ideas for outdoors

Exploring your deck, patio, porch and balcony options.

Here in the Maritimes, the warmer months can’t get here soon enough. But when the sun starts to shine longer throughout the day, a lot of us like to take advantage as much as we can of the brighter rays.

What easier way to spend time outside than to step into our backyard or onto our balcony?

“Staycation is the term I always use,” says Gerry MacInnis, designer at Bergman Landscape and Masonry Centres. “It’s getting so expensive to travel and people tend to want to invest in, more or less, a lifelong of vacations in their backyard instead of just that one expensive getaway.”

But investing in your outdoor space doesn’t have to be exorbitant or beyond your means. There are budget-friendly ways to spruce up a home exterior – whether it’s a new or improved patio, deck, veranda, porch or balcony, or simply adding some outdoor features. It all comes down to fi guring out the scope, materials and style of a project that fi ts your budget, lifestyle, and your vision on how you would like to spend time during the warmer months.

Improve or Start Again?

Archadeck_DeckSpaSo your home has a deck that’s seen better days. You would feel better if it had a makeover, making it more inviting for you, your loved ones and guests. It would also be nice to have the peace of mind that everyone spending time on your deck is safe.

But how do you know if it’s better to make improvements to your deck, or to demolish it altogether and start anew? Plus, which option is more aff ordable?

“It depends on the situation,” says Maurice Meagher, owner of Archadeck of Nova Scotia. “Sometimes it might be more aff ordable just to tear it out and build new. Other times it could be more cost eff ective to leverage some of what’s already there.”

It’s a good idea to have an expert come out and take a look at the deck, adds Meagher. “We would get a look and see is there anything salvageable. If it is salvageable, how much more life is remaining? There’s also the question, ‘Does it allow us to do what we want to do functionally and design-wise?’ But if there was rot or deterioration then we would look at demolishing it and starting over.”

To determine whether a deck is structurally sound, it is important to examine its footings, frame, the fl ashing and how it is attached to the home, says Heath Pierson, owner of Blue Ridge Builders.

“If it has a good structure, then it would defi nitely be more aff ordable to just take the fl ooring and rails off  [and replace them],” Pierson says. “But you need to also think about how long the structure has been there. If it has been there for 15 years, then for the amount of money it would cost to redo it—unless it’s a really large deck—I would recommend replacing it. It’s more than likely that the existing framing isn’t going to last as long as the [new] decking put on top.”

Deck Materials

Whether you are building a new deck or upgrading an existing one, choosing the materials to use is going to be one of your main decisions. Decking and railing are not only a question of aesthetics – each type has its own particular lifespan and maintenance requirements.

Generally, wooden materials are more affordable, but require more maintenance. “Wood is prone to cracking and splitting so surface protection is vital for long term performance,” says Lloyd Ruelland, vice president of Capstone Building Products.

Although still vulnerable to cracking and splitting, Ruelland recommends pressure-treated over natural wood. Having gone through a preservative treatment to ward off pests and rot, pressure-treated wood is not much more expensive than natural products, he says.

When selecting pressure-treated wood, Ruelland warns against cut-rate prices. “With this product, in my experience it is always better to pay a little more and get the quality,” he recommends. “A little bit of advice would be to walk around the retailer’s yard and look to see how many culls and defective pieces they have lying around.  This will give you a pretty good idea on the quality of the material they stock.”

While not always readily available, Ruelland says his top choice for natural wooden decks is Western Red Cedar. Although it costs more than natural and pressure-treated wood, it “will last a lifetime if maintained every couple of years,” he says.

Manufactured as opposed to wooden decking is more expensive, but generally has a longer lifespan and is maintenancefree. “And you’re able to have a colour or a finish that doesn’t require the staining that a wood would require,” adds Maurice Meagher. “The other thing with the manufactured materials is they’ll wear better with traffic or resistance to scratch.”

Of the manufactured products, Ruelland says composite materials are the best. “We at Capstone do a lot of research before we support and inventory a product, and we feel that MoistureShield Composite Decking is not only the best product on the market in this category but probably one of the most affordable and definitely the best bang for your buck,” he says. “It is the only composite decking tough enough to be installed on the ground, in the ground or underwater, while still being protected by the industry’s leading lifetime warranty.”

Vinyl decking, such as Duradek, is also an option. “Duradek is a great product when installed properly, as the color choices and overall look when completed is incredible,” Ruelland says. However, one drawback of this product, he adds, is that it is difficult to install on anything but straightforward, rectangular decks.

Whether you choose to go with wood, composite or vinyl decking, Ruelland offers a simple piece of advice that can have a significant effect on the longevity of your outdoor space: “put a small strip of tar paper on top of all your joists before putting your decking down,” he says. “I have ripped 50-year-old decks made of untreated spruce off houses where the joists were as good as the day they were installed; and I have ripped 10-year-old treated decks off that were rotten. The difference being a strip of tar paper on the joists.”

Capstone_DeckandRailRailings for decks also come in wood, composite and vinyl, as well as other materials like aluminum or glass. Both the latter mediums have a distinctive aesthetic and are relatively maintenance-free (although it’s recommended that metal railings “not be installed within two miles of salt water.”) As with decking, maintenancefree railing products are more expensive.

One might consider mixing and matching materials, such as having a wooden deck with an aluminum railing.

Patios and Walkways

You don’t necessarily need to construct a deck in your outdoor space. Another option – for a more Mediterranean feel or because it suits your space better – is a patio made of brick, stone, concrete or other such materials.

The problem with concrete, however, is that it cracks and needs to be replaced, says Gerry MacInnis from Bergman Landscape and Masonry Centres. In the long run, he says, brick pavers are the best deal. Once you invest in them, “it’s a one-shot deal.” “They’re just a very durable product,” says MacInnis. “The companies that we deal with warranty their products for up to 50 years.”

If some of the pavers become uneven or compacted, it’s an easy fix, MacInnis adds. “You can just pick them back up, add some more gravel, throw them back down, sweep in some sand, and you’re good to go.”

Landscaping stones and slabs for a variety of projects, from patios and walkways to stairs, walls and driveways, come in a diversity of styles. MacInnis helps homeowners select products based on their tastes.

“I explore options with my clients to see if they’re more inclined to a contemporary style with smooth, clean lines or do they have a more curvilinear-type interest, suggesting more of a flagstone or natural stone texture,” he says. The styles are endless and there are many different colours.”

Bergman_PatioWhen using pavers or paving to create outdoor spaces, water drainage should always be considered, notes MacInnis. Industry standards prescribe the “two percent slope” rule, which equates to a quarter inch drop per horizontal foot.

But in some cases, due to a yard’s layout or lack of space, it may be difficult to achieve an adequate slope for drainage. “So what all of the paver companies came up with is a permeable paver, where the water permeates through,” says MacInnis. “So in that case you don’t have to worry about any type of slope on your patio at all.”

Balconies and Smaller Spaces

Not every home has the capacity to host a deck or patio, but that does not mean residents have to stay inside. Smaller houses, townhomes, condominiums and apartments have a series of options, like porches, verandas and balconies.

Archadeck’s Maurice Meagher says they’ve used any of the wood and manufactured materials (that they use for decks) to also construct balconies for condos, townhomes and apartments. “Also concrete can be used for balconies on multi-unit buildings,” says Meagher. Deck squares and carpet are an option as well, “but they would need to go over some sort of sub-structure always,” he says.

Archadeck also creates “dry deck systems,” where a roofing membrane and gutter are utilized to keep the space below the deck dry; these systems come in handy with apartment buildings and condos. “So if there is a living space below, or if there needs to be dry space below those balconies, then we’ll use a membrane,” says Meagher. “So it becomes a dry area underneath, but also becomes a finished a base that people can walk on.”

Heath Pierson of Blue Ridge Builders says—in addition to many deck, framing, garage and outdoor feature, like pergola, jobs—his company constructs quite a few porches, including screen porches. With front porches, they employ some creative elements for curb appeal.

“A lot of times what we’re doing for front porches is adding stone around the support post about halfway up,” Pierson describes. “Then, to dress it up, we’ll install a PVC pillar the rest of the way, whether it be straight or tapered.”

Building to Code

The abundance of resources and videos on the Internet has made it easier for homeowners to at least attempt their own outdoor projects and renovations. But when is Do-it-Yourself reasonable, and when should it be left to the professionals?

“It depends on the homeowner’s skill set,” says Pierson. “If they want to do it themselves they really need to do some research, and make sure they are getting the proper building permits and that they are building it to code.”

The main reason for getting permits, Pierson adds, is to make sure a deck or other outdoor project is structurally sound.

“The Nova Scotia Building Code Regulations describe that permits are required if (a) structural work, (b) non structural work with the value of $5000.00 or more, and (c) alterations to the plumbing system is to be done,” says Sergio Grbac, the Halifax Regional Municipality’s Supervisor of Building Standards (Buildings and Compliance). “Simply replacing the decking typically doesn’t require a permit, but most other structural type renovations do.”

Municipal bylaws exist that define safe residential building standards. Grbac points out that the HRM, for example, has By-law M-200 “Respecting Standards for Residential Occupancies.” This includes a section on “Stairs, Decks and Balconies” which requires they be “maintained in good repair so as to be structurally sound, free of holes, cracks, and other material defects which may constitute accident hazards”.

It is a good idea for homeowners to ensure their outdoor structures are in good repair for everyone’s safety. “In most cases a homeowners should call a contractor or qualified person (architect, engineer, etc.) to inspect their own decks,” advises Grbac. “If the homeowner feels comfortable, there are many deck evaluation checklists available online, such as the checklist put out by the North American Deck and Railing Association.”

For those who are renting an apartment, they can call their municipality’s building official to come and do an inspection of their balcony.

Selecting a qualified and reputable contractor is an important step in ensuring your new or improved outdoor project is safe, secure and of a high calibre.  “A list of reputable contractors is available on the Canadian Home Builders AssociationNova Scotia web site,” says Grbac. “Personal referrals and the Better Business Bureau can also be helpful.”

Pierson also recommends selecting a contractor that is a member of the CHBA-NS and “to make sure that they have adequate workers’ compensation and liability insurance.”

Outdoor Design

Berman_turfIf you go with a highly regarded contractor, chances are it’s a company that also makes an effort to truly understand a client’s lifestyle and needs, which can have a huge impact on the design of an outdoor space. “People are all unique so we try to get a good idea of the individual client and then we’ll understand what elements they may need,” says Archadeck’s Maurice Meagher.

Working within a client’s budget is also very important.

“If a deck is in good condition, maybe it just needs to be refreshed,” says Meagher. “Redoing the decking, or updating the railing, or adding some benches, planters or some lighting. Those are all ways that you can cost-effectively improve the space.”

As for affordable sources of shade and enclosures, Meagher says awnings, pergolas and screen porches are generally more cost effective. A roof structure that’s open on all four sides, like a gazebo, would be more budget-friendly than a screen room, threeseason room or sunroom.

New projects can also be made more affordable, without compromising quality, by selecting a project size that works within the client’s budget.  “One other way to keep decks and outdoor spaces more cost-effective, if people are looking for an affordable solution, is to build the structure or space and not have as many bells and whistles, like not as many built-in planters, built-in benches or high-end railings,” says Meagher. “Without those elements you can keep costs more affordable.”

Once all the decisions have been made, you can then look forward to soon relaxing in your home’s outdoors. But make sure to leave some room in the budget for entertaining.

“In the short season that we have,” says Capstone’s  Lloyd Ruelland,  “there is nothing better than sitting around your backyard with family and friends, having a glass of wine or whatever your poison, watching the sunset or maybe, with any luck, watching the sunrise, with a few logs on the fire!”

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