After more than a year in lockdown, people have the itch to entertain again.
But getting back to normal will take time. Even when it is deemed safe to gather together again, it may take a while for our fears to subside. Which means that many of us are probably going to stick to outdoor entertaining in the months ahead. And the natural place to host outdoor gatherings is on your home’s deck or patio.
As a contractor and deck specialist, I have some advice for improving your structure as an entertainment area, including tips for layout, lighting, staying warm and more.
Early in my deck-building career, I created lots of spaces with terraced, multilevel surfaces. This looked really cool in photos, and I thought it was conducive to entertaining. I imagined people sitting around in small groups having intimate conversations.
But I soon learned that the vast majority of people want to use their decks for outdoor dining. And that means you need enough space for a large table and chairs, and enough room to move around comfortably.
Having lots of terraced levels makes it difficult to fit a table. And different levels mean that guests may feel uncertain about where the edges of the deck are going to be. They might accidentally step wrong or even fall.
So now I try to build as much even, level area as possible, so that the primary entertaining space is predictable.
There are two exceptions to this. If you are trying to build a deck that absorbs a slope, it may be better to use a series of decks rather than a single surface and a long set of stairs. The other exception is if your yard has lots of little nooks and crannies or you’re emulating Japanese landscape design. Then it may be appropriate to use several small surfaces.
Deck lighting creates nice ambiance and adds safety to the space.
Most deck lighting is low voltage and can plug into a standard exterior outlet, so you often don’t need an electrician to install it.
There are five major deck lighting styles, and each has pros and cons.
Stair lights: Lights imbedded in a deck’s stair trim are handy if you have a dark stairway, and are generally easy to install. Depending on the lights used, you may need two per stair, which can get expensive.
In-deck lighting: These are lights that are built into the decking itself. They can be added to almost any type of surface. The lights are flush with the deck floor and are often used to highlight a walkway or path. Since these types of lights shine upward into your eyes, they can be annoying and I generally do not suggest them.
Rail post caps: Specialty caps with integrated lighting can be installed on top of your railing posts to nice effect. These are normally used with composite railing systems and won’t work with every railing style.
Side-mounted lights: Lights installed on the sides of the rail posts seem to be the most useful for my customers and do a decent job of shining light onto the deck itself. They are designed for use with composite railing systems that have hollow posts, but can also be used on wood posts with some additional work to run the wires.
Under-rail lights: These lights are hidden within the deck’s railing and are effective if you want to define the deck perimeter or highlight your railing. They are designed for a baluster style of railing with pickets and can’t be used with all railing types.
There are dozens of lighting companies to choose from. The two major deck companies, Trex and TimberTech, each sell their own lines of lighting, so it’s fairly easy to source those locally.
Whichever brand you select, you should plug them in at night before installation to see how bright they are. You may want to add or remove some depending on the location and desired brightness.
Also, when you buy lights, you may need to purchase accessories such as wire, transformers, dimmers and timers. The cost for everything can add up fast. On a modest deck, you can easily spend more than $500 to light a few areas.
A cheaper, and sometimes better, lighting solution is to use a long strand of string lights above your deck.
Weaving a line of lights between your house and a few fixed points in your yard will create an instant party atmosphere with the flip of a switch. You can attach these lights to things like trees, fences or even tall railing posts — just be sure you have enough headroom to pass underneath comfortably.
String lights can be installed for under $200 and have the advantage of being temporary, so you can choose to use them only in certain seasons and take them with you when you move. You can also swap clear bulbs for colorful bulbs around the holidays.
The most common type of string light has C7 bases, which accept standard oval Christmas lights or round bulbs. Lights with C9 bases accept larger bulbs and create a brighter effect. Larger lights may need to be attached to a cable to support the weight of the strand.
The lights at my house are plugged into a remote-control receiver. We keep one remote inside the house and another near the hot tub. Timers are another handy addition, particularly if you want your lights to come on at regular times.
If you want to add a subtle accent to an area, try using micro-LED lights (also known as fairy lights), which are attached to bendable metal strands. These easily wind around trees and other rigid surfaces and don’t overpower the area with light.
A common request I get is to add some kind of roof to a deck so it can be used in the rain.
On the more expensive end of the spectrum, you can mimic your home’s roofing and build an awning that is weighty and looks integrated with your house. However, these awnings tend to be low and can create a dark, cave-like feel that defeats the point of being outside.
To add more light, you can install skylights or use a translucent roofing material. The cheapest and easiest option is to build a lightweight frame and use a plastic material like Suntuf panels. The panels come in different opacities — some are clear, while others block more UV light for sun protection.
For homes with low eaves, it can be challenging to tie an awning in with the existing roofline. One solution is to build the awning above the roof using SkyLift roof riser hardware. This hardware passes through the roof and attaches to the top of the wall with minimal penetration.
Your awning needs to have enough pitch to shed water; 5 degrees of slope minimum is usually required. And it needs to have enough headroom to feel comfortable. You’ll also want to consider what happens to the rainwater runoff. Will it pour off the end in a waterfall, or will you catch it in a gutter and divert it to a downspout? Also, these systems are only expected to create a mostly dry room. You will still get rain blown in on windy days.
A less expensive shade option is to hang triangular shade cloth (also called sail cloth), attaching it to the house and other fixed points in your yard. These systems use stainless steel cables and mounting hardware to give tension to the cloth.
Shade cloth panels offer good protection against the sun, so they’re great on decks that get blasted by afternoon heat. But they’re not waterproof, so while they can deflect light showers, they won’t keep your party dry in the rain.
The upside to shade cloth panels is that you can remove them during the winter to reduce visual clutter and take them with you if you move.
Adding heat lamps to a deck is a great way to extend the outdoor season. These lamps are typically all-weather and use infrared light to generate heat in a specified area. They can be mounted to a ceiling, beam or wall, and come in various sizes.
If your goal is to add lots of even heat, you will need several units, and will probably want to mount them to a ceiling. If you just want a certain zone to be warm, you may be able to get away with a single unit mounted on the side of the house. If the space you are heating is under a roof, you will need fewer units than if you have open sky above.
Each lamp costs around $500–$800 depending on size, with controllers costing about $125 each. Other factors to consider include what controls you want, the placement of the controls and where the wires will run.
Wiring requirements vary depending on the size and number of units, and a qualified electrician will be required.
Infratech is one of the major players in the industry, along with Bromic, Solaira and EnerG+. I like Infratech because it has an array of sizes to choose from, making it easy to find the right configuration.
I do not recommend the freestanding, propane-powered units commonly sold at big-box stores. While inexpensive, in my experience the burners get clogged easily and they stop working after a single season.
Grills and barbecues
Where to put the grill is often an afterthought, but outdoor cooking is one of the primary reasons to have a deck. So the location of the grill should be integrated into your design.
Ideally, a grill should live in an area that’s protected from the elements, away from your view line and within easy reach of the kitchen. Whenever possible, I create a space under an eave, in a place where it can be wheeled out into the open when being used.
If it’s not possible to keep the grill out of the rain, some customers have opted for small, built-in awnings to add some protection from the elements. However, a small roof is unlikely to shield you from all the rain, so don’t plan on total protection.
Should you add built-in seating to your deck? In most cases the answer is probably no.
Some of my customers really like their benches. And there are times when a deck is high enough to need a barrier, but not high enough to need a railing, making a bench a good option. A bench near a grill can also be convenient.
But most of the time, built-in benches have more downsides than upsides. They aren’t especially comfortable to sit on, they take up a good amount of space, and if you decide you don’t like them, removal requires surgery on your deck.
For the same cost, you can buy some nice outdoor furniture that can be moved around, brought inside during the winter and taken with you when you move.
Writer and contractor Jeff Layton has been building decks professionally for 15 years via his company Open Space Design.