Outdoor living staples

Features - Outdoor Living

Use these tips to master design and installation of decks, fences and pergolas

November 7, 2016

© James Brey | iSTockPhoto

In an effort to set themselves apart from the competition in the Owatonna, Minnesota, area, MSL Landscape & Fencing added the “& Fencing” part of its name five years ago, says owner Bill Miller.

“We were looking for something to make us stand out. It has just been wonderful. As long as you are selling a good product, you will get a lot of calls,” he says.

While fence installation and maintenance requires a perhaps new and different skill set for many contractors, the service could turn out to be profitable. Miller estimates that fencing now makes up about 65 percent of his work.

Similarly, adding deck and pergola installation/maintenance can also attract more customers, present significant up-sell opportunities and complement an established landscape design portfolio.

Before getting involved in one or all of these outdoor living installations or to improve the quality of the work, hear from a few contractors about their best tips and tools for success with decks, fences and pergolas.


1. Be aware of regulations. Some important things to understand before installing any outdoor structure are the regulations outlined in local building codes and zoning ordinances.

These codes will be unique to the location and will define the constraints you have to work within. Contractors should be aware of the structural requirements and consider meeting with the local building inspector before beginning any design or construction, says Chris Kessler, project manager of Pellettieri Associates, in New Hampshire.

“The biggest thing is liability and the amount of risk you are willing to assume for any project. Taking on additional liability and knowing building codes would be my biggest hesitation, prior to starting any project,” Kessler says.

Codes can include specifications for everything from railing height to material choice. If a deck will be stepping down into the grass, you might need a platform or landing at the base of the steps.

There may be size requirements for the length and/or width of the deck.

You may need to present inspectors with a scale drawing as part of your plan.

Every town is different, and some towns require construction permits for just about everything. If a contractor is just beginning this kind of work, it is important to start out on the right foot with local officials, says Bob Cindea, president of Robert James Landscape, in New Jersey.

“It is best to prepare so that once you start building, if anybody comes in and asks what you are doing, you can show them your permit and keep going. If you didn’t get a permit, they can tell you to stop working until you get approval,” Cindea says.

“Once those hurdles are cleared, you can begin construction and sell the homeowner all of the options for their fence or deck that fall within those requirements.”

2. Choose materials wisely. Contractors should educate their customers about all of the unique material options that are out there.

Kessler suggests talking with manufacturers about what is available and going to see as many installations as possible.

“You can never learn too much about all the products that are available. Your imagination can then take over about how to put it all together,” he says.

For some homeowners, the look of treated lumber is worth the upkeep, but for others, the required maintenance can be more than they’d like to deal with, Cindea says.

“Composite decking is probably more desired and requested now because there is little to no maintenance. It is more expensive, but people don’t want to have to take care of the deck every year,” he says.

3. Consider the site design. There are several questions Kessler says contractors must ask before beginning new construction: Where will you be accessing the deck from? Where will the staircases coming off of the deck be? At what elevation should the deck be set? Are there utilities on site or on neighboring property that could be of concern? Will key vegetation or large trees be affected by the construction?

“We take a bunch of different factors into account and come up with the design in terms of consideration, spatial relationships, square footage and elevations, etc., and create a space that best fits our clients needs and site constraints,” says Kessler, who uses Vectorworks software to design his projects.

And don’t forget about what’s underneath the deck. If it is at grade, Cindea suggests using fabric or stone to prevent weeds from pushing through. If the deck is elevated, consider what you can do to make creative use of the space below.

“If you are 8 feet off of the ground, you will be staring at posts that are 6 to 7 feet high, so you have to tackle the treatment underneath the deck,” Cindea says.


1. Get the post depth right. The key to a successful fence installation is setting the posts at the correct depths. In most cases, that is about 3 feet.

To get there, contractors may find two-man augers or skid loaders to be the more efficient tool depending on soil type and conditions, Miller says.

“We will use a skid loader if the ground is soft enough, but having an auger of some sort is usually pretty essential,” he says.

On smaller projects, a spade or other type of posthole digger can be sufficient. Contractors may run into difficulties when dealing with different or unknown ground conditions, Miller says.

“Here, we know we are getting into back clay and dirt clay, but you could go a bit outside of town and be getting into really rocky soil, which could extend time on a project,” he says.

2. Find ways around obstacles. Trees and utility lines present additional challenges during fence installation. Utility lines can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet down in the ground, so contractors will have to maneuver around them to reach the correct depth for each post, Miller says.

“Utilities can be a slowdown if they are running on a property line. We have to be cautious and hand dig around those,” he says.

Contractors should speak with manufacturers about what materials are available and contractors should view as many installations as possible.
Photo courtesy of Pellettieri

Other obstacles are not as tangible. Many towns have zoning laws and building code requirements for picket spacing and fence height that can vary even between the front yard and the backyard. And if there is a pool, there may also be a completely different set of rules and inspections, Cindea says.

“If a homeowner wants to build a 6-foot fence all the way around his house, you may not be allowed to,” he says.

“Every town is different, but usually they allow 6-foot fences for the back of the house, and in the front it may be 4-foot. It is crucial to meet these requirements so they don't tell you to stop work.”

3. Pay attention to weather. In freeze/thaw climates and areas with heavy precipitation, contractors must combat the elements to ensure the longevity of the fence.

To prevent frost related damage, Miller recommends three methods as best practices.

First, set all fence posts in concrete. Second, dig a bell-shaped hole for each post so that if the ground heaves or wants to push, the hole is bigger at the bottom so that it can’t lift the fence each freeze/thaw cycle, he says.

“We concrete everything in so that the frost here can’t push it around. By belling-out the bottom of the hole, you pretty much never have to worry about your fence lifting because of the frost,” Miller says.

And third, Miller opts to stick build all of his fences and screw them together instead of nailing them down.

“In our climate, the frost and the rain and the ice can actually wiggle the boards and the pickets apart over time if they are just nailed in. For just a few more bucks to put screws in, it makes for a stronger fence,” he says.


1. Use material kits. There are lots of ways contractors can go about the construction of pergolas. Depending on the look and feel that a homeowner is going for, pergolas can either be custom built or bought in a kit from a manufacturer, Kessler says.

“They can be ordered and put together sort of like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says.

Weavers Landscape Company in Pennsylvania does most of its pergola installations as custom work, but also doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the pre-cut, pre-stained and pre-drilled kits for certain projects, says owner Burnell Weaver.

“The kits are the easiest way to get into pergola installation. Most landscape contractors would have what they would need both in skillset and in tools for that,” Weaver says

“It doesn't take a lot of extra tools because those typically have instruction manuals with them and all you need is a level, tape measure and a drill or a few wrenches.”

Weaver has worked a lot with the manufacturer Country Lane Gazebos. They provide detailed drawings including how to fasten posts to different surfaces as well as engineer drawings for commercial projects.

On the custom side, contractors may need specialized woodworking tools and a design program to properly plan the project, Weaver says.

“If you can show the customer how a pergola can look, there is potential there for an up-sell that they weren’t even thinking about. It’s definitely an additional revenue stream that we really haven’t even tapped into as much as we could.” Burnell Weaver, owner, Weavers Landscape

“It just depends what the customer is looking for. We definitely use the kits to our advantage when we can. They are fairly economical and can still be customized somewhat to get a more unique look out of it,” he says.

2. Consider post placements. The work required for pergola installation is definitely front-loaded. Once the design is completed and you have it laid out, the rest is pretty straightforward.

The most challenging aspect of the project involves making sure each post is placed strategically not to block off any windows or desirable views.

Contractors should be aware that every 12 or 14 feet will have a post, Weaver says.

“What we’ve learned is that while it seems like a simple up-sell, and it is, you do need to think about the layout so that it doesn’t make a big patio look small and it doesn’t block anything,” he says. “A lot of times, a customer isn't thinking about the posts; they are thinking about the shade.”

3. Use 3-D software. Pergolas can be an accent to many landscaping features and a way to define gathering areas.

To help customers see this, Weaver suggests using 3-D software to demonstrate the general plan.

Weaver uses Idea Spectrum’s Uvision line of software, which includes a Sketchup importer tool. The program has helped Weaver clinch more sales by allowing him to show customers exactly what a pergola would look like on a 3-D replica of their property.

“If you can show the customer how a pergola can look, there is potential there for an up-sell that they weren't even thinking about. It’s definitely an additional revenue stream that we really haven’t even tapped into as much as we could,” he says.