Enjoying outdoor space year-round: 12 tips for getting decked

Designing the ideal deck is a bit more daunting than it seems. Go too understated and it may look like a dock. Go overboard, and it will look like the architectural equivalent of wearing cocktail attire to a backyard barbecue. But we can help.


Because we are fortunate in this area to be able to enjoy outdoor living almost year-round, I offer a dozen considerations to get you started on designing or remodeling the deck of your dreams.

1. Rules and regs. Familiarize yourself with your city’s regulations to find out what you can legally do. Your deck designer and builder will most likely need to apply for a deck permit requiring scale drawings of the framing plan and possibly an elevation to ensure that your deck will be safe and meet structural code requirements. Materials, fasteners, footings, railings, stairs and ledger boards will all need to be addressed.

2. Living the life. Is private reflection, an intimate dinner or drinks by the fire pit how you roll? Do you occasionally throw a large party or do you regularly entertain the masses? Essentially, you need to ask yourself what ages of people will use the deck, how, and how often. Whatever the answers, be clear about your needs. Think in terms of must-haves and like-to-haves and determine what your budget and space will allow.

3. In the zone. In all likelihood, your deck will accommodate a range of activities: some frequently, some occasionally. Establish zones or rooms for relaxing, dining, cooking and so forth. Designing a deck is not unlike designing an interior space with an open floor plan. Be sure to leave plenty of room for traffic flow around and through these areas. For instance, diners should be able to comfortably pull their chairs back from the table without hitting a railing and be able to circulate around the table comfortably.

4. Be materialistic. When choosing materials, be realistic about your willingness to engage in proper maintenance. Treated lumber or cedar is the most affordable, but requires power washing and, ideally, sealing. Exotic woods are rich-looking, but more expensive. Composites, PVC and the like are more expensive, but offer virtually maintenance-free longevity.

5. Size matters. The scale of your deck in relation to your home, especially, but also your yard, is critically important for a cohesive look. Some experts advise that your deck should be no larger than 20 percent of your home’s footprint. But it depends on several factors including how the deck is broken up with furnishings and such, its shape and its design. Manipulating the angle of the boards – vertically, diagonally, horizontally or in combination – can help break up the space and define zones. A bi- or even trilevel deck, or one with repeated angles, curves or bump-outs helps avoid that aircraft-carrier feel of too large an expanse.

6. Free range. If you enjoy grilling – a lot – an outdoor kitchen, complete with a wood-fired brick pizza oven, may be a must-have. But a simple grill, perhaps on a bump-out, may suffice. On the other hand, if your kitchen is conveniently located near your deck, you may prefer to cook – and possible even serve – food indoors and dine outside. Grills and decks go together like beans and slaw, but a nice gas grill that sits under its cover unused is an expensive piece of sculpture.


7. Cover up. Depending on the orientation of your deck and the trees on your property, the sun’s rays may or may not be an issue. But if you and the sun have different ideas about compatibility, design a portion of your deck to offer shade, either full – rendering it a covered porch – or partial, with, say, a pergola. How far apart the rafters are spaced and whether it is planted with a climbing vine determine how much sunlight penetrates.

8. Room with a view. Many of us enjoy our decks because of the view it provides into our yards or the surrounding landscape. But the view from inside the house out to the deck is also important for visual harmony. As you choose a design and furnishings, ensure that the view from the inside out is enhanced and unobstructed. Some strategies to help open up the view include a stepped-down design and a cable or tempered-glass railing system. If you choose a sleek contemporary cable system, be sure it won’t rust.

9. Stay connected. Visually and, often, functionally, decks provide a transition between house and yard. To ensure that the transition is smooth, consider not only the style of the deck and furnishings, but what lies beyond. Typically, decks, especially small ones, should reflect the style of the home. Larger decks, or those with more than one level, often look attractive if they become more natural or organic as they move away from the house. Where any deck meets the yard, a patio, pavers, stones or brick create a handsome transition.

10. Let there be light. Since, especially during the work week, many of us are only able to enjoy our decks at night, be sure to provide adequate lighting for ambiance, tasks and safety. Choose from under-rail lighting, string lights, well lights, stair lights, cordless fixtures and more.

11. Upstanding. We tend to think of decks as floors, but it is often the upright elements that create the most visual impact. Today’s market boasts an almost overwhelming range of railing styles from rustic to highly refined. Take your time, do your research – look at lots of photos – and pick the perfect railing for your application. If your deck is significantly raised, your skirting can be simple vertical or horizontal boards or something more decorative to complement the style of the home. Be careful, though, not to choose something overly busy, as it will provide an unwanted distraction and create an unintended focal point.

12. Decorate rich. Think function, comfort, style and longevity when choosing outdoor furnishings. As with decorating any space, choose a color palette and style – preferably ones that complements your home – and stick with it. Define areas with indoor-outdoor rugs and soften with occasional tables – ceramic garden stools are nice because they can provide extra seating for small folks – and incorporate indoor-outdoor pillows and potted plants. For upholstered furniture, invest in furniture covers and perhaps a decorative bench with an open-close top in which to store it. If you have to retrieve and return covers to a shed or garage that isn’t conveniently located, you won’t use them.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to http://www.vbhomesliving.com.


Want a better closet? Here’s how to get started.

You might think that efficient, highly functional, and beautiful custom closet design begins with space planning. But you would be wrong. It begins with a purge.

Most people have clothing and other items tucked – or stuffed – into their closets that they haven’t touched in a year or more. Donate or discard all of those out-of-style, unneeded and unwanted items before you begin the closet design process. In doing so, you will best understand not only how many items you have, but what types. Even if your result is a few steps down from a boutique or haberdashery style space – for which we advocate – an accurate “audit” of what needs to fit back into the closet is the only way to plan a space tailored to your needs, whether you are designing a walk-in or reach-in closet.

Consider making a built in “hutch” the centerpiece of your new closet, complete with drawers, a catch-all surface on top, and shelves or cubbies above to save space in the bedroom by eliminating the need for a dresser. Then build out from there, thinking in terms of zones, especially if two people share the closet – or might in the future – and designing from the floor to the ceiling to make use of every square inch. No closet ever had too much storage space.
Closet Picture

Decide what might be better folded or rolled, like sweaters and T-shirts – clothing made of fabrics that can stretch and become misshapen – and even jeans and shorts. Allot adjustable shelves – and maybe some handy rollouts. These could be cubbies or deep drawers. For ease of retrieval, it is best that folded items are not stacked more than 5 feet tall. The top shelves of your closet are the ideal place for bins that hold less frequently used items like luggage, totes and shoe bags for travel, or seasonal items like bathing suits.

Drawers with clear acrylic fronts make it easy to see what is inside, but may also contribute to visual clutter. Figure out which matters more to you and choose accordingly. Shallow drawers are nice for hosiery, underclothes and nightclothes, though some people prefer an open bin or basket on a shelf for quick retrieval of these items, especially, socks.

Those slanted shelves designed especially for shoes are not the most practical, adaptable or space-saving design. We recommend flat adjustable shelves to accommodate shoes of different heel and platform heights, as well as booties and boots. Save the most space by turning each pair heel to toe. Other items requiring shelf space that you might want to stash in your closet include linens and pillows for the adjacent bedroom and bath.

Clothing on hangers takes up the most space, but is, obviously, a necessity. Measure the width of your hanging clothes to determine exactly how much space you will require. Be sure to include long hanging space – usually some 18-24 inches in width – for women’s dresses. Consider hanging coats in a foyer or mudroom.

Most everything else can be double hung, but it is still a good idea to make sure that rods are adjustable. In a walk-in closet, hanging clothing can be concealed behind doors for a very upscale look. Just keep in mind that they will take up more space and, unless the area is expansive, could lend a closed-in feel. For the neatest, tidiest and most cohesive look even without doors, decide on one type of hanger – plastic, wood, or velvet; not wire! – and stick with it.

An array of other closet accessories is available, and one can easily get carried away. One that is practical, though, is a pull-out belt/tie rack. Another that we really like is the pull-out hamper located in the bottom section of double hung space. If two people share a closet, each person ideally will have his or her own hamper or, even better, a pair of them for separating different fabrics. We favor the bag-style that can be unhooked from its sliders and taken to the laundry room.

If your closet offers enough wall space – including behind a swing door – where anything built out will not work, many women, especially, like a rail-type system with hooks for jewelry, scarves, hats and the like. Being able to see all of your jewelry hanging over hooks or in organdy bags suspended from hooks means it is likely to get worn more often.

Lighting is as important in the well-designed closet as it is in a kitchen and bath. If you can accommodate natural lighting from a window, we highly recommend it, though some fabrics can fade in direct sunlight. Because you lose storage space on window walls, we find that the space beneath windows is the ideal spot for bench seating for putting shoes on and taking them off. A small sturdy bench that doubles as a kind of movable step stool is nice for retrieving items up high.

But you will also need overhead lighting, which can be as stylish as you choose; just make sure it is bright and not behind you, or your body will cast shadows on what you are trying to see. Opt for a cool type of bulb, as incandescent light fixtures can cause heat to build, and all of that fabric in an enclosed space can become a fire hazard.

Other considerations for your closet, if space allows, include a television, radio, flip-down ironing board, full-length mirror from which you can stand back about 3 feet, and wastebasket for laundry tags and bags, receipts left in your pockets, and the like. Closets can be difficult spaces in which to vacuum, but area rugs underfoot can feel nice.

By keeping these guidelines in mind, your closet may become the best room in your home.

If you have a question on building, remodeling, or designing your dream closet, please email me at chris@ vbhomesliving.com.

Virginia Beach native and James Madison University graduate Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council. Contact Ettel at Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to www.vbhomesliving.com.

Getting your garage in gear

Last month’s column featured 10 spring-cleaning tips for improving your home’s curb appeal. This month I offer 10 tips for improving the appearance and function of what can easily become the most unsightly room in your home: the garage.

A transitional space between indoors and out, garages can quickly become catchall spaces. That, coupled with the fact that debris is liable to blow in every time you open your garage door, means that garages are often dusty and dirty. Hopefully, these tips will help you get your garage in gear – even if there is currently no space in it for your car.



1. First, downsize. It’s not the most fun task, but it sure feels good when you are finished. Give away, throw away and donate anything that you have not used or repaired in the last year.

2. If your garage is still too crowded to move through it and work in it comfortably, consider a shed to hold larger items like bikes, wheelbarrows and the like.

3. Determine what you need to be able to store and/or accomplish in your garage and establish zones for each. Placement is key; if you want a potting shed in your garage, locate it near a door to the exterior.

4. If your garage is quite full, look up. Maybe you can hang bikes from ceiling-mounted racks or hoist them overhead on a pulley system. Or perhaps you can also install ceiling-mounted racks that install above garage doors for those infrequently used items such as holiday decorations. Be sure you hit studs when attaching these types of systems.

5. Also look down. Epoxy paint is popular among homeowners as a floor covering to resist stains and chemicals. To ensure that the paint will stick, you will need to power wash the floor and then apply an etching product before painting if a drop of water beads on the floor. As an alternative, rubber floor tiles are also popular: They hide a lot of wear, are comfortable underfoot and provide sound insulation.

6. Closed cabinets are nice for garage spaces because the doors keep out dust and debris. However, if that is not an option, clear bins with lids stored on open shelves is the next best option. Clear bins prevent the need for labeling and relabeling as the contents change.

7. Most homeowners find some kind of work surface, like a workbench, to be almost a required feature of their garage. Pegboard above puts tools and other supplies within easy reach. While you are at it, a potting bench also is nice.

8. New garage doors can be expensive, but if your home came with solid garage doors, replacing them with windowed doors will transform a dank and foreboding space into a light-infused work space. They can also dramatically enhance the appearance of your home from the exterior, as there are many stylish designs on the market nowadays.

9. The bare bulb mounted high on the ceiling of most garages is not adequate for all that goes on in these hardworking spaces. As in a kitchen, task lighting will make your garage a far more functional, safe and satisfying place to be.

10. Air temperature is another factor that contributes to your garage’s functionality. A ceiling-mounted, gas-fired, forced-air unit is sometimes desirable in winter, and a cooling unit – say a window unit or a portable AC unit – is helpful in summer if you spend many hours in your garage. Check with an expert, as ventilation and safety are key.

As you transform your garage, feel free to reach out with questions – and with solutions – that have worked for you at chris@vbhomesliving.com.


Putting the ‘room’ in ‘mudrooms’

The term mudroom is a bit of a misnomer nowadays because, while these hardworking entry spaces see a lot of action, mud is seldom part of the picture.


Originally used to stash muddy boots to prevent tracking into the main part of the house, mudrooms now most often function like a secondary foyer. Here are some thoughts to help make your mudroom look more like an appealing room in your home and less like a utilitarian passageway.

Typically located just off a home’s back or side entrance and used by family and close friends, mudrooms come in many shapes and sizes. Some are true rooms and are often combined with laundry facilities, while others are more of a pass-through space in which family members grab and go. The pass-throughs generally fall into one of four categories: hallway, nook (e.g. under the stairs), corner or closet. If a closet, many homeowners like to remove the door and attractively style the interior.

Layouts largely depend on how homeowners intend to use the space, of course, but also whether the mudroom was part of the original architectural design. Regardless, mudrooms tend to need the following: hooks and clips, cubbies, containers, seating and lighting.
Hooks are versatile in terms of both function and placement, as they can hold coats, scarves, handbags, backpacks, umbrellas, keys and much more. And they can be arranged in straight rows, both low and high, or placed on a wall in an artistic manner.


Cubbies generally refer to a custom or purchased contemporary “hall tree”-type divided unit with an open front – often vertical in a mudroom application and often in the popular locker style. However, unless carefully designed with restraint, built-in cabinetry can easily look bulky, heavy and a bit claustrophobic. Whether your compartments are closed or open – and perhaps labeled, if possible – a variety of baskets and bins will keep items neatly separated for easy retrieval. But, even though baskets may look nice on top of your unit, how likely is anyone to climb up there?

Benches, with either floor storage or contained storage underneath a lift-up top, are very popular and practical seating choices for mudrooms. They tend to be long and shallow, so they work particularly well for small, narrow spaces and multiple users. But, there is no rule that says a chair or stool is not perfectly acceptable for a mudroom. It might be just what you need.

Lighting – though perhaps not the brightest lighting if dog fur, dirt and dings to the baseboards are an issue – is an important consideration not only for practical purposes, but for creating the ambiance your desire.

Other features that are not essential, but nice to have include a mirror for a last check and to bounce light while enlarging the space; a charging station for cellphones and such; and a wall clock, so you needn’t check your phone as you dash in and out.

Styles run the gamut, but whatever the style of your mudroom, it should certainly complement the rest of your home, even if it is a bit more rustic or informal.

If your mudroom is going to take a beating, consider hard-wearing surfaces like tile on the floor and perhaps board-and-batten wainscoting instead of drywall. An indoor-outdoor rug that you treat as an annual purchase will reduce the chance of someone slipping, while adding color and texture.

You can also incorporate art and family photos, pillows, glass canisters with snacks and dog treats, message boards and general decorative items like floral arrangements and ever-popular painted signs.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. Contact Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to www.vbhomesliving.com.

There’s an outdoor shower for every “body” and budget

If you loved running through the sprinkler as a kid, the kid in you is likely to find the same pleasure in an outdoor shower. Or if you longingly associate showering outdoors with watching the sun set over the sound and savoring a book during an afternoon storm from the cocoon of a screened porch—in other words, vacation—we can help extend that off-duty relaxed feeling long after the sunburn fades.74th St Outdoor Shower


Don’t have a pool or live at the beach?  No worries?  The chlorine-saturated and sand-coated no longer have exclusive rights.  If you exercise outdoors, do lawn work, have dogs to bathe, or simply want to feel a little freer and more in touch with the natural world, alfresco showering may be perfect for you.  And there is an outdoor shower for every budget and every style. An outdoor shower can be as simple as a garden hose run between a spigot and a showerhead fixture.  And there are plenty of DIY models on the market.  But if your sights are set a bit higher, here are a few tips to keep in mind: