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.

Dave Marciniak is a landscape designer and speaker. He lives in Culpeper, Virginia and can be found via his website and on Twitter.

3 comments

  1. stuart says:

    This is my first visit here, but I will be back soon, because I really like the way you are writing, it is so simple and honest

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