as weather delays. Despite these variables, most deck construction follows a basic sequence: preparing the site; installing the foundation; building the structural system; adding decking, railings, and stairs; and finishing the job with protective sealers, stains, or paints. While the methods used for each step can vary somewhat from builder to builder, the basic process is straightforward. Being familiar with these steps helps the homeowner make necessary decisions and anticipate problems so the deck building proceeds smoothly and efficiently.
Obtaining Building Permits
Any outdoor structure attached to a main house - and often any freestanding structure as well - requires a building permit before construction can begin. Building permits are issued after a member of the local building or planning department reviews your plans and evaluates them for safety and structural integrity. If your plans were not produced by an architect, you can have them reviewed by a registered structural engineer before submitting them to a building department. This is an especially helpful step if your deck is complex. Plan to spend $300 - $600 for a structural engineer to review your plans and make suggestions that will address your deck building challenges.
Your plans for building a deck must also meet local setback requirements. Setbacks determine the distance that new construction may be from property lines. In certain circumstances, you may be able to apply for a variance that allows you to build within a setback zone. Your application for variance must put forth compelling reasons for the request, such as the construction of a wheelchair ramp.
Your building department also will be able to tell if your property includes any right-of-ways. Right-of-ways usually are corridors that allow utility companies or neighbors legal access through parts of your property. You will not be able to build your deck in right-of-way areas.
Expect two or three visits from a local building inspector during the course of deck construction. The building inspector will examine the structure to ensure it¿s being constructed safely and in compliance with local codes. Ask the building inspector at what stages he or she expects to visit your deck building site, and plan to be on-site so that you can be available to answer questions.
Don¿t be intimidated by the idea of a building inspection. Most building inspectors are knowledgeable and helpful. Their main concern is safety, and most are quite willing to talk about your specific plans and methods of construction to ensure that your deck building proceeds soundly and on schedule.
Notify all utility, cable television, and phone companies about your plans for building a deck. Ask them to mark the locations of underground utilities including underground cable, wires, pipes, and sewer lines. Most companies provide this service for free or a small fee.
Once the plans are finalized and approved by the local building department, your deck building work can begin. Any obstructions such as shrubs, outbuildings, or small trees that are not included in the design must be removed from the construction site. Soil near the foundation should be graded so that it slopes away from the house at a rate of about 6 vertical inches for every 3 horizontal feet. To suppress the growth of unwanted vegetation underneath the deck, the area should be covered with landscaping fabric. First, add a layer of coarse sand for drainage. Then cover the sand with landscaping fabric. Bury the fabric under several inches of gravel. It¿s more efficient to do this after all footings have been poured.
If the deck is attached to the house, the location of the ledger is marked on the side of the house. Using the ledger location as a reference, the deck is outlined with a system of strings pulled taut over staked batter boards. These string lines establish the edges of the deck and create reference corners. Once the deck is outlined with lines, the strings are used to locate and mark the placement of foundation footings.
After all footing locations are marked, the holes must be dug. For small decks, the holes can be dug with a hand-operated clamshell digger. For larger decks with more than six or seven footing holes, consider renting a power auger. It¿s an awkward and heavy tool that¿s not easy to master, but it makes short work of digging holes. A power auger can create a 10-inch-wide hole 42 inches deep in two or three minutes, depending on how hard the soil is.
After the preliminary work is completed and the foundation is poured and allowed to cure, the construction of a deck should proceed in a systematic manner. Posts, girders, and joists are installed and braced if necessary. The substructure usually is fastened together with galvanized metal connectors that hold the members securely and provide strength at the joints. Decking is laid over the joists and fastened with galvanized nails or screws. Stairs, railings, and ancillary structures such as overheads are added, and protective sealers, stains, or paints complete the work.