Space Planning to Make a Beautiful Vienna Virginia Backyard Better

I’m often called in to make an existing landscape function better. The client doesn’t to rip it all out and start from scratch, but they need to fix… something. Usually it’s my job to figure out what that something is.

This project is a great example. You can see in the photo above that they have a cool little water feature, built with big chunky boulders. It’s a great feature but you can only see it well as you come in the back gate and sort of ok from the screen porch. From the deck, this is all you see:

Because of the railing and the massive yews, you’d hardly know there was running water there. As a result, I made the decision to eliminate the railing and yank out the yews and extend a level area closer to the pond.

It’s completely changed the dynamic of the space. Now the water feature is part of the deck space and the small seating area is simultaneously its own space and a means of enlarging the deck. This project is an example of how you don’t need to spend a ton of money to create a large change.

Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 3: Decking and Railings

Ok, your framing is up and you have the solid foundation for a deck. Now you have choices – what decking to use, and what type of railings?


I break decking up into four categories: pressure treated, composite, exotic hardwood, and other. Here’s a little more info on each:

  • Pressure-treated lumber: this is the most common and least expensive option. P/t lumber is the base model at the car dealership, something to get you where you’re going but with no power options. Common sizes are 5/4 x 6″ and 2″x6″. I prefer 2″x6″ decking because it’s a little stiffer underfoot, is less prone to warping and moving than 5/4 board, and it looks more substantial. I cheaped out and did 5/4″ board on my back steps, and they look like wood pallets. Mistakes were made. Speaking of my deck, p/t lumber requires maintenance in the form of regular pressure washing and sealing. I never bothered doing this to my back steps, and they are a lovely shade of Kermit Green. You’ve been warned.
  • Composite lumber: composite is a catch-all category for brand name fake wood like Trex, Fiberon, Veranda, AZEK, and any number of others. It’s significantly more expensive (typically costing two to two and a half times more than pressure treated lumber) but it requires less maintenance. The two caveats are that 1) it gets really warm underfoot in direct sun and 2) joist spacing has to be appropriate for this material. Because composite lumber is more flexible than wood, joists spaced for wood may cause composites to flex.
  • Exotic hardwood: these are your ipe, cumaru, garapa, and other (typically South American) hardwoods. The cost of exotic hardwoods is comparable to composite lumber, and the labor can be higher than other choices because the wood is hard to cut and each board needs pre-drilled. Hardwoods require annual maintenance, especially if you want to maintain the rich color you started with. These make a gorgeous, durable deck.
  • Other: Your deck doesn’t necessarily have to look like wood. If you want a stone tiled deck, you can have it. You can even have an aluminum deck, if you want to minimize maintenance (one of my carpenters recently built one for a client’s lake home).


The simplest and most basic deck railing is built from pressure treated lumber and is specified in your county’s deck detail packet.


Personally, I really like iron railings for decks. They provide a much more open and airy look, and they offer dozens if not hundreds of design options.

Not only can you have composite decking to minimize maintenance, you can opt for composite railing systems that look like wood but demand very little from you.

There are also contemporary rail systems, like glass or Lexan panels in areas with great views, or stainless steel cables. I’m a fan of always having somewhere to set my drink, which is why I really like what Glasshouse Winery in Charlottesville added to their deck.

As you can see there are a lot of options to select from when designing and building a deck. My job is to help my clients settle on the material palette that suits their style, maintenance needs, and budget. Are you interested in have a deck designed and built in Virginia, Maryland, or DC? Contact me for a consultation and we’ll discuss the next step!

Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 2: Posts, Beams and Joists

Last week I talked about the ledger board and the footers, the first steps in building your deck. Today I’ll cover the next steps.


The standard spec for a deck is for it to be supported by 6″x6″ pressure-treated posts. Not only are these sturdier than 4″x4″ posts (the old standard), they’re big enough that you can notch the top of the post to carry the beam.


On your deck, the posts and the beams are doing much of the work. For this reason, the attachment of the beam to the post is a very important detail.

Source: Spotsylvania County Typical Deck Details

While you can get 4″ or 6″ thick beams, the more common approach is to build up to the required thickness with multiple pieces of 2x lumber fastened together. For example, a typical callout for a beam might be (2) 2x10s or (2) 2x12s. Deck beams can either run under the joists or in line with the joists. An advantage to running the beam under the joists is that if you’re following the Typical Deck Details packet, you can cantilever your joists (let them hang over) up to two feet past the edge of the beam. I’ll do that if we’re doing a curved deck, for example.


An in-line beam can help you out if you’re building a deck that is very low to the ground, where you wouldn’t have enough height to place a beam under the joists. On a taller deck, an in-line beam creates a cleaner look and can make it easier to use the space under the deck for storage or additional patio space.


The joists carry the deck boards, and therefore act just the like floor joists in your home. The key is to size your joists correctly so the deck feels solid. On a really long span, 2×10 joists might be approved but they could make the deck feel springy in the middle. Joist spacing is also important. While a 16″ on center spacing might work for pressure-treated decking laid perpendicular to the joists, what if you want to set the boards at a 45 degree angle? Composite decking is also a variable to consider, because it can give a little. Set your joists too far apart and you’ll feel the decking give a little underfoot. Even if you’re in no danger of falling through, it’s an unsettling feeling.

The important rule of deck design is that there is no one size fits all approach to building a deck. Not sure where to start? Contact a professional deck designer in your area!

Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 1: Footers and Ledger Attachment

My name is Dave Marciniak, landscape designer and owner of Revolutionary Gardens, and I use jargon.

I’m deeply sorry.

However, the fact is that when it comes to building everything has a name. It’s easier to use the technical term than a long-winded explanation. A great example is the French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier.” It’s literally translated as spirit of the stairs, but the meaning is “thinking of the right comeback in an argument after it’s too late (and you’re walking down the stairs).” So in the interest of making myself easier to understand, I’m going to do a multi-part guide to understanding the key parts of deck construction, starting with the first step of construction: the footers and ledger. If these parts of the deck aren’t right, your deck could fail pretty spectacularly.


Before we get started, a disclaimer is in order. This is not intended to be a how-to guide for designing or building a deck, just an explanation of terms. I recommend working with professionals to design and install your deck, and at a minimum you should ALWAYS pull permits and have your plans and construction reviewed by the municipality in which you live. Got it? Good.


Unless you’re cantilevering your deck (which is another post), you need posts. Those posts need to be anchored firmly in the ground, and your county probably sets out the minimum requirements in a Typical Deck Details packet. The current standard is to use a 6″x 6″  pressure-treated post. The size of your footers is dictated by the framing they’re supporting, but minimum requirement is 16″x16″ square, up to 24″x24″ square. As for the depth, you need to dig down to the locally accepted frost depth. In most of Northern Virginia, that is 24″ down. If you live farther north, you may be digging down three or four feet. All of your footers need to be anchored in concrete.


In most counties you’ll need to have the ledger board in place when you call for a footer inspection. The ledger board is the framing lumber (usually a 2X? piece of lumber) that is attached to the structure of the house when building an attached deck. I prefer building a deck this way, because it means I don’t have posts right up next to the house.

The ledger attachment is critical to the success of your deck project. After all, if you do it wrong your deck can fall off. Therefore, there are detailed specifications on how to install the ledger. If you’re attached to the home’s band board (it’s the board along the perimeter of the home that’s in line with that level’s floor joists) you’ll need to remove the siding, install flashing, and attach directly to the board. Sandwiching the siding between the house and the ledger is bad.If your home has a brick veneer over the wood, the county may require you to remove that brick. I don’t recall ever being allowed to simply drill through the brick if it’s not structural.

If you’re attaching to masonry (poured concrete walls or block walls), you’ll use either expansion anchors or epoxy anchors to hold the ledger board in place. The great thing about working with approved details is that they even tell you exactly how many anchors to use and how to space them out. You don’t need to be a master baker to make brownies, you just have to follow the directions on the box. Just be sure you get good directions. Hiring a landscape designer who designs decks for homeowners in Virginia, Maryland, and DC could be a good place to start. Click my contact page and we’ll talk.

Alternately if you’re just looking for an off-the-shelf solution, to check out my friend Joe’s deck plan packages Click Here!

Next week we’ll talk framing: beams, joists, and how they connect to the ledger and the posts. The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, and all that good stuff!

How to Build a Round Deck

Step 1: Build a square deck.

Step 2: Cut off all the corners.

In all seriousness, building a round deck isn’t all that different from building a rectangular deck. I’ve designed several. The basic framing has the same considerations as any other deck. You need appropriate footers, ledger attachment, beams, joists, and railings. I have that basic information in this post about building a deck in northern Virginia.

The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you have a curved beam designed and certified by an engineer, a straight beam – or a beam made up of straight segments – is your best bet. This is a curved deck I designed several years ago.

If we orbit the model to where we’re looking up at the structure of the deck, you can see that the structure is very similar to that of an octagonal deck.

The goal here was to design a deck that would not require an engineer’s stamp to get a permit. As such, we made sure that there was no part of the deck where the joists overhang the beam by more than 24″ and we made sure our post spacing was 8′ on center or less. When the joists were installed, they were run slightly long. The carpenter then set his center point and scribed an arc, cutting the ends of the joists to create a single radius curve.

The joists on this project were 2x10s, so the rim board was a kerfed 2×10 bent into place and attached to the ends of the joists. The deck structure was then wrapped with AZEK composite trim lumber, giving it a finished look.

That’s really all there is to it. With the right design and skillful execution, a curved deck is entirely possible to construct, and looks great.

Making Multi-Level Decks Work

I’ll be honest, I don’t really care for multi-level decks. They can look stunning, but if they’re not well designed they can be a waste of money. After all, those additional levels can require additional materials and framing. Still, with the right design – and the right budget – they can be made to work well.

Credit: archadeck (click to go to site)

This photo is a rare example of a multi-level deck that works. Let’s take a look at what works here, and what typically makes a multi-level deck not work.

  • The deck is big enough to create good-sized “rooms”. All too often I see people throw a step or three into a deck design to make it a super-cool multi-level deck, when it’s just not big enough. A moderately sized space cut in two doesn’t give you two moderately sized spaces, it gives you two really really small spaces. You can see that the designer of the deck in the photo created a dining space with loads of room for additional people when entertaining, so it actually works.
  • There was a reason to divide the space. If the only reason a deck is split up is because it looks cool, that’s a waste of space and resources. In the photo above the hot tub has its own space, not just for the tub but for seating adjacent to it. That’s pretty cool. It makes sense.
  • The proportions work. The hot tub area is an occasional use, private space; the dining space is more regularly used and public. The proportions make sense, and the deck hasn’t been arbitrarily divided.
  • The deck is still easy to traverse. You exit the house on the raised portion by  the spa, and only have one step down to the dining area. I can live with that. Still, I would hesitate to recommend this deck to an older client, especially one with existing mobility or vision issues. I’m 35 and healthy and I’ve occasionally missed a deck step and wiped out hard. Throw cataracts and a cane into the mix and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster.

I really think that if you want a multi-level deck, or one with multiple functional spaces, a good designer is really important. We can make sure that it all works, because the most sustainable designs are the ones you use and the ones you keep.

Interested in a deck design consultation? Contact me and we’ll set a time!

Pros and Cons of a Fiberglass or Wood Pergola

“I want zero maintenance.” If you wanted to know how many times I’ve heard these words in my career as a designer, I’d say to take the number of presents under a spoiled kid’s Christmas tree and multiply by five hundred. Sadly, zero maintenance doesn’t exist. You can, however, reduce maintenance needs by selecting the right materials.

fiberglass pergola virginia

I do a surprising amount of custom trellis and pergola design. The majority are built of wood, but I’ve worked with fiberglass on a couple of them. I also designed one that was built of AZEK composite lumber, but unless you have access to just a phenomenal carpenter, I wouldn’t go there. So what are the pros and cons of wood and fiberglass pergolas?

Wood Pergolas


  • Cost – pressure-treated is generally the least expensive, with a decent price bump for cedar.
  • Availability – you can find wood for sale locally, no matter where in the US you live.
  • Ease of use – If you have a carpenter, he or she has worked with wood before. Wood is easy to work with and it’s easy to fix minor mistakes.
  • Information – wood is a known quantity. There are span tables galore to tell you what you can do with it, and your local permit store will know what to make of a wood pergola.


  • Weight – Cedar is pretty light, but pressure-treated wood can be pretty heavy. Depending on the application, you’ll need to consider this when it comes to footers or deck attachment.
  • Span – Depending on what size boards you use, your span distance can be limited.
  • Movement – Pressure-treated wood left to the elements will always warp, check, crack, or move in some other (less than ideal) way. Cedar is more stable, but if you’re going to have overhangs or unsupported runs, you need to know how it will behave.
  • Upkeep – to keep wood looking its best, you’ll typically want to paint or stain it. There’s no such thing as a lifetime treatment.

Fiberglass Pergolas


  • Weight – Fiberglass pergolas are really light. The one we installed on a deck was attached to a plate that attached between the joists. Easy.
  • Upkeep – The vendor I used will ship your pergola painted in any color offered by Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore. The pieces get knocked around during shipping, so they include a couple gallons of touch-up paint. Since fiberglass doesn’t move like wood, you’re looking at years of life from a coat of paint.
  • Span – A fiberglass pergola can span almost 20 feet with no intermediate posts. That’s pretty great.
  • Installation – They ship from the factory as kits. End details are done, everything is cut to length, all you have to do is put it up and screw it together.


  • Cost – You’re looking at 2-3x the cost of wood for a fiberglass pergola.
  • Availability – there are only a handful of manufacturers, so odds are you’ll need to have the kit shipped to you. This also means that you need flawless drawings, because you’re getting what you asked for. Because it’s fiberglass, you’re stuck with what you get.
  • Lead time – Ordering in the spring or early summer? Prepare to wait. We were promised 3-4 weeks, which we promised the client. That grew to 5-6 weeks, then 10-12 weeks.
  • Installation – Yes, it’s a kit. That’s good. The down side is that it’s difficult to field modify the kit to account for bad measurements.

At the end of the day, you have to decide what’s right for you and where your priorities are. Cheap and easy? I’d go with pressure-treated lumber, and just design around the wood’s limitations. Moderately priced and cool looking? Cedar. Super low maintenance, or a big open space with no posts breaking it up? Fiberglass or another composite, just know it’ll cost you.

What Landscape Work Can Be Done in Fall and Winter?

I get this question a lot this time of year. I get my fall rush once the kids are back in school, it takes a few weeks to get through the design process, and suddenly we’re just past Halloween. Is it too late? It depends on what you’re doing.


Woody trees and shrubs can be planted almost year-round in Virginia. With the exception of last winter, I’ve had plants go in – and do well – all winter long. As long as the ground isn’t too hard for us to get a pick and shovel in, we can plant woody trees and shrubs. Perennials are another matter. They are generally too delicate to plant after about November 1st, because we’re pretty certain to get a hard frost after that point. I did a post a while back that talks about safe frost dates for northern Virginia.


Most asphalt companies in Virginia shut down sometime in December, and open up again in April. If we’re redesigning a driveway, we need to keep this in mind.

Concrete & Mortar

Concrete is going to be the happiest when the nighttime temperatures stay above freezing. That’s not to say that concrete work shuts down for the winter. On cold days, my masons have set up tents with propane heaters and laid stone all day long in t-shirts. At night, thermal blankets can be placed on flatwork to keep the temperatures high enough. Pointing up and cleaning can get slowed down a bit because the concrete stays “green” longer, but that’s not a problem as long as the mason knows what s/he is doing.


Pavers (and segmental retaining walls) can be tricky in the winter. The problem happens when you have a significant amount of rain, sleet, or snow on the base or sub-base. If this moisture is allowed to freeze, you can have long-term settling problems. The solution is to keep the area as dry as possible, and use thermal blankets or other means to keep the base material from freezing. Again, the work can be accomplished in the winter, it just requires a knowledgeable contractor.

Ponds and Waterfalls

These can certainly be installed in the winter, but temperatures below freezing can make working with water less fun than on a sunny, 70 degree afternoon.

Decks, Porches, Pergolas

As long as snow’s not a problem, these can be built all year long

And what if you’re just starting to think about the design process? Winter is a great time to start the design process. I’m currently booking December and January projects. If you have a project you’d like to start planning, send me an email and let’s get started!

Designing a Deck

Deck Framing Plan

From time to time, I’ll get a request to design a deck for one of my clients. Decks fall under the whole “anything for the outside of a home” category that defines my business and they’re a lot of fun, so I’m always happy for the challenge. It goes without saying that I believe you should have an experienced professional design your deck, but I know many folks feel confident that it’s a DIY project. Here a few things to take into consideration if you’re taking on a deck:

1- Know the law. In the vast majority of cases, your local town or county is going to want you to come to them for a permit. Don’t skip this step, whether you’re building the deck or a contractor is! Sure, you have to pay for a permit, and the deck will be listed as an improvement to your property on the next tax assessment. But, the folks at zoning are going to make sure that where you want the deck is legal- it’s within the setbacks from the property line, not within any easements, etc. The building folks are going to review the plans to make sure that the deck as proposed will meet code. Making sure you can do what you want to do is the first (if unglamorous) step in the design process.

2- Know what the lumber can do. There are all kinds of tables and calculations that engineers and architects use to determine the loading of a structure. Depending on where you’re located, you probably don’t need to know these. Your county quite likely has a set of typical deck details available at the permit office and online. These deck details cover it all, from posts to beams to joists to railings. It’s your county giving you a big old paint-by-numbers kit. Follow the directions and you’ll have a safe, sturdy deck that complies with the jurisdiction’s codes. Deviate from these and be prepared to show your calculations. Scroll all the way to the bottom of this post and you’ll see links to deck detail packages for cities and counties around northern Virginia.

3- PULL A PERMIT. I don’t care if you’re building the deck or you’re paying someone else; if your municipality says you need a permit, you need a permit. Yes, I know, it’s one more level of government involvement. It’s also a layer of checks and balances. Someone who looks at hundreds of deck plans a year will look at yours to make sure you have a good plan. An inspector will come out to make sure your footers are right, your attachment to the house, your framing, and finally your railings. Trust me, you want a permit, you want inspections, and you want the blessing of the inspector on the final inspection.

4- Don’t get in over your head. I don’t just mean tackling too much by yourself, although I have been in the unpleasant position of realizing that I’m stuck under a beam, there’s no one around, and my cell phone is out of reach. If you’re uncertain that your skills are up to the challenge, there’s no shame in bringing in someone else to do the job. Shoot me an email (there’s a contact link at the top of this page) and I can help point you in the right direction.

Here are the links I promised. (These are what I found on the county websites as of February 21, 2010. If you decide to use these in the design of your project, you MUST call the county permit office to verify that the version you are looking at is the same version that the county is currently using. These links are for informational purposes; I make no guarantees about the information that they contain.)

If you’re building a deck in Prince William County (Manassas, Gainesville, Bristow, Dumfries, Occoquan, Haymarket, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Fairfax County (Fairfax, Clifton, Oakton, Chantilly, Burke, Centreville, McLean, Great Falls, Mount Vernon, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Loudoun County (Leesburg, Middleburg, Purcellville, Hamilton, Brambleton, Ashburn, Sterling, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Stafford County (Stafford, Falmouth, Aquia Harbor) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Spotsylvania County (Spotsylvania, Massaponax, Chancellorsville, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Culpeper County you can find your deck detail package here.