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designing garden decking

10 top principles in designing garden decking

07 April 2013

“Hardwood warms up early in the day and early in the season. It’s one of those natural materials that just makes you want to take your shoes off without ever feeling cold, precarious or mucky. The flexibility of the material makes it conducive to easy and speedy construction and a one that is easily adaptable to any situation. Whilst there are many substitutes these days in softwoods, composites and even bamboo for me there is nothing like real hardwood with natural variations in tone, grain and pattern.”

1. Directional 2. Structural 3. Steps 4. Lighting 5. With stone 6. Four hardwoods & a softwood 7. Board widths 8. Detail 9. Curves & angles 10. Maintenance

Left photograph by Helmut Reinelt / balau decking at Tower Bridge roof garden. Amir's portrait by Lucy Fitter.

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  1. Directional

With narrow bands of wood, a deck is capable of diverting our attention from space-deprived areas manipulating the eye away – or on the grander scale pointing out the horizon. Hardwood is a warm, welcoming material and by designing the right pattern we are able to set the scene for the whole garden. Too often I come across badly designed and laid decks on new developments. Builders scrimping on material and designers being visually ignorant create decks that run across a long elevation to save material and labour when it would have been much better to lay them on the narrow side to deepen the apparent space. On large decks I always prefer to change direction either diagonally or perpendicularly at critical points to break up the area and evolve the sequence.

designing garden decking directional

Photograph by Helen Fickling   Clerkenwell roof garden  Western red cedar

  2. Structural

Decks are great bearers of weight and so on roof terraces they enable us to spread the load of heavy planters onto their joists. In turn, decking hide irrigation pipes and lighting cables underneath, which is a great bonus. I always design my decks perfectly level. This is one of the prime advantages when the structure is level on the visible side, yet its supports are diminishing or increasing with the height of the drainage slopes on the roof itself. This is visually pleasing when planters and vases appear aligned with other horizontally level elements such as walls and handrails. The flexibility of timber and wood means that structures can be made on site with good tolerance, which in structural terms is a time saver. For me any ingredient in a garden that involves hardwood is effectively a deck in one form or another. Cladding, banisters, storage, benches, daybeds, promenades, screening, shelves, planters, tables, bars are all variations on a structural theme.

designing garden decking structural

Grosvenor Waterside roof garden   softwood frame on pedestals ready for balau

  3. Steps

Any change of level is effectively a step and wood is highly adaptable for this task. A stepped deck is a great feature because structurally one is able to key in the timber and create a strong yet flexible join – also easy to design lighting, stone and planting with. I am able to incorporate beautiful sandstone into the treads or risers to create a contrast with the wood, breaking up the overall continuum of timber. I can add LED light strips under the risers to create a striking display at night. Where the space allows for deeper steps planting can be added into the treads to soften the edges and create a tactile and scented experience.

modern hedging design steps

Tower Bridge roof garden   4" balau steps and 6" deck boards with LED tape

  4. Lighting

Lighting and decking present a long love and hate relationship for me. While recessed deck lighting can be useful when up lighting brick walls, more often than not it spoils beautiful hardwood and provides no purpose. Decks on new developments sometimes display LED deck lighting that create effectively nothing but glare on the glass balustrades. Any up lighting to enhance plants should always be inside the planters. The only deck lighting I prefer is directional LED strips as they do not interfere with the design during daytime and can provide a lot of drama in the evening.

designing garden decking lighting  

Grosvenor Waterside roof garden   balau deck and bench with LED strip  

  5. With stone

For me combining two of my favourite natural materials, wood and stone, had always been instinctive. By building upon an Eastern tradition, layering European plants and weaving this blueprint into urban intimate spaces, one is able to balance contemporary expressions with warmth and poise. On roof terraces, when we lay the stone on pedestals, we are able to have a level surface throughout – an advantage which allows perfect lines. In gardens, drainage falls on stone surfaces embedded in concrete may sometimes not join decking well when a deck has stone on two sides. Depending on length and size of stone, a talented stone mason in liaison with the designer can resolve these conundrums. I love detailing dark slate strips into iroko decks, buff sandstone as alternating narrow decks with balau, or blue Yorkstone as a tread for ipe decking.

designing garden decking with stone

Highgate roof terrace   balau 6" deck boards with sandstone

  6. Four hardwoods & a softwood  

My first experience with hardwood was with iroko. For a few years I prescribed every detail my mind could conjure up. As with anything in life, you are always dependant on a good supplier and when one grasps the possibilities of a material as guided by the craftsman then one is sure to stay creative. Iroko is a West African tree similar to Teak, which is durable, smooth and dark. As most boards in the UK are machined here, one could specify widths, thicknesses and profiles. When iroko had become expensive I moved on to balau. The balau is native to South East Asia; it is less smooth than iroko, with variable colour and good stability. This wood is widely grown and its cost is one of the most affordable of all hardwoods. It is mostly imported into the UK in machined sizes with the prominent ones being 90mm and 145mm wide. European Oak is a great hardwood for decking but it has high cost. When designing small decks it is possible from time to time for me to use Oak and as it is machined in the country one is able to specify any size.

I have used Ipe in decking for a while. This dark Brazilian wood is very hard and tough to work with making it time consuming. Costs are high as stainless steel screws must be used and it is imported at set sizes limiting the design. Ipe tends to turn light and silvery fairly quickly after installation. However, it is a beautiful, dense wood and when well maintained is a joy to look at. Lastly, there is one softwood that belongs with the hardwoods – the Western red cedar. Native to British Columbia, this evergreen huge conifer produces one of the most useful timbers for contemporary garden design. The wood can be milled to any size and specified in cladding, decks, handrails, roof tiles and even beehives. It is said you will not see one spider in your shed if you build it from cedar! I use cedar in upright structures frequently but not so much in decking. From my experience it is a bit soft and turns grey too quickly on the ground. It is however the only softwood that does not require treatment and its light weight is useful for easing labour and transportation costs.

designing garden decking louver

London Bridge roof terrace   balau louver screen and coping

  7. Board widths

Experimenting with board widths came about when working with iroko. I could only source it as raw material so specifying the width, thickness and profile gave an opportunity to try different patterns. A rounded radius or what we call ‘pencil round’ not only helps water glide off the surface, but also appears gentle and smooth. Alternating between 6” and 4” boards is a good solid technique to work with and depending on the size of the deck, the pattern should have the right rhythm for the space. Adding a 3” board to the mix at the relevant ratio means a random pattern can be created – a one that is largely dependant on the eye of the craftsman. I usually try and avoid using overly wide boards as even the toughest wood would suffer eventually outside with high moisture levels and anything over 150mm wide would need a third screw which will look unsightly. In terms of narrowness, the opposite problem occurs when boards less than 60mm become susceptible to splitting and look odd with only one screw.

designing garden decking board widths

Photograph by Clive Nichols   Wandsworth garden   iroko in a 3 x 6" and 2 x 4" pattern

8. Detail

A client who previously had a deck with no gaps insisted that I change my specification. It seemed odd but I got into it. We went and looked at his old deck and it wasn’t great – I mean it looked fine but there were signs of cupping and bowing a few years after installation. I always leave 5mm gaps between the boards as they expand in winter and shrink in summer; the water drains quickly and air circulates around the boards. It also has a nice rhythm to it visually. I made a few samples with narrower gaps and we settled on 2mm ones. Recently I visited the site after 2 years and the deck seems fine. As it is a very small deck the risk is low but I would not try it in a very large area. When I specify a deck it is very important for me that all the screw holes are pre-drilled and countersunk and that all the screw heads are below the surface of the deck. While the screws need be matching in colour to the deck, screw positions must be marked with pencil so that every single one is aligned with the others. I usually prefer any riser fascias to be smooth with decent shadow gaps top and bottom. When it comes to edges, landings or step treads I try and change width of boards to demarcate transitional areas.

designing garden decking detail

St george Wharf roof gardens   iroko step edge with rigged boards

  9. Curves & angles

Angles can be useful in decks when a simple reorientation adds so much depth to a space. In construction terms, angles are naturally more time consuming. On large sites, laying long lines takes time and skill when preserving a true line for each board makes the difference between a brilliant or average result. Curves are even more difficult to design, mark on site and deck out. As every board is cut differently we would usually lay the deck over the curved pattern, redraw on the deck and then use a saw to cut out the edge. Juxtaposing hardwood with other contrasting materials with a delineating curve in between requires imagination and skill of construction, yet it is highly worthwhile being an element we see in nature often.

designing garden decking curves and angles

Battersea roof garden   balau curve meeting the artificial putting green

10. Maintenance   

Maintenance of a deck is a subjective matter. I have created so many decks for so many different people yet clients have different attitudes to their upkeep. With my own first deck, a small roof terrace in Camden Town, I used to sand and varnish it often, but as the terrace was South facing, polluted and in constant use I just gave up after a while when the balau turned silvery-grey a few months after varnishing. That said I have seen some of my decks being professionally varnished to great success – some clients prefer deep brown colours and others more red or yellow – some clear, or just plainly oiled. Perhaps the best product used, though the most expensive was Sikkens – a Dutch boating product. In terms of cleaningness, as with all exterior surfaces, a deck must be power jet washed up to 4 times a year or as necessary to avoid the build up of dirt and algae. Depending on the situation – sunny or shaded, busy or quiet, urban of rural jet washing can be augmented with an organic product such as Algon. One thing is for sure – decks are not slippery when wet as incorrectly perceived by some punters. Everything on the planet becomes slippery when grease builds up and it’s raining. Decks are slippery when dirty – so keep them clean.

designing garden decking maintenance

St Luke's roof terrace   ipe 6" boards with William performaing a task

“A deck is the fixer of all gardens. It can merge disjointed levels, hide infrastructure, is flexible, feels clean and is warm to touch. A badly designed, specified and executed deck can make a garden appear cheap and horrible. A high quality hardwood deck, beautifully detailed and immaculately built, will warm the cockles of your heart…”

amir   Written, photographed (unless indicated) and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

designing garden decking

Hampstead garden   ipe 6" boards in a brand new state

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