All decked out

Two landscapers share how they’ve added deck building as a service.

When it comes to making a backyard more interesting, dynamic and three-dimensional, Joe Apice says building a deck is the way to go. “It adds a whole other aspect to the landscape,” says Apice, president of Colorado Deck and Landscape, an Aurora, Colo.-based residential deck-building and landscape design/build company.

As much as a deck can be the perfect backyard destination for homeowners, deck-building has its perks for contractors, too. “Building decks really broadens a landscape outfit’s scope of work,” says Mike Krause, project manager for the woodwork division of Backyard Paradise Landscaping, a mostly residential landscape design/build company in Hudson, Wis., that specializes in outdoor living spaces, decks and pergolas, swimming pools, hardscapes, water features, decorative concrete and masonry.

Before jumping into deck-building, however, it pays to understand the potential perks – and pitfalls – of adding woodworking to your service offerings.

Building Benefits.

Decks can dramatically change an outdoor space. “A deck has a whole different feel to it because of the texture. It’s actually warmer than a patio. Concrete or pavers are hard, whereas a deck has a softer feel to it,” Apice says. “It’s hard to understand unless you’re on a deck, but they’re smooth, even, the colors are soft and consistent.”

A deck is a better option than a patio at some sites. For instance, decks are ideally suited for sites one foot or more off grade.

In addition, Krause says an increasing number of homeowners in his area are opting for decks to finish outdoor spaces behind two-story homes where the builders included second-floor patio doors. In such instances, Backyard Paradise Landscaping often bundles services: Krause might build a deck, then another crew from his company will add a paver patio beside it. Or after he builds stairs, a landscaping team will add plantings at the bottom.

Apice also acknowledges the benefits of combining services. “We often incorporate a deck and a patio, especially today with fire pits, outdoor kitchens and whatnot being so popular.”

Unlike with patio building, Krause says, building a deck requires minimal overhead. Although building a deck does not require a massive investment in equipment or tools, Krause acknowledges that it’s important to purchase the right tools – compound miter saw, circular saws, drills, laser level. “When you get the proper tools it makes the jobs go much more efficiently,” Krause says.

One of the benefits of deck-building, both Apice and Krause say, are the newer maintenance-free composite decking options. Composites often come with 25-year warranties, which make them an attractive alternative to wood despite the added cost. Composites run from $4 to $5 per linear foot of decking, compared to around $1 per linear foot for wood). “If you built it maintenance-free, that deck will look like the day it was put in 15 to 20 years later. It may be four times as expensive (as wood), but wood has a lot of maintenance,” Krause says.

Choice Challenges.

Deck-building isn’t without its share of challenges, however. One of the biggest is finding the right people to work on deck projects. “It’s hard to get people who are skilled at deck building. It’s complicated, and the materials you work with are very expensive. If you mess up a board, you’ve messed up a $100 bill or more,” Apice says.

With decks, Krause says screw placement is important, as is having everything look symmetrical. “A lot of people think easy, small, wood when they think decks,” Krause says. “But they’re very tricky. There’s an efficient way of doing them and a quality way of doing them. There are a lot of ins and outs that make a quality deck.”

Price can also be a barrier. “With decks there are so many variables. Is it high enough you need a railing? Low enough you don’t? How many steps? How many angles? Is it square?” Apice says. All those extra considerations often come with a higher cost.

Yet there are also times when installing a deck makes more sense – and in some cases, opting for a deck can actually save homeowners money. That might be the case, Apice says, in a yard with a massive slope or where a deck can be used to cover up an old patio. Another example Krause cites involves two big, separate decks he recently built for a client.

Originally the client wanted a paver patio, but the ground was so sandy that Backyard Paradise convinced the client decks would offer better drainage at less expense than having to install drain tile and direct water elsewhere before putting in the patio.

Key Considerations.

Contractors who are contemplating adding deck-building services should take note of a few things first, both Apice and Krause stress. Chief among them is the importance of understanding local building codes, permits and licensing.

Krause says a contractor’s license is generally needed when it comes to building decks, which isn’t something all landscaping contractors already have. Krause has to be licensed in both Wisconsin and Minnesota because his company works in both states.

A variety of permits may be necessary when building a deck, ranging from a permit for decks of certain heights to zoning permits to ensure a deck isn’t being built too close to a fence or other existing structure.

“There are so many different things that need to be followed pretty strictly that would definitely screw it up for somebody if they didn’t do it right,” Krause says.

Equally valuable, Krause says, is knowledge of material options and costs. Educating customers is a particularly important component of any deck-building job, Apice adds. “I’m an installer, so I’ll put in whatever they want, but most people are depending on me to educate them, so that’s what I do,” he says.

That education has become more important as decking options have increased. “I try to keep it simple. To get a deck, it used to be pick redwood or cedar and one of three railing options. Today, it’s much more complicated. There are so many choices. It can be confusing and overwhelming for homeowners,” Apice says. “If I show them one or two brands with a few lines and color options, they’ll find something they like. That makes life easier.”

It also pays for contractors to stay updated on deck trends. Such trends vary by region, Apice says. For instance, on the East Coast he often sees railings with a rounded cap, whereas in Colorado customers often ask for a flat cap.

Krause says an increasing number of people in his area are asking for island landing stairways. “Say you have a higher 12 by12-foot deck with stairs coming off it. It might come down eight steps, land on a small platform deck, then turn and go down the other way,” Krause says.

Yet the biggest trend right now, both Krause and Apice say, continues to be an interest in composite decking. “It’s expensive, but I’d bet 80 percent of what I do now is maintenance-free,” Krause says. In particular, Apice says many customers are interested in capped composite decking because it is more durable and more economic to manufacture.

Apice says because of the cost of composite decking, deck extras, such as built-in planters and storage containers, aren’t as popular as they used to be. “In the days of redwood, almost every deck had some built on it, but with composite everything is so expensive it is changing how decks are built. They’re not as cool looking, unfortunately, because if you start putting a lot of stuff on them they’re very expensive.”

Making It Work.

Regardless of whether a company has its own woodworking team or hires out, Apice and Krause see the value in offering such services to clients.

Apice says his company often is hired by other landscaping companies to build pergolas for their customers. “Whenever their customers want a pergola, they don’t want to deal with it because it’s a whole other skill set, so they call on me as a subcontractor. It makes them look more dynamic as a landscaping company,” he says. Plus, if he gets a bigger landscaping job than he’d normally handle, he’ll hire those same companies to assist.

Even if it doesn’t make sense to add woodworking services, Apice says it is worthwhile to find a subcontractor who can come in and build decks for clients when needed. “It gives you another tool, another arrow in your quiver when you’re trying to sell a job.”


Julie Collins is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.

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