The Skies are the Limit: Designing and Building Your Dream Deck and Outdoor Living Space

Decks have always been a common place to gather with friends and family to enjoy a sunny summer day, or a warm summer evening. In its purest form, a deck is a raised structure attached to or near the exterior of a structure which is unprotected, and left exposed to the elements. In the last 10 years, with the eruption of the internet “how to” manuals, and the advent of DIY television channels and shows, decks have morphed from their traditional form into some of the most elaborately designed structures associated with home construction. The idea of a deck has shifted from, an outdoor area with the capacity to hold a table and a couple of lawn chairs, to an extension of the home. New age decks, now commonly referred to as “outdoor living spaces”, often include, but are not limited to, outdoor kitchens, hot tubs, pergolas, wet bars, and pools. A Deck is, by definition, an un-roofed porch or platform, that said, the sky is literally the limit as to what these structures can include.

This article is designed to detail the process involved in creating large scale decks and outdoor living spaces. The following will take you from the initial meeting with the client, through the design/ planning stage, to permitting, and finally construction and implementation.

Deck Consult and Measure Up

During this phase (if you’re the contractor) you will meet with the client onsite, and walk the area in which they wish to construct their deck. Take all necessary measurements one would need for the design & planning stage. For the most part, a square foot measurement of the area the deck is to encompass, and a drawing with measurements detailing how the deck will attach to the house will suffice. For design and permitting purposes, a copy of the Real Property Report from the client is required.

Once the area has been determined, a conversation with the client to assess their needs, wants, intentions, and budget for the deck will give the contractor the tools to design a custom outdoor living space specific to their needs.

Deck Planning & Design:

During this phase, the information collected at the initial meeting is compiled into a visual representation of the finished project. Whether you’re the decking contractor, or a home owner, taking the project on yourself, there are deck design tools out there to aid in the design process. These are handy tools to use, as you can layout your entire project on these simple to use programs. All stages of construction, from pilings to decking materials, even custom railing options can be generated using these programs to create a full visual replica of the project. Furthermore, the programs are designed to extrapolate your sub-structure plans making ready to submit drawings to your local Building Permit Department for approval.

While planning, drawings and decking components should all be done to scale. An overhead view works well during this stage. By starting with a scale “birds eye view” drawing of the deck, one can accurately measure and situate, pergolas, hot tubs, outdoor kitchens, etc, to best determine locations of said features and general flow of the deck. If the deck is being built around large features such as a pool, spa, or garden feature, start your design with the placement of the feature, and work your way out from the foot print of the feature.

Considerations When Building Your Outdoor Living Space

One should take into consideration the weight of the accessories being added to the deck. When possible, features such as pergolas and arbors that have posts incorporated in their construction, the posts should be run through the frame to pilings in the ground, under the deck frame. This is beneficial for a number of reasons, 1.) It takes any additional weight off of the surface of the deck and transfers it to the pilings. 2.) It gives the builder additional anchor points for framing, thus making the structure stronger. 3.) By strategically adding posts and beams under the substructure, they increase the potential for a successful project by strengthening the substructure. When additional pilings are added, they MUST be documented on the construction plan. Pilings should be at least 4’ deep and 10” wide(here in Calgary) this will put the base of the pilings below the frost layer, and minimize the chance of frost heaving compromising the structural integrity of the substructure. Where heavy structures are installed and posts are unable to be run through the deck, additional pilings, beams, and joisting should be added to the substructure.

Make Your Dream Deck a Reality

Once the surface layout is complete, a Structural Cross Section Drawing is required. These drawings are far more detailed (and are required at the permitting stage) and encompass everything included in the substructure or frame. Items required in the Structural Cross Section Drawing include:

  • Header Boards and how they are fastened to the wall
  • Pilings and their locations, as well as depth in the ground
  • Posts and their dimensions (EG. 4×6 or 6×6 etc.)
  • Beams (and their dimensions EG. 3 ply Pressure Treated 2×10 Beam)
  • Joists (and their dimensions EG. 2×8, 2×10, 2×12)
  • Joist spacing
  • Railing location, height, and design

Beam and joist selection is based on the distance between points of contact. For example, where the joists are connected to the header board on the house using Joist Hangers is considered the first point of contact (A). Where the joist intersects with the beam is the second point of contact (B). The span is the distance between contact point A, and contact point (B). The span will determine the joist sizing. One can find joist sizing specifications by going to, click on the search tab, and type in Joist Span Charts. This chart will detail what Joist size is required, material, and number of ply’s suitable to span your desired distance.

Decking Material Selection:

Decking materials can be broken down into eight major categories:

  • Composite
  • PVC
  • Calcium Carbonate
  • Domestic Woods (Spruce, Cedar, Pressure Treated)
  • Exotic Woods (Batu, Iron Wood, Ipe)
  • Vinyl
  • Cement/ Aggregate
  • Natural/ Manufactured Exterior Tiles

It is important early on in the planning process to determine the decking material to be used on the surface. Many factors will play into the material selection such as, amount of traffic, location of deck on the house, if its surrounding a pool or hot tub, willingness to maintain the product, over all look one is trying to achieve, deck shape, color preferences, budget, and general desired use of the area, the list is endless. The type of deck material selected will play a role in how the deck is framed, and such framing plans will need to be detailed in the Structural Cross Section Diagram.

Deck Permitting:

The following is required by the City of Calgary at the application stage in order to issue a Building Permit for a Wood Deck:

Your application must be accompanied by:

  • Two copies of a Site Plan for the property. Note: It may be necessary to submit two copies of a Real Property Report, prepared by an Alberta Land Surveyor.
  • Two sets of Building Plans (Plan View and Structural Cross-Section).

If you are unfamiliar with Building Codes and Regulations, applying for a permit is certainly one way to guarantee a successful project. Once you submit your drawings they go to an inspector, whose job it is to know the building codes. If your plan does not meet code requirements your application will be denied, suggestions will be made on your drawings for you to change your plans to meet code requirements when you resubmit the new plans for permit approval.

Once the plans have been approved, permits have been granted, you or your client, are happy with the design, it’s time to start the build. To avoid any surprises during inspection, and to maximize the potential for a successful project, remember this simple saying “Plan what you’ll build, and build what you’ve planned”. Careful detail has gone into the planning process, so don’t deviate!

With large projects it is always a good idea to start with a known point of elevation. This is a point that will not move throughout the duration of the project. This way one can accurately layout the different elevations in the project. Known points of elevation are located somewhere on the property, and could be a concrete drain swale in the corner of a back yard, or the edge of the pool your building up to. The important thing is that this point does not move.

Start your project by measuring, re-measuring, digging, and setting your pilings. Pilings should be a minimum of 4’ deep and 10” wide (Calgary specs). Prior to your concrete setting (but after it has been poured into the form), place the post saddles in the concrete. Next step is fastening the header board (if one is required) to the structure the deck is to be attached to. Once the header board is securely fastened (check your local building codes for bolt specs) one is able to determine the beam and post height. Once your posts and beams are in place, hangers, joists, and torsional blocking can be installed. Prior to fastening your joists to the beam check that your sub-frame is square. On small decks, an easy way to ensure your deck is square is to place a sheet of ply wood flat on the framed surface, line up the corner of the plywood with the corner of the deck and then adjust the frame so the edges of the plywood are flush with your outside joist, and outside rim board. On large decks where there are multiple areas to be squared, divide the areas up, and use the A²+B²= C² formula, then measure corner to corner to ensure the deck is square. When at all possible, do not fasten your joists to the beam until the end of the framing, this will allow for easy adjustments should one need to move anything.

Deck Railing Considerations

Once framing is complete, and the joists are fastened to the beams, think about the railing selection. If the railing requires the posts to be fastened to the frame (and not the surface of the deck), now is the time to lay it out.  Once the railing has been measured and laid out, fasten the posts to the frame, and block the posts accordingly. If your railing posts are surface mounted (to the top of the deck) I still recommend laying out your railing and adding additional blocking to fasten your posts into.

When fastening the decking to the frame, be sure to use the recommended fastening system for the product being installed. This is pertinent for a couple of reasons. 1.) If using composites, this will ensure the decking material is under warranty by the manufacturer should anything happen overtime. 2.) Proper fasteners will keep your deck looking the way it’s supposed to for a long time. Proper fasteners will hold up to daily use, they won’t deteriorate, and they won’t discolor the surface.

Despite all the careful planning that has gone into the project, there is bound to be some hiccups throughout the build. By anticipating and planning for some margin of error, one can minimize the amount of time and effort spent solving these items. The most difficult errors to work with are those that are affected by permanent features, such a pilings. By making your pilings slightly bigger than required, your giving yourself more surface area to land your support posts on. For example, if your plans call for an 8” sonotube piling, upgrade to a 10” or 12”.

If the deck is to be surfaced with composite material, I strongly suggest framing the deck on 12” centers. Composite material absorbs heat, more so if a dark color composite is chosen. By tightening up your joisting to 12” centers it will minimize any bounce in the deck boards and create a stronger surface. Building a deck using 12” centers is always a good idea with any decking product, but is necessary with composites. Once the decking material has been placed and fastened, the final steps include inspection by a building inspector, and finishing.

Deck Inspection

Once your project is completed, and all that is left is painting of staining, it’s time to call the building inspector and have him sign off on the completed work. If you have followed the plans that were submitted with your building permit application, the inspector will check for deficiencies and sign off on the completed project assuming there is no problems.

Deck Finishing

Once the inspection is complete, if you used a natural wood product, paint or a stain should be applied to treat the wood, and protect it from the elements. There are many paint or stain options available. Take the time to find the product most suitable to your needs. I always like to recommend an oil based stain product as these are typically a penetrant. This means that the product soaks into the wood, therefore not only protecting the outside of the wood, but protecting the inside as well. Painting with a latex product treats the surface of the wood. It seals out moisture, but also seals in moisture found in the wood.

Now, Just Enjoy Your New Outdoor Living Space!

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