A few years ago, one of my old friends met and fell in love with a single mother. He already had his own home, and at first, that was plenty of room. Then they had two daughters, and he and his wife gave up their offices. But they soon realized the open floor plan wasn’t working and they needed more privacy to remain sane. But they couldn’t quite afford to upgrade to a much larger home. The solution they found was a split-level house.
These are homes that fall somewhere in between a single story ranch and a full two-story house. The front door takes you to a landing and on your left, up a half-flight of stairs, is the master bedroom and the nursery. If you go forward on the same level you end up in the kitchen, dining, and living room, and taking a turn to the right brings you down another half-flight of stairs where you’ll find a garage and two bedrooms for the older kids. It’s turned out to be a good solution for my friend’s family. His wife uses the dining room to create lesson plans while he does paperwork on the workbench in the garage. When my friend decided it was time to work on some improvement projects around the homestead, he called on me to help him think of deck ideas for a split-level house. I helped him add his deck, but the project turned out a little more complicated than I thought it would be. Here’s what we discovered in the process.
Unique Challenges of Adding a Deck to a Split-Level Home
The difficult thing about decks for split-level homes is their unusual interior elevations. In my friend’s house, there are three different living levels. This means that a deck will either be small and only accessible from one level, or it will involve multiple levels. A multiple level, or split-level, deck is significantly more costly than a single level deck for the following reasons:
- Additional framing is required. Each elevation of the deck will require beams specifically to support that elevation. This doubles the costs to frame the deck when compared to framing a deck for a single-level home of the same width.
- Posts used to support the upper-level deck may have to be thicker than the standard 4×4 posts you’ll use to support the lower level of the deck. This leaves you to choose between using mismatched posts–smaller ones for the lower deck and thicker ones for the upper deck–or spending more than is strictly required to use thicker posts for both parts of the deck.
- You won’t be able to use pre-cut stair stringers on a split-level home to bridge the differing heights of the deck. Instead, to install stairs with the dimensions and angles you need, you’ll have to hire someone with the ability to cut stringers or add landing areas–which require their own beams and posts–to divide the vertical space in ways that will work with prefab stringers. This creates another increase in costs.
I discovered all these things due to a quirk that my friend’s house had, and it’s one that most split-level houses share. The front and rear walls of the home are the load-bearing walls. So instead of going through the rear wall, we went through the side wall in the living room. When she found this out, my friend’s wife requested a private entrance to the master bedroom. This automatically converted a single level backyard deck into a split-level wraparound deck, creating lots of additional costs.
Splitting Hairs and Deck Levels
Expanding the deck this way meant we were now going to be building beyond the slab of the backyard patio that we had originally planned to use as the deck’s foundation. It also increased our labor time as we measured post locations, dug holes, poured concrete, and waited for the whole thing to cure. It was around this time that we realized how big of a project we’d signed up for. I suggested a switch to a steel frame deck surfaced with composite. This offered the following advantages.
- Steel framing is both lighter and stronger than wood. The lengths we were spanning made it clear to me that we needed that additional strength. And with a project this size, lightness is a time saver during installation. Apart from this, steel doesn’t rot the way wood framing does, and since we had put so much effort into the deck, my friend and I both wanted it to last.
- Composite decking lasts a lot longer than wood. While it is heavier than wood, high-quality composite decking resists mold, fading, splintering, swelling, and cracking. It also stays beautiful for decades without much maintenance beyond an occasional spray-down.
- It’s easier to create a uniform appearance using composites than using wood. Due to the non-standard elevations between part of the deck, we were not going to be able to purchase stair stringers in light-gauge steel, and we’d need to use wood. To make the deck look uniform, we used composite risers and fascia boards to cover the pine substructure and create an elegant, consistent look. We chose dark brown composite decking that looked like real wood to match the walnut hardwood flooring inside the living and dining rooms.
At first, when I made my case for steel and composite, my friend wouldn’t hear of it. Both materials cost more than their wood alternatives, and with the costs of the project rising, my friend was looking for corners to cut so he could shave some zeroes off the total cost. What finally sold him on the idea was a trip to the hardware store. After we tried to push a cart of 6×6 posts to the register, and my friend realized that this was only about half of what was needed, he finally changed his mind.
How Deck Ideas for a Split-Level House Become Reality
Creating a deck that looks good and works for your family requires hard work and ingenuity. In my friend’s case, it meant he and I spent a lot of weekends in the yard laying foundations. Then we spent a couple of pleasant weekends waiting for the materials. Once they arrived, the real work started. Here’s how we went about the project:
- We started the installation by placing the beams against the home.
- We then measured from these beams to get the location of the steel posts on the footings. We then anchored the posts to the footings.
- The exterior beams were fastened to the posts, and the joists were added between them.
- We then cut the stair stringers and installed them. One of the few advantages of using wooden stringers was that we were able to change the design and make wider stairs.
- When the composite decking arrived, we set about finishing out the deck by installing the surface.
The big advantage of using composite on this particular split level deck was that it allowed us to create a uniform look by covering up the steel framing, posts, and wooden stair stringers with a uniform and great looking material. Using composite decking on the stairs and deck gave the deck area an indoor hardwood look that matched the home’s flooring. Of course, my friend was still grumpy throughout the entire project because it had turned out so much bigger and more expensive than what he’d envisioned. But, their family began making use of the deck as soon as it was completed, and meals out on the deck have become a weekly occurrence.
I’m convinced that my friend would not be getting this kind of use out of his deck if we had used wood instead of a high-quality composite designed to be barefoot-friendly and safe for the family. Now it’s easy for him and his kids to head out on the deck whenever the mood strikes, without worrying about splinters or popped nails. One composite that solves these problems is Infinity by Fortress Deck. This is a unique, bamboo-based composite decking that comes in a variety of colors–including deep brown and silvery gray–and uses slip-resistant capping to protect your feet and the core of the board. This capping is on both sides of the board for maximum protection, and for a beautiful look even from below (perfect for walkout basements and multilevel decks). This is just one example of the careful engineering and thoughtful details found in all Fortress Building Products offerings.