How to Design a Deck or Patio


Solid structures give a garden a sense of both practicality and permanence.
Whether you choose a deck or a patio depends on your site and
your style. A deck is ideal if your yard is sloped or has poor drainage;
it provides a solid, level surface above uneven or soggy soil. A patio, in
contrast, requires a level site for the cement, stone or similar pavers.

General tips

  • Consider your climate, how it affects your use of the outdoors, and what seasons you do and don't spend time outside. Do you need a space that's useful for all seasons or just for summer? Then think of how to improve conditions for that key season where you live. For instance, summer shade is essential in the Southwest, but not in the Northwest. An insect-free screened space makes a deck or patio far more popular in summers wherever mosquitoes or flies are abundant.

  • Review the advantages and disadvantages of placing your deck or patio in one area or another. Can the deck or patio capitalize on a beautiful view? Is your property bounded by woods? If possible, design the structure to take advantage of a sunny southern exposure, mature plantings or other standout elements (such as an attractive tree).

  • Make a similar list of your site's liabilities. Is your lot on a steep slope? How much of the lot is exposed to street neighbors, traffic or noise? Design a deck or patio that minimizes your yard's special problems and maximizes its advantages.

  • List your family's needs and habits, which reflect the way you live and spend leisure time. Think of how you like to entertain, and for how many people. Keep your cooking style in mind, so that an oft-used barbecue isn't inconveniently placed. Consider pet requirements such as the need to keep a dog confined. Keep this list on hand as you make design, wood and stain choices.

  • Take into account the size and shape of your house, and how it might relate to the size and shape of your deck or patio. A deck or patio can be placed at the entry, rear or side of the house. Possibilities include an interior courtyard, a total wraparound deck or even a rooftop crow's nest.

  • Study how the deck or patio will appear from neighboring properties. Plan for for privacy with fences, screens or plantings.

  • Assess your construction experience and available time so that you can decide if you need to hire a designer, landscape architect, contractor or other professional, or if you will create the deck or patio on your own. If you get help, many of the planning choices will be made for you; if you do it yourself, proceed with the following steps.


  • Plan the deck so it serves as a smooth transition from house to yard--visually as well as practically. Ways to do this include repeating an architectural detail from the house in the deck, and building in benches, tables and storage.

  • Consider pros and cons of various construction materials. Pressure-treated southern pine and hem-fir are most common, treated with CA-B or ACQ respectively (see Warnings). Oldgrowth redwood and cedar are naturally rot resistant, but supplies are declining and prices rising. Exotic hardwood choices include cambara, ipe', meranti and tauari. (Contact the Forest Certification Resource Center at Plastic and composite lumber such as Trex ( is increasingly available and doesn't require much maintenance, but may be considerably more expensive than wood.

  • Experiment on paper with decking board patterns. Lay planks parallel or perpendicular to the house; alternate plank widths by laying a two-by-four, then a two-by-six and so on.

  • Include plans for railings. All decks that are more than 30 inches (76 cm) above the ground are required by safety codes to have a railing, which must be 36 to 42 inches (91 to 107 cm) high and include balusters 31⁄2 to 4 inches (9 to 10 cm) apart.


  • Study your site and your house with an eye to materials. Construct the patio with materials that are similar, related to or complementary to those used in your house. This approach will connect your house to the patio, fusing them with a sense of continuity and tradition.

  • Examine your house's design for ideas to mimic in the patio. Look at trim for architectural details, and window and door dimensions for scale.

  • Keep in mind that unlike most decking materials, patio masonry absorbs and reflects much more heat. This may be an advantage or disadvantage depending on your climate.

  • Edge your patio with brick, stone, metal or plastic. Whichever option you choose, use it elsewhere in the garden to link the areas together.

Tips & Warnings

  • Make sure imported woods are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (, an international organization that has developed standards for responsible forest management.
  • Keep patio design simple. Limit the variety of materials you use to as few as two, and avoid awkward corners.
  • Grade patios so that water runs off. Make the edge of the patio farthest from the house 11⁄4 inch (3.2 cm) lower every 10 feet (3m)
  • Whenever working with pressure-treated wood, wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves. Dispose of (do not burn) scraps and sawdust.
  • Avoid wood treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which contains arsenic. While no longer distributed to homeowners as of January 1, 2004, some may still be available for sale. Taking CCA's place are two waterborne compounds-- alkaline copper quat (ACQ types B and D) and copper azole (CBA-A, CA-B)--sold under the names Preserve, NatureWood and Natural Select. These EPAapproved low-toxicity pesticides have been around for 15 years and resist bugs, mold and rot as effectively as CCA.

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