• Benjamin Fisher

5 Deck Design Trends to Create a Perfect Post-Covid Backyard Oasis

American's interest in outdoor decking reached epic proportions in 2020 unparalleled in residential construction.

With quarantine orders coming into effect simultaneously as the weather began to warm a perfect storm was created. Homeowners, confined to the limited space of their own domain, found themselves with an excess of free time. With uncertainty as to just how long the work-from-home orders would last many homeowners took the opportunity to enhance the spaces to which they were now bound. Spaces to which they were always aware but were now ever more present in their minds.

Decks themselves are one of the top construction trends we'll see in a post-covid world.

Whether professionally contracted or as part of the recent resurgence in the DIY industry, homeowners across America looked to renovate, remodel or build in a fervor not seen since the aftermath of 9/11. Just as with the tragedy that signified the beginning of the 21st century the current Covid-19 pandemic saw a similar loss of interest in travel and tourism that led to increased interest in design and construction. Ultimately this would pave the way for HGTV's rise to prominence and the birth of the stay-cation concept. Perhaps even more so than in 2001, 2020 saw a more health-conscious population look to maintain their connection with the natural world by prioritizing their home's outdoor spaces over the more traditional spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms to which usually dominate spending in the remodeling industry. This became evident soon following the first stay-at-home orders when pressure-treated lumber, , a material most often used in the sub-structure and planking of outdoor decks, began disappearing from home improvement stores and lumberyards everywhere.

According to Houzz, searches for deck-related design and construction skyrocketed an amazing 178% from 2019 to 2020. This overwhelming interest in deck construction was further bolstered when in late 2020 Home Advisor ranked "Deck Additions" as the fourth-highest improvement as far as a return on investment with an average 75.6% return.

While decks as a whole will undoubtedly keep carpenters across America busy this summer; the design of those decks will vary greatly depending on location, budget and client preference. There are, however, 5 trends in particular that we expect to make a big impact on the decking industry in 2021.

#1) Varied-Plank Decking

Varied-Width Planking

While not as drastic or even noticeable as the remaining trends on this list it is the subtle design interest afforded by varied-plank decking that is perhaps the most exciting for me personally. What's most interesting about this trend is just how trendy it actually is. While interior wood flooring has, almost since its inception, offered a plethora of varied-plank options it has as of until recently, remained absent from the product lines of the largest composite decking manufacturers. Timbertech is changing all of that. In addition to the standard 5.5" board width offered by all decking manufacturers, Timbertech is now offering a wide 7.5" and a narrow 3.5" board in select lines of their popular composite decking.


Varied-Color Planking

Unlike varied-width planking, varied-color plank decking has been available practically as long as manufacturers have offered more than one color in their composite decking offerings. It has however yet to be utilized in any real sense and has thus, not attracted the eyes of homeowners or designers alike. While not necessarily suited for small or narrow decks a multi-color deck can add depth and visual interest to larger decks; especially to those with fairly simple, rectilinear footprints. The use of multi-color decking can be tricky to get just right to where it doesn't make your deck appear cluttered or overly busy. If a homeowner would like to implement multi-color decking I would recommend hiring a designer who can model your specific deck, whether in 2D or 3D, and can illustrate exactly what your deck would look like specifying exactly what color board goes where. In fact, I know of just a designer who would be more than happy to help you visualize your future deck; you can contact him here.

#2) Platform or Full-Width Step Designs

Ideally, a deck should be designed with multiple tiers to provide space for independent programs such as a cooking space, dining area, fire pit or private seating areas. However, whether constrained by space or budget limitations this may not be feasible. These constraints will be ever more present in 2021 as the coronavirus continues to spread and consumer confidence will limit construction budgets across the country. One way to address these limitations is to introduce the multi-tier or separate platform design in a smaller scale as applied to any stairs or changes in elevation.

The platform stair in particular provides a more organic means of egress which can in and of themselves be a focal point of any deck design.

This can be further enhanced with LED strip lighting along with the raised stair treads that run the entire length of the platform. A good designer will size platform stairs in a way that deliberately controls the manner in which someone moves through the space; its architectural procession. How you design these stairs can dictate how quickly someone can transition from one platform to another, what they encounter along their way and how they relate to adjacent spaces such that the experience of the space as a whole is enhanced.

While not as intricate as a platform stair full-width stairs can provide an architectural statement nearly as impressive. When aligned with a central axis tying into the home's interior space this is further enhanced. Full-width stairs also provide additional informal seating for guests which is perfect for those who enjoy entertaining but are limited spatially.

To add even further visual interest consider staggering your stairs while leaving sections without a step to create a more comfortable height for informal seating.

Consciously designing your deck's stairs can create spaces conducive for spontaneous or private conversations away from the clamor of a typical backyard party. Small design moves such as these will enhance the overall atmosphere of your deck and can make your deck more memorable for those privileged to experience it.

#3) Decks made for the Shade

For those of us located in North Central Illinois, this deck design component may be born more of necessity than a desire. Especially those of us in Princeton, IL who suffered the wrath of a once-in-a-lifetime windstorm called a derecho in 2020 that brought many a beloved shade tree down across the city.

Regardless of where you live, unless you have the benefit of perfectly placed, mature trees the need for some form of solar protection is almost a necessity. Whether you accomplish this with the use of a simple patio umbrella or in the creation of a full-fledged "outdoor room" complete with soffited ceilings, privacy walls, and many of the amenities found in your home's living room the ability to temporarily escape the sun's relentless summer rays can not be understated. Regardless of its form, the materials, or the manner in which it is constructed shade structures will continue to be a leading trend in any backyard design as homeowners across the country look to integrate the exterior spaces of their home with those of the interior. "Bringing the Outside In", will become commonplace in Post-Covid design moreso than ever before.

Shade structures allow homeowners to express their unique style unlike any other deck design component and usually serve as the focal point of any backyard oasis.

As for the design of these shade structures, the options available to homeowners are nearly limitless. Traditional pergolas constructed of 2x treated lumber will continue to dominate the market but as homeowners continue to take a more vested interest in the design options available to them, thanks to platforms such as Pinterest, variations to the traditional pergola are more popular than ever. In response to this trend Trex , a leading manufacturer in composite wood decking whose name is practically synonymous with the material it pioneered, began offering pre-fabricated pergolas in 2015. These pergolas, made of PVC with structural aluminum cores, come with a variety of in-fill roofing materials such as steel cables, tensioned fabrics, retractable vinyl or solid aluminum panels with integrated gutters to provide protection from the weather in addition to the sun. In 2019 Trex introduced their first all-aluminum pergola, Element, to provide durability and low-maintenance qualities that is crucial for any commercial or multi-family application while remaining perfectly at home as part of any family's private oasis.

https://www.trexpergola.com/trex-per Ingola-pavilion/

These offerings from Trex however are more costly than most post-pandemic budgets can afford. However, working with a local design-build contractor you can create eye-catching, contemporary shade structures specifically tailored to your tastes at a fraction of the cost.

Hiring a local designer offers the distinct advantage of designing a shade structure specifically tailored to your situation.

Nosy neighbors?

Consider an acoustical privacy wall.

Is your backyard devoid of greenery?

Enhance that accent wall by creating a living green-wall to add a touch of nature or access to fresh herbs otherwise unavailable.

Building New?

Consider creating a dining/living space continuous roof plane spanning an interior and exterior dining/living space.

This bold design move is a great way to enhance your home's connection to the outside world while retaining a comfortable separation from it when the weather demands it. Such interstitial spaces separating outside from in are a natural gathering space for those who enjoy entertaining and serve to extend a home's functional square footage while simultaneously increasing its value significantly.

#4) Cocktail Railing

Sometimes the most minor changes to an existing design can have the biggest impact. For traditional, single-tier decks with a standard, bread-loaf top rail profile, simply adding a cocktail rail can make a huge impact on the overall functionality of any deck. This is particularly true for those who enjoy entertaining or alternately for those whose deck may be limited spatially and unable to accommodate sufficient table space.

A cocktail rail, or dink rail, is simply a flat surface at the top of any railing design that is sufficiently wide enough to safely set a plate, phone, or as duly-named, a cocktail.

Thus far the list is primarily concerned with design moves most often taken in the replacement of an existing deck or in the construction of an entirely new deck; whether to a new or existing home. I have included #4 on the list however to address the significant number of homeowners, who, even given a potentially tighter post-Covid budget still want to enhance their outdoor space by upgrading their deck rather than replacing it.

Contractor Tip - Exposed Edges

Many composite decking manufacturers offer an end-cap accessory piece for the exposed edge of the cocktail rail encountered at stair openings or at the terminus of non-continuous runs. . While I believe this is a major design flaw on behalf of the manufacturer it can easily be addressed in a variey of ways. It can even offer a unique opportunity to incorporate a design detail that actually enhances the overall look of the railing as a whole. On this deck in Princeton, we simply used a black permanent marker to color in the exposed edge as shown in the picture. By matching the railing, constructed of matte black aluminum, we were able to create a cohesive assembly that looks as if it was a deliberate design move.

For the purpose of the list, I have made the assumption that we are working with composite decking designs only. For all practical purposes, it is no longer sensible by any measure to build a deck with pressure-treated wood. A plethora of reasons now exists, namely the significant decrease in cost composite decking has experienced over the past decade, but that could fill a post all by itself.

In addition to that more obvious upgrade of switching from pressure-treated wood decking to composite decking, replacing your deck's railing can have perhaps the greatest overall impact. Many options on upgrading your railing now exist. More contemporary design opportunities such as steel cable or glass infill panels can drastically change the look of your whole deck. Similarly, ditching wood altogether in favor of an all-aluminum rail and balustrade system can create a more traditional, yet sophisticated appearance.

No upgrade to your deck's railing however is as budget-friendly and as high-impact as simply replacing your top rail with a cocktail rail.

#5) Light it Up!

Fire, elementally, has an uncanny way of bringing people together. It ignites within us a primal driving force that after countless generations has become engrained in our shared human experience. It is as much a part of who we are as the genes found in our DNA. In fact, scientists now believe that it was our mastery of fire that led formerly disparate, solitary beings to, for the first time, gather in groups. This behavior we believe led to the use of language and vocal communications never before seen in the history of our planet. Using this newfound ability to master the flame early humans began cooking their meat which led to a renaissance-like boom in our cognitive abilities. Once consumed with the digestion of raw meat a new excess of caloric energy was now available for our brains to grow larger and larger.

This attraction to fire is today no less integral to our ability and enjoyment to gather in groups than it was 10,00 years ago. If entertaining is your goal, no other deck design feature is nearly as effective as a fire feature in creating a warm, inviting atmosphere with an uncomparable WOW factor sure to impress your neighbors.

Unlike our ancestors, today's homeowners should avoid installing any fire feature that relies on the consumption of wood. Beyond the obvious safety issues posed by burning wood on a wood or wood composite deck, the cleaning and maintenance required of wood-burning installations are extremely burdensome and labor-intensive. Natural gas however is relatively inexpensive to burn and is significantly safer and easier to operate.

On the lower end of the budget spectrum, affordable to a majority of all homeowners is the addition of a fire pit. Pre-fabricated, freestanding, and portable fire pits are available in almost any style, shape and size imaginable. The Uptown series by Napoleon is a personal favorite. Besides running the natural gas line, which should be left to a licensed plumber, a confident DIY-er can utilize manufactured fire pans and burners to create a fire feature limited only by their imagination. From round to linear, surrounded by stone or brick, even the fire media can be customized to your exact style.

No longer are homeowners limited to a ceramic, often fake-looking log set for their fire pits. I prefer instead to use 1/4" reflective fire glass from American Fireglass. Using darker colors such as bronze or black will enhance the reflectivity of the fireglass and create a perfect backdrop that serves to enhance, not detract, from the enjoyment of watching the flame dance about.

Looking to add a vertical element into your design scheme?

Consider installing a fireplace.

While typically more expensive to incorporate than a fire pit outdoor fireplaces can certainly appeal to the homeowner with a more traditional design sense.

If you are in the process of designing a new construction project consider implementing one of the latest trends in outdoor living design; the double-sided interior and exterior fireplace. While considerably more expensive than their one-sided counterparts these fireplaces when incorporated into a well-thought design can actually provide value-engineered cost savings by serving multiple programs and functions.

A study by the American Institue of Architects in 2016 found Outdoor Kitchens to be the #1 most desired feature or product in residential kitchens.More so than any material, appliance or feature associated with a home's primary, interior kitchen the 500 architects surveyed for the study opted for the addition of outdoor kitchens as being most desireable.

Perhaps the single hottest trend in the design of residential exteriors are spaces designated for cooking and food preparation. Outdoor kitchens have existed and grown steadily in popularity across the country over the past two decades however they've remained almost completely absent from backyards here in the Midwest. At ARK Building Solutions we'd love to change that!

Similar to shade structure outdoor kitchens can vary drastically in their design and can also reflect a homeowner's personality. A majority of the market is comprised of semi-custom assemblies comprised of factory-built modular components that can be combined to complement the homeowner's specific needs and budget. ARK Building Solutions has partnered with Urban Bonfire to offer homeowners in North Central Illinois a semi-customizable line of these modular outdoor kitchens. Designed for those with a more contemporary design sensibility these units can be coupled together in a nearly limitless variety of layouts to suit any homeowner's need or spatial limitations. Contact us today to learn more!

For those homeowners looking for a more immersive cooking experience, specifically tailored to their culinary style and interests a custom-built outdoor kitchen is a must. These kitchens typically still utilize individual modules of various widths designed to house various appliances, storage units, etc. For these custom outdoor kitchens, the finishes you choose to use can complement the design of your home giving the space a cohesive feel ultimately creating a stronger link between your interior and exterior spaces.

Nearly all homeowners have at least one grill in their backyard and almost 40% of us say it’s the most important fixture on our patio. 32% say it’s the one item they cannot live without! (Saber Grills, OutdoorLiving2014)

At the heart of any outdoor kitchen is the built-in grill. Once a luxury reserved for wealthy homeowners the rapid growth of the outdoor cooking market allowed more manufacturers to enter the market. One of these manufacturers, Saber grills, is a personal favorite. Saber's stainless steel line of built-in infrared grills can satisfy even the most diehard backyard chef without breaking the bank. Their unique, proprietary cooking system is unlike anything else on the market. To learn more on what sets Saber apart, click here.

Grills, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Today's outdoor kitchens offer nearly every amenity as that of their interior counterpart. and then some!

From refrigerators to kegerators, side burners to wok burners, and ovens to warming trays, homeowner's can today customize their outdoor kitchen to suit their exact needs or culinary interests. Similarly, the variety of cooking appliances themselves can be as varied as the cooks who use them. In fact, outdoor kitchens, by nature of their location outdoors can boast more specialized cooking appliances not available to kitchens bound by the constraints of interior space. Among the most popular include wood-fired pizza ovens, kamado-style ceramic grills, and even Brazillian rotisseries

Which of the 5 Design Trends would you like to incorporate most into your deck design?

What projects do you have planned for your outdoor spaces in 2021?

How has Covid-19 affected your connection to your outdoor spaces?

Leave your answers in the comments section below!

Whether you choose to incorporate all, or none, of these trends into your deck project or backyard oasis, the best decision you can make is to hire a contractor early in the planning process. Some homeowners might think their backyard project is too small, whether in scope or budget, however, that notion could not be further from the truth. In fact, a design-build contractor is perfectly suited for these types of projects. Not only will most all provide you a free estimate but they will be able to incorporate some of these and other design trends into a preliminary budget with little to no upfront investment.

With a design-build contractor, homeowners can explore various design options and their effect on the project's budget practically in real-time.

Many of these design options would otherwise be unfamiliar to a typical contractor, builder or handyman who could not readily assess various design moves and their impact on the overall budget. Furthermore, typical contractors or builders would be unequipped to assist homeowners in flushing out these different design ideas if necessary. Whether through the use of 3D or 2D drawings and renderings, simple hand-drawn sketches or even by simply showing customer images of other projects to illustrate their design intent.

At ARK Building Solutions we implement a "design-to-build" approach which simplifies the estimating and design process by minimizing the documentation needed, whether in drawings, specifications, or scopes of work to the absolute bare minimum needed to obtain subcontractor bids, secure building permits, and of course coney to the homeowner what exactly they can expect from the finished product.

So why wait? Contact us today!