Near downtown Orlando, in a neighborhood called Thornton Park, there’s a home built in the 1920s that has been renovated so many times that it is listed simply as a ‘bungalow-style bungalow.’ This is the demesne of my friend Ray, his girlfriend, his brother, and his mother. It came with a strange, detached patio that consisted of a thick slab of concrete as well as a cinder block wall on the side facing the street whose function was, and is, unknown. All that can really be said is that it successfully blocked the front door.
Ray and I spent a long weekend breaking the wall and concrete slab apart with sledgehammers and running the broken concrete to the dump in my truck. For years afterward, his front yard boasted a gravel pit where nothing but sand spurs grew. Finally, he decided he wanted to keep his socks spike-free and cover it up with a front yard deck. Design ideas came fast, but as Ray is an electronics technician and not a construction worker, they weren’t always practical. To help him come up with more feasible front yard deck design ideas, I gave him an intro to the basics of building a deck.
The Basics of Building Decks
Decks are supported by a substructure over which wood, composite, or other planking is placed. There are three basic components: posts that provide vertical support, beams that provide horizontal support, and joists which provide most of the surface that the decking nails to. Joists are attached to the beams, beams are attached to the posts, and posts connect to the foundation.
The key thing to be aware of with a front yard deck as opposed to a backyard deck is the property line. The majority of homes are built close to their front property lines, and while easements and sidewalks are technically part of your property, you’re forbidden to build on them. This means that most front yards are relatively narrow, and so are the decks built in them. In most other respects, they’re the same as backyard decks.
Decks can be built as self-supporting freestanding structures, or structures that are attached to the home with beams that extend from a ledger board. In the latter case, one side of the deck is supported by the home it is attached to. I would recommend that all decks be built as freestanding decks since these have a smaller chance of collapsing. Ledgers can’t always be attached correctly, code doesn’t allow them to be attached at all to buildings with brick facades, and it’s just easier and safer to put posts on the building side rather than hang the deck from anchor bolts. It also allows a little more creativity when it comes to designing the deck in the first place.
Considerations When Building a Ground Level Deck
My friend wants a deck as an entryway to his house, a rise of about two feet. This makes the deck my friend wants to build a ground level deck. Most front yard decks are going to be ground level, or decks whose surfaces are 30 inches or fewer above the ground. They differ from higher decks in the following ways:
- Permitting is the biggest difference. Most, but not all, municipalities don’t require permits for ground level decks so long as they are freestanding and smaller than 200 square feet.
- Railings are not required because the edge of the deck is essentially a single long step up or down. This makes a ground level deck feel more open.
- Foundations may be different, with sleepers used instead of posts. These are beams laid over a solid surface, usually a concrete patio, pavers, or even just tamped earth. In rainy or humid climates these may rot, so the use of sleepers is very region specific. One solution for those in humid areas may be to build a steel-framed deck at ground level.
- Frost heaving considerations won’t always apply to ground level decks. This is not a concern for my Floridian friend, but it will save those up north some extra digging. Whether or not frost heaving is a concern depends on how you anchor the deck. If you’re anchoring to an existing concrete patio or running sleepers, then it won’t be a problem. If you’re burying your posts then you’ll still want to dig below the frost line.
- Framing options are limited. In higher decks, it’s possible to cantilever beams, or place them on top of other beams and extend them beyond their supports. However, stacking beams increases the vertical height of the substructure so using this method won’t be possible on most ground level decks.
On the whole, ground level decks are easier to build than raised decks. The beams can be placed perpendicular to the house, in which case the joists will go parallel and the deck boards perpendicular to the house. Perpendicular deck boards are shorter, don’t need to be joined end-to-end, and require fewer materials.
Front Yard Deck Design Ideas
While most front yard decks will be ground level, there are other types to consider.
- Small front yard decks are just big enough to hold patio furniture and provide a clear path to the door. These are usually 10 by 20-foot decks or smaller to avoid the hassle of pulling permits, and are a good option for a home that doesn’t have any sort of front porch area.
- Expanded front yard decks are usually still ground level decks, but their expanded size sometimes results in these decks having two or more levels. Others will have auxiliary structures built right into the deck, such as a small pond or gazebo.
- Raised front yard decks aren’t common. Ideas for a split level house renovation may include one of these, but they are unusual even on split level homes. When these are added to a home, the space underneath the deck is closed in by a trellis or other view-blocking structure, and used as storage.
Since my friend’s home sits further back on the property and the backyard is taken up by a two-car garage, the front yard is the only yard. My friend and the rest of his family would like an area to have some quiet time away from the rest of the household. This means an expanded front yard deck with pavilion or gazebo built on it. This sort of auxiliary structure does throw away the exemption from permitting that most ground-level decks enjoy. I discussed it with my friend, and he decided it was worth it. I suspect that he wanted more time with the couch to himself. Since this whole deck is planned as a social area, that means building it to last and to look good over a long period of time. Wood decays, and everyone has had splinter before. To avert this, I suggested composite decking.
While we waited for the permitting office to approve our plans, we sent off for samples of composite decking. The one that impressed us the most is Infinity composite decking by Fortress Deck. It had a heftier feel than the other samples, two types of wood-look grain, and a color my friend still liked after seeing it in person. Infinity is just one of Fortress Building Products family of outdoor products, and it has led my friend to consider using Fortress fencing around his property, and to think about adding a white aluminum Fortress railing to his new deck to help it better match his white bungalow.