Day 9 was transitional and detail-oriented. In order to put the finishing touches on the landing and stairs, there were a lot of details that needed to be addressed. So, Anderson and Roberto focused here, with the intent being to knock out as much of the board layout on the next day as possible.
Day 8 began with finalizing the necessary support structure for the landing and the stairs, which was a bit of an extension from what we had originally.
Once the support structure was done, Anderson and Roberto started laying all of the boards on the landing. This work included putting down facing boards that wrapped around each level of the landing/stairs, along with trying to conceal a small gap beneath each "floating" stair:
Unfortunately, our original design plans we slightly off in our calculations for the width of the deck (a theory vs. practice problem). As a result, in order to match the desired width, a reduced-width board had to be ripped in order to finish things off properly:
The other project that I undertook in parallel was to start drilling the ventilation holes in the exterior framing. These holes would be extended through the cladding Ipe, and then ventilation covers would be placed over each hole. The idea here was to try to provide as many opportunities to get air underneath the deck, thus offering (hopefully) the cross-ventilation we wanted to reduce cupping problems. As a side note, drilling circular holes through 2×6 pressure-treated lumber proved much harder than I had imagined…
After we selected all of the Ipe, we needed a way to get it to the house. Fortunately, Ashby Lumber was able to deliver, despite the fact that we bought the wood at their Concord facility. They delivered it the next day on a big flatbed truck. The question then became, where do we put it and how do we unload it? The truck driver had an easy answer for the latter: just drop it off the truck. Skeptical, I wanted some assurance from him that this wouldn’t damage the wood on which I had spent a sizable chunk of money. He assured me that he was the pro and had done this many times, so we went ahead and let him drop the lumber into our shared car courtyard:
Once the Ipe was off the truck, we carried it out of the courtyard and stacked it by size in the area outside our front door. All in all, we had seven different sizes of boards (8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 20-foot lengths). Next up, boards for the deck start getting laid…
With all of the basic framing and foundation set in place, the time had come to get the actual wood for the deck itself. Given that there is a lot of variability in the quality of Ipe (the Brazilian hardwood we had chosen for our deck), Anderson and I went out to the vendor (Ashby Lumber) to hand-select every piece of wood that would go into our deck. At $4 a linear foot (for 5 1/2″ x 3/4″ boards), and with a desire to minimize waste, we wanted to make sure we got boards that were straight, unmarred, and just generally beautiful.
Anderson and I drove out to the large Ashby Lumber yard in Concord and spent about an hour picking out all of the wood we’d ultimately use in the deck:
We bought a bunch of 20-foot long 2x6s to act as support for our wood during transport (since the boards could have been damaged otherwise), and then hand-loaded everything onto a forklift in preparation for delivery:
One note here: I had done some calculations to determine how many boards of each length we would need. Boards came in two-foot increments, from 8 feet to 20 feet in length. Unfortunately, as it turned out, we needed more wood of certain lengths than Ashby Lumber had in stock, which meant swapping out some boards for longer lengths. The clash between theory and practice…
Lots of joists, lots of Simpson brackets, lots of nails…Day 5 started with the completion of joist connections, which meant a whole lot of hammering. In addition, we had to add special 45-degree support brackets across the miter joint:
Originally, we had imagined that all of the joists would just rest on the decomposed granite underneath. After doing a bit of research, I learned that ventilation was one of the keys to prevent “cupping” in decks so low to the ground. In an attempt to provide for more air flow under the deck, I decided that we should dig trenches underneath all of the joists, in addition to adding ventilation ducts on the sides of the finished deck. This meant extracting a boatload of DG from under the joists; the whole process wound up taking me more than a day of digging in tightly compacted DG:
While I was digging trenches, Anderson and Roberto focused on enhancing the support structure of the landing. We were extending the stairs so that they wrapped around both sides of the landing, which meant we needed more joists as foundation:
At the end of the day, all of the joists were complete and we were ready to start laying the actual deck itself:
Day 3 saw the completion of all exterior framing (i.e., support posts and the 2×6 boards on which the joists would hang). Next up was finalizing some of the additional elements used as internal supports. Anderson had initially planned to run a standard support down the centerline of the deck (i.e., board mounted to 4x4s, then joists hung from board). Unfortunately, this would have meant a lot of Simpson brackets to hold all of the joists. After a little additional thought, he decided to create a 4×4 horizontal backbone onto which the joists could be connected more easily. This meant chopping off the original 4×4 support brackets in preparation for the new backbone:
Not only did the central support posts need to be cut down to size, but we needed to dig a trench to allow for the new 4×4 backbone. Once that was done, the 4×4 support backbone could be inserted:
With those basic support elements completed on the North side of the deck, it was time to turn our attention to the South side where the miter joint would live. The 45-degree miter in the deck boards basically meant that a support structure with a mirror image needed to be built. First things first – the 45-degree support:
With the basic bones in place, it was time to lay down all of the joists. Every joist was connected to the exterior framing using a Simpson bracket. Each bracket had four bolts attached to the exterior framing, followed by four nails that went through joist, bracket, and exterior frame. The North joists were added first, followed by all joists across the miter joint:
The joist connection process continued into Day 5…
With the groundwork laid, it was time to continue with framing efforts. The first step was to haul in all of the pressure-treated lumber that would be used as foundation. Even for our moderate deck, it was a fair bit of lumber:
All of the foundation would ultimately be tied to the footings that had been laid. Each footing would have a 4×4 support post inserted into the bracket that had been laid into the concrete. Sounds easy, right? Well, for a level deck, Anderson had to make sure the support posts were each cut to the proper height, given that we were working with a slight grade (roughly 1-2%). This meant measurement and laser-guided precision:
At the end of it all, everything had to be level so that the deck boards we laid down on the support posts were flat. Fortunately, it all worked out:
Once the basic support posts were level, it was possible start attaching the outer support structure, from which all of the other support elements would hang:
With all of the outer framing complete, and everything level, we were ready to move on to the internal framing and joists.
With everything square and laid out after Day 1, it was time to get to more serious work: pouring concrete for the footings, and setting down all the support posts.
The day started with an unpleasant discovery: excess lumber had been laid across one of the drip irrigation lines in the yard, which caused a pressure build-up and an emitter blowout. The resulting blowout created a geyser that soaked one side of the yard, along with a lot of the old lumber.
Despite this minor blowout, we set to work early. A big first step was trying to remove a large amount of DG on the South side of the deck. This was to be the only portion of the main area not covered by the deck, but I wanted the infernal pebbles removed. So, time to start digging. The question then became, where do we put it all without going to the trouble and expense of hauling it away? Thus began my personal version of Stalag 17: where to hide the dirt.
The answer came in multiple forms (or places, as it were). I wanted to maintain adequate ventilation under the deck, so moving the DG under it was not a real option. The landing offered one nice spot, given that it was elevated, and could support DG without running into air flow issues. Unfortunately, that meant shoveling a lot of dirt from under the landing, moving it around the yard, then filling the remaining space with DG. There was also a small section of edging covered in mulch that would be underneath the deck; this offered another easy spot to dump a bunch of granite. After that, things got a bit more difficult…
One of the great challenges I had not anticipated with the project, which became apparent on Day 2, was that our dog Charlie was not interested in behaving calmly while I was outside working. He whined, he scratched at the doors, he chewed whatever was within sight, he jumped up on the counters and sofas. You name it, he did it. As a result, I tried to take some measures to minimize the damage, while still allowing him to oversee construction (which ultimately proved useless).
Bit I digress. On Day 1, locations were marked for all footings, based on the guide lines and measurements. Day 2 saw the excavation of all of the holes for the piers: 14 inches deep, and probably 16 inches wide. At the end of the day, 16 holes were dug for the 16 piers that would support the deck. Not only was it a lot of work, but it just generated another problem: more dirt and DG looking for a home. The need to dispose of all this stuff became an ongoing theme…14-inch holes generate a lot of dirt, believe it or not.
Once all of the holes were excavated, Anderson set about cutting the forms for the concrete, all from a single tube cut into equal lengths:
Once the forms were cut, it was time to mix the concrete, pour into the molds, and then flatten to the desired height. Each form was poured and then measured to make sure the height was correct, relative to the grade of the yard (which was small, but made a difference). The cement in the forms was then leveled. It was all a very precise operation; a failure in laying the concrete could result in serious downstream problems.
At this point, things needed to be more precise. The brackets for the footings all had to be laid square, and in such a way that the 4×4 posts mounted in them would be as close to level across the entire deck as possible. Anderson used a plumb line to ensure proper placement.
All of the footings were laid in similar fashion. It was hours of detailed work for Anderson, and he kept laser focus throughout. All of his diligence set the stage for the next phase: framing.
The first day of my first big household construction project…I had no idea what to expect. Where do we start? How much happens the first day? Is it fireworks from the start, or a slow build to completion? Thankfully, I had experts to lead the way. Anderson and Roberto came with a plan and the means to make it a reality.
Day one of construction was what you might expect: preparation. Unloading, staging, prepping tools, and bringing in materials. We hauled in a bunch of stuff: pressure-treated lumber for framing, lots of tools, and a whole load of concrete.
Here’s what we started with:
Lots of decomposed granite. Some paving stones. And a garden wrapped around it all…The plan was to cover most of the DG, and leave most of the surrounding plants, except for the area to the north of the existing landing.
One of the first things to be done was to frame the entire structure, and to build supporting piers beneath it. In order to do that, we had to haul in a LOT of concrete (in our case, 27 bags of it, at 60 lbs per bag, which is roughly 1600 lbs):
Once we had all the supplies and tools pulled into the yard, the next task was to pull up the existing landing: redwood boards screwed down into an existing set of supports. The space underneath the existing structure was going to be a place where we could put some of the DG we had to get rid of:
Once the supplies were brought in, and the landing was ripped back near its origjnal state, initial measurements began. Anderson laid down guide lines across the property to establish square boundaries and the locations for the piers.
The next mundane stage of the project involved removing dirt to make room for the DG we needed to get rid of. The most obvious place to dump some of the DG was underneath the landing, but there was dirt there we had to remove first…So, time to bring out the shovels.
At the end of the first day, we were left with a whole lot of dirt (which I hid in various spots in the yard), and a bunch of screws from the previous landing and stairs. Sometimes, you have to tear things down to create something new…
Decomposed granite and "party in your bare feet" are not two phrases that go together. Despite some nice plants, lots of mulch, and two amazing giant sequoia trees, the primary space of our backyard has been a broad expanse of the aforementioned, unusable crushed-up rock since we moved in. My visceral hatred of this stuff knows no bounds; it’s like the geological equivalent of cockroaches. It sticks in your shoes, scratches the floors when you track it in the house, collects leaves and can’t be swept, and is a perfect substrate for tiny grasses and weeds that have to be painstakingly pulled by hand. It’s also not really amenable to furniture, since you can’t slide chairs on it, and it’s not level. In other words, it sucks, and it was rendering a good chunk of our yard functionally useless.
After three years, we finally decided to change this sad state of affairs and build a deck. Or rather, have a deck built by someone who actually knows what they’re doing with power tools (i.e., not me). Not only will we be able to dine al fresco, but we’ll never track those little Satan-spawned rocks into the house again.
Over the coming days, I’ll be documenting the construction project with photos and exciting color commentary. Come back often to check out the story!
In true information-design-geek fashion, I made a schematic of the yard to help with the design process (shown above, click to enlarge). The area containing the decomposed granite (DG) is a long “U” on the east side of our house. The center of the U holds a small landing with two stairs that lead down to the DG area. Ten square paving stones live in the DG right in front of the steps, and essentially can’t be removed because they are embedded in concrete. The area outside the DG is a mix of plants, shrubs and trees, with a carpet of fir bark mulch beneath. Redwood 2x4s are used as a barrier between the DG and the mulch around the yard.
Backyard: After (sans accoutrements)
Our deck is really for two things: to create an outdoor space where we can entertain and eat outside, and to offer an area where we can chill out in our bare feet in the sun (e.g., reading, playing with pooch). Given these goals, we had to figure out what we wanted to do…Cover all the DG with deck? Or maybe only part of it?
Our neighbors in the compound (who share similarly designed homes) built decks over some of their DG, then had the rest hauled away. Our yard is one of the largest, so covering all of the DG with deck would be pretty expensive. On top of that, we’d lose landscape space….Covering part of the DG was the right option, but the question was, which part?
After going back and forth a bit, we finally opted for a deck that would cover the bulk of the DG and all of the paving stones, then wrap around the landing (diagram above, click to enlarge). The landing will stay in the same spot (since we’re not moving our double doors), and we’ll raise the deck so that it’s flush with what’s currently the last step down to the DG. The wrap-around area on the south side of the deck will be flush with the house, and is just the right size for our BBQ. The small strip of mulch on the northwest side of the deck will be replaced with a planter bed where we can grow herbs and veggies. About 60 square feet of the DG won’t be covered by the deck, so we’ll haul that crap away or shovel it up and hide it under the deck.
Both of our neighbors with decks went with a gorgeous Brazilian hardwood called Ipe (pronounced ee-pay). It’s a nearly perfect decking material: very hard, weather resistant, highly resistant to rot and fungi, and with a fire rating that matches that of concrete and steel. We’ll use 3/4″ x 5 1/2″ boards of various lengths (roughly $4 a linear foot), and we’ll clad the stairs and exterior face of the deck to provide a nice finished look.
The last detail worth mentioning is a miter joint we decided to create. Rather than have all of the boards run the same way, we decided that the wrap-around would look better with boards running east-west, while the rest of the deck ran north-south. This meant we needed a miter joint to connect the boards on one side of the deck with the other. Easy to draw, harder to plan and optimize in terms of materials.
So there you have it…A pretty basic deck. But what will it take to build?
Efficiency was one of our significant goals for the project. We wanted to minimize the amount of Ipe we used, both for cost and environmental reasons. Boards come in fixed lengths (from 8 to 20 ft in variable increments, depending on where you buy it). Rather than try to do the math, I decided to plan visually, so I measured the deck dimensions, and then laid things out in Omnigraffle as shown in the diagram below (click to enlarge):
The miter joint is the only thing that complicates things a little. If we had done boards the same direction for the entire deck, then it would have been easy. The miter joint meant we needed to have a mix of board lengths to minimize waste, along with an underlying diagonal support beam. The end result was a mix of board lengths from 8 to 20 ft, with placement dependent on geometry of the deck. The distribution of boards across the deck as a function of length is shown below (click to enlarge):
The structural plan (i.e., footings, joists, support structure) was put together by our carpenter, based on his previous experience building decks for our neighbors (and others). We’ll have 15 footings and a support structure made of pressure-treated lumber, with joists spaced 16″ on-center, and other reinforcements wherever they’re needed.
One last design detail: ventilation. All of my research indicated that one way to minimize cupping is to provide adequate cross ventilation under the deck, since cupping is caused by a moisture differential between the top and bottom of deck boards. Air flow is particularly important for decks that are low to the ground (like ours). After discussing things with the carpenter, we’ve decided we’ll do a few things:
- Excavate 3-4″ trenches underneath all of the joists (i.e., so they don’t touch the ground)
- Dig channels between the paving stones
- Place small circular vents on the sides of the deck
- Drill a number of 1/2″ holes in faces of the joists
The deck is being built by Anderson Moraes Carpentry in El Cerrito. Anderson is not only a knowledgeable and experienced carpenter; he’s also a great and funny guy with a very gentle demeanor. He and his colleague Roberto will be running the show, and I’ll be pitching in wherever I can. Charlie the wonder dog will be honorary foreman, overseeing all aspects of the project with his keen and curious eyes. Finally, Elaine will bring her great design and construction sensibilities, adding her thoughts as the project unfolds.
And so after all of the planning, it came time to break ground. The first big construction project at our house kicked off with a bang on June 22. Spades hit the soil, hands picked up hammers, and minds turned to measurements. If all goes well, in three weeks, we’ll have a new deck, a nifty planter box, and a blessed lack of DG in our yard.
Stay tuned for the next installment, coming soon!