Nice Deck…is it safe?

Make sure it is. Learn deck construction, maintenance and inspection tips from local experts

In September 2013, a Dartmouth deck collapsed sending 15 people – four with serious injuries – to the hospital. In a Chronicle Herald article published a year later, Eva Hoare reported that lawsuits had been filed and that allegedly one of the victims lost his vision from the collapse.

In September 2014, in the south end of Halifax, six people that were on a third-storey deck that fell sustained fractures, lacerations and other injuries. In June of this year, a deck collapsed in Brazil Lake, Yarmouth County, where 12 people were transported to three regional hospitals; a deck also collapsed in Cole Harbour at the scene of a crowded birthday party.

Dry rot, structural integrity, faulty design, and an over abundance of people occupying the space, have been some of the explanations for these alarming events. Incidents like these have brought home the importance of reliable deck construction. Not only that, they’ve centred in on the fact that outdoor structures need consistent monitoring and regular maintenance throughout their lifespan.

“When it comes to building a deck, make sure that you deal with someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Paul Pettipas, CEO of the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association (NSHBA). “It’s not good enough to get your buddies and have a couple cases of beer and build a deck because, one, it can be very dangerous, and two, if it isn’t built properly you can be held responsible.”


 


Pettipas adds that homeowners need to use common sense, like not cramming 50 or 60 people on a deck that is 20 years old, and realizing the structure’s upkeep cannot be ignored after it is built. “There’s got to be yearly maintenance,” he notes. “If you’re not sure bring in a professional to take a look at it. I think a big thing is you’ve got to use common sense. You can’t endanger people’s lives by saying your deck is safe, letting all these people go out on the deck and then having something happen.”

Building A New Deck

Building a deck today is not the same as it was a decade ago. Improvements in legislation have made newer decks, that are built-to-code, safer and more structurally sound.

“On January 1, 2004 the Nova Scotia Building Code was amended to recognize residential decks and balconies as ‘occupancies’,” says Matt Covey, Manager of Building Standards at Halifax Regional Municipality. “Specific technical requirements identifying the construction of decks including their foundations, platforms, guards and loading criteria were added to the prescriptive requirements in the Nova Scotia Building Code.”

The 2005 version of the National Building Code added similar technical requirements, Covey says; and Nova Scotia adopted the national code in 2006.

Then, the Halifax Regional Municipality began to apply standards to deck construction that were even more rigorous than those set out by the national code. “Subsequent to the June 2006 adoption of the code, HRM staff began implementing requirements for the bolting of decks on buildings,” notes Covey. “By 2008, specific requirements were clarified and adopted for consistency.”

“Decks are safer and more durable as a result of the implementation of Building Code requirements and improved standards respecting the connection of platforms to building exteriors,” adds Coveys, pointing out that HRM’s bolting requirement has not yet been adopted province-wide.

HRM has created a brochure, “Decks – Above Grade Wood Decks & Railings,” to assist homeowners planning on building a deck. It outlines specifications, such as joist and beam sizes and on connecting decks to homes. The brochure also details how to apply for a permit – something Halifax residents are required to do when “locating a deck on their property” – and about inspections which should happen once a deck’s footings are installed and once the deck is completed.


 


In one of his Chronicle Herald columns, Registered Home Inspector at Global Property Inspections, and Vice President of the Atlantic Chapter of CAHPI, Lawrence Englehart encourages those building a deck to get a construction permit. In the May 2015 article, Englehart states the permit fee is reasonable (i.e. $52.50 for a $5,000 deck in HRM), especially considering the thousands of dollars homeowners without permits have had to pay from lawsuits.

A building permit also enables a building official to review the deck’s construction plans, two inspections from professionals and ensures “code compliance and peace of mind.”

Englehart writes, “Owners who may be comfortable building a deck won’t necessarily be aware of the advances in the code and therefore will not benefit from those enhancements. Some materials available for purchase aren’t always compliant with deck construction and a building official’s review will ensure that the materials you identify on your plan are compliant.”

How Some Existing Decks Are Unsafe

Chatting over e-mail, Englehart explains that a lot of what was acceptable in the world of deck construction 10 years ago “would not be compliant or even considered safe today.” He says, “There have been many building code revisions that have significantly improved residential deck construction. Decks that are constructed to today’s building standards are stronger, safer and will last longer.”

In another of his columns, Englehart identifies some of the factors that would cause a deck not to ‘pass an inspection.’ These include footings or foundations that are not extended below the frost line (this is an example of a newer building code requirement), undersized guard rails, joists, deck beams or support columns, the use of improper fasteners and an improperly attached ledger board (the ledger board connects the deck to the home).

“Structural failure between the deck and the building is a leading cause of deck collapse,” Covey also notes. “This is because there are limited warning signs, they are often not flashed (protected from water) or attached properly, it is the most vulnerable area to water ingress, and there is no structural contingency if it fails.”

Covey adds that homeowners with open or truss-style floor joists inside their homes should be especially cognizant of how their home is connected to their deck. “Homeowners should question if the outside joist is open truss, and if so, what is the deck actually attached to,” he says.

Not only can a poorly-built deck be a safety hazard, so can heavy loads, whether it is too many people, too much equipment or too much snow. (In one of his columns, Englehart shares, “A general rule of thumb is shoveling your deck before the snow exceeds the height of the railings.”).

Obviously too much weight on a deck combined with it being structurally unsound – like it has not been frost-protected, or has shifted on its ‘not-to-code’ support blocks, or it has been attached with nails instead of bolts to a home – can lead to dangerous results.

Yearly Checks

Ideally, a deck is professionally inspected during and immediately after the construction process. But this does not mean it no longer needs to be examined closely.

Englehart recommends homeowners “visually inspect” their decks once a year, such as every spring; he recommends using the North American Deck and Railing Association’s (NADRA) “Check Your Deck Consumer Checklist” as a guide. Some of the checklist’s tasks include inspecting key areas to see if the wood is split or decaying, making sure the flashing guard is still intact so that water and debris do not accumulate, and verifying the ledger board is fastened firmly in place.

“Regular inspections of the structural elements will reveal problems as they develop,” adds Covey. “There are warning signs that can be easily detected. The protection (flashing) of the connection between the building and deck is paramount.”

If you are not certain about the structural integrity of your deck, Covey highly recommends an inspection be performed by a qualified individual. NADRA cites a home inspector or deck builder as two individuals that can perform such an inspection.

Consistent Maintenance

Just like cars, furnaces, boats and lawns, decks require regular upkeep. “All decks need a responsible management plan, which includes ongoing maintenance and annual inspections,” says Englehart. “The average lifespan of a treated wood deck is between 10 to 15 years, which can vary depending on if the deck has been properly maintained, has been in a shaded area or in full direct sunlight all day…”

NADRA, as an example, advises that homeowners clean their decks to remove leaves and other debris as these can be a safety hazard and can cause mildew to grow. Mildew, if detected, should be cleaned appropriately as it can cause wood to rot and break. A waterproof coating may also need to be reapplied to the deck as part of routine maintenance.

In cases where repairs are warranted, Englehart urges (in his column “Replacing your deck beam) homeowners to call in a credentialed contractor “as this type of expertise is typically outside the skill set of most homeowners.” In cases of major structural changes, contact your municipal office to inquire as a building permit may be required.


 


NSHBA Raising Awareness

The NSHBA continues to actively promote consumer and contractor awareness surrounding safe deck construction.

Specifically for homeowners, the NSHBA’s “Deck Construction and Maintenance Reference Guide” offers helpful tips regarding DIY safety checks and upkeep. Additionally the Association recently hosted a Reno & Deck Expo (for both indoor and outdoor projects) at the Halifax Forum Complex. Due to its success, the event is now planned to continue annually each Fall.

Also in October, for renovation month, the NSHBA will hold seminars geared especially for homeowners/consumers. A focus of the October workshops, says Pettipas, is how to hire the right professional for renovating your home, whether it be a deck, kitchen or another space.

“What it comes down to is over the years, we’ve found that there are two types [of renovations]: ones that work out extremely well and ones that don’t,” says Pettipas. “We find the common denominator is that those who spend the time, do their homework, know what they want and hire the right professional, they’re happy with the job.”

 


 


Michelle Brunet

Michelle Brunet

Michelle Brunet is a freelance writer based in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has had the pleasure of contributing to various publications and websites, including Celtic Life International, Halifax Magazine, The Coast, Bedford Magazine, Resources Quarterly, Atlantic Books Today, up! magazine and My Destination Nova Scotia