Backyard barbecues. A big patio table and chairs. A spot to kick back with a book and enjoy an afternoon breeze. Nothing says summer enjoyment in your yard like a deck!

A well-planned and well-built deck can add resale value and make your home easier to sell. But a tiny, "postage stamp" deck that looks like it’s about to collapse at any moment can do more harm than good. So if a new deck is on your list of projects this spring, take the time to plan for something that looks and performs well, now and into the future. Here are some things to consider.

Height and elevation changes

One of the first things to consider is which doors from the house will access the deck, and how high the deck will be in relation to those doors. The deck may be level with the doorway, so there’s no step down as you exit the house, or there may be a single step down.

If the deck is fairly high in relation to the surrounding yard, and you plan on having steps leading down from the deck to the yard, consider building the deck in multiple levels. This will reduce the number of steps down to the yard, and will also lessen the impression of how high the deck is in the air. Multiple deck levels also create an impressive architectural feature that really adds a "wow" factor to your yard.

With a high deck, consider having several broad, sweeping steps from the house down to the main deck level. The steps can be lined with planters, or designed as additional seating.

Another option is to have several interconnected decks at different heights, each with a different purpose; one houses the barbecue and is the main cooking area, another is the main dining area, a third has a few lounge chairs, while perhaps a fourth has a game table or a fire pit.

Each of these decks has one or two steps between them, which adds a tremendous amount of visual interest and also eliminates the need for one big staircase down to the yard.

Multiple deck levels can also be done in yards that are fairly flat. Start with a main deck that’s level with the exit door from the house. Step down once to a lower level on each side, to create separate individual decks for dining, cooking, or seating. Other decks can step down or even back up again from there.

Deck shapes and board direction

Another method for creating visual interest in your deck design is to use different shapes. Not every deck needs to be a square or a rectangle. Consider some gentle curves on the end of the deck, either in a large sweeping curve or in a more free-form design.

Deck boards can be left overhanging your support framing and then cut in a gentle curve with a circular saw, or in tighter, more complex curves using a jigsaw. Final smoothing and shaping can be done with a belt sander and a router. Even just cutting the corners off a square deck at a 45-degree angle will add a lot of visual interest.

Typically, the decking boards are laid parallel with the house. But you might experiment with laying some of the boards in different directions as well. For example, start with several courses of boards parallel with house, then install some diagonally, in a diamond pattern, before switching back to the original direction.

If you have multilevel decks, running the deck boards in perpendicular directions to each other on the different levels not only adds visual interest, it’s also a safety feature — your eye keys on the boards and warns you of the step down.

Unusual deck shapes and changes in decking directions will often require some alterations to the deck’s support framing, particularly the joists. You’ll want to be sure and plan for this during the framing stages.

Work it out on paper

A scale drawing is your best tool when it comes to deck design. There are lots of inexpensive computer deck-drawing programs on the market that are easy to learn, and that allow you to design and draw a deck in both 2-D and 3-D. You can also do it easily with a ruler and a piece of graph paper

Start by drawing your yard and the back wall of your house, including the location of the doors and windows. Include any obstructions that might affect the deck, like trees or septic tanks. Then let your imagination go. Think of how you’ll use the deck, and what types of things you’ll want to put on it. Will you cook on it? Eat on it? Entertain? Have a lot of furniture? What shape would you like? What levels and areas would you like?

Think about the deck both today and into the future. You may only have a budget to do part of the deck right now. If so, consider planning a main deck now, and designing one or more additional decks that can be added onto it later, perhaps at different levels, to complete the perfect outdoor retreat.

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