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.


Enjoy 3 seasons of al fresco dining at home with a thought-out custom kitchen

Those of us who reside in Coastal Virginia are fortunate to enjoy three growing seasons, which translates to three seasons of cooking and dining outdoors. A grill and a prefabricated portable food prep station are just about all it takes. However, if you covet a more custom kitchen, there are at least seven S’s to consider.

Create an outdoor space for dining al fresco

Sympatico spaces. Start by asking yourself some basic questions about how you cook and entertain indoors, how you imagine yourself doing the same outdoors, and how you want your indoor and outdoor spaces to relate to each other. Though outdoor cooking and dining open up new possibilities for how you entertain, you aren’t liable to become a dramatically different cook or host when you step outside. And unless your outdoor kitchen is fully outfitted and independent, these two hardworking spaces will need to function in tandem. So, think also about the distance between them as well as the navigable route between them. Will the outdoor space be attached to your home or detached? Remember, no matter how appealing, if your outdoor cooking space isn’t easily accessible and easy to maintain, you aren’t likely to use it.

Style. Though most homeowners think visually when they imagine al fresco entertaining, the truth is that style should be secondary to durability. Hire the best contractor you can afford, for Mother Nature is especially intolerant of shoddy craftsmanship.

In general, sleek lines and polished finishes look more contemporary, while irregularity, texture and matte finishes impart a more classic, rustic or traditional look. The choices of layouts tend to be a straight line, often against a pre-existing edge, border, or wall; an L- or U-shape; or an island. Incorporating bar seating as a casual dining option for a few people is a smart choice, even when a dining table is nearby, as outdoor cooking areas tend to become hubs. With food prep, cooking, and dining all in close proximity, dual level counters are nice in order to separate functions.

Surfaces. As for counters, experts agree that homeowners’ best choices are natural stone (including less expensive stone veneer), properly installed concrete or outdoor-rated tile. However, if a manufactured countertop like quartz or recycled glass is a key component of your dream kitchen, seek the advice of the manufacturer to ensure that the pigments and any epoxies or fillers will hold up during outdoor use over time without changing color from UV rays. Porous stones – marble, soapstone, slate, limestone, and bluestone – will likely stain over time, while granite performs well in the elements, is less prone to absorbing stains and odors than other stones, and is unlikely to fade. Don’t discount corrosion-resistant stainless steel or some less frequently seen options like brick, stucco, sealed teak, or virtually maintenance-free marine-grade polymer. Regardless of the material, darker colors and metal will absorb more heat.

As for flooring, stone is appealing, of course, but it is fairly expensive and can absorb oil, leaving stains behind. Stained and stamped concrete is an excellent choice, but you only need look around at driveways to know that considering a base adhesive is a smart move to help the concrete withstand the freeze-thaw cycle without cracking. Likewise, if tile is your choice, you need only think of your cracked ceramic planters to know that a frost-proof, unglazed product, preferably protected with a penetrating sealer, and a grout with the proper additive is worth the extra cost. In all cases, consider the most slip-resistant version of your preferred material.

Shelter and shade. Enjoying a meal outdoors is hard to beat. But complete exposure to the elements is not necessarily desirable. Consider a pergola with a slatted or lattice roof for ventilation, an electric or manually operated awning, or even an umbrella in a sun-resistant fabric, which works for both portable and built-in kitchens. For the latter, a hole in the counter to accommodate the umbrella post is ideal. Shade trees may sound like the perfect protection for your outdoor paradise, but when their leaves start to drop, paradise may transmute into perdition. To extend the outdoor cooking and dining season in more extreme temperatures, consider portable butane heaters and dual-use fans, perhaps with built-in misters.

Splurges and necessities. It is helpful to think of your outdoor kitchen in terms of hot, cold, wet and dry zones. For longevity and optimum performance, make sure that your hot and cold appliances are not placed immediately next to each other, and choose only appliances rated for outdoor use. In the hot zone, most everyone would agree that a grill is the centerpiece. Hybrid or dual grills allow cooking with gas or charcoal, with the latter making a comeback. If the grill is close to the house or under an enclosure, a range hood or other proper ventilation is paramount. Of all the “extras,” many homeowners find that a side burner is all but essential.

Other “hot” zone items to consider include a dedicated gas line instead of propane, a wood-fired pizza oven, a smoker, and a deep fryer. Frying outdoors is much less hassle than indoors. In the cold zone, ask yourself how critical are an under counter refrigerator, a wine cooler, a kegerator with two taps, and an ice maker.

For the wet zone, don’t let your first dinner party be the first time you realize that you didn’t consider cleanup. Sinks and even dishwashers may be more indispensable than you would have thought.

In the dry zone, think “2 x 3.” Thirty-six running inches of 24-inch deep counter space is considered by most experts to be a bare minimum of prep space. Some kind of undercounter storage is handy, perhaps with a seamless rain gutter around door and drawer openings to prevent water and dirt from getting inside. Infuse it all with music – say, with an iPod-compatible marine-grade sound system. Or just plan to bring your waterproof Bluetooth speaker outside with you.

Seeing. As with indoor kitchens, their outdoor counterparts require a blend of – preferably dimmable – task, accent and ambient lighting, most of which should likely be rated for wet or damp locations. Typically, appliances and lighting should be on different circuits. A bright clip-on grill light or standing lamp can provide adequate lighting for work areas while ambient lighting might take the form of all-weather string lights or rechargeable LED tea lights. If your kitchen includes a covering, pendant lights are pretty and practical over bar areas, while a ceiling fan with a light kit will provide lighting over a dining table and help keep mosquitoes moving at the same time. For safely moving between indoors and out, “garden” style fixtures on short posts along paths, riser lights on stairs and wall sconces or an overhead lantern near the entrance to your home should do the trick.

Safety. Lest your outdoor kitchen investment go up in smoke, position your grill at least 15 feet from combustible materials to include wood siding, deck rails and tree branches, and always keep a fire extinguisher stored nearby. An insulated grill jacket and vent panels aren’t glamorous, but are essential components of your outdoor built-in kitchen’s structure. If yours is a gas kitchen, check the line for leaks. And, if electric, GFCI outlets will be required. Also, you should use only extension cords, fans and lights that have Underwriters Laboratories outdoor ratings, because they stand up to UV exposure and extreme temperatures.

Now, tie on your apron, light some candles, and embrace the other two all-important S’s: spring and summer.


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