What We Think

We've had some utility work going on in front of our office recently. It was that classic scene of workers like you see on the side of the highway, where five or six of them are standing by the truck talking (supervising?) while one worker is down in the ditch digging. This wasn't taken at our office, but this is exactly what it looked like:

I think they were working on a water main and over the course of a couple of weeks, they resolved the underground issue but we're left with a large area out front that used to be grass but is now gravel. I really haven't paid much attention, until this morning as I drove in, when I glanced at our mailbox. This is what it looks like:

Do you see what I see?
If you've ever built a deck or screened porch, you may have keyed in on my concern. I took specific note of the bottom of the post, where the post meets the ground:

We get asked to look at porches and decks quite a bit: probably a few times a month. With those calls, I will often have clients want me to just freshen up their decks.

Often clients are really surprised when I give the feedback that I do not feel comfortable removing the existing decking and replacing just the decking boards. Instead, I tell them that I think we need to tear down what they have and start fresh with new posts, framing, and then new decking. They usually tell me that is more work and expense than they are interested in and I can only assume they think I am trying to talk them into more work than is necessary in order to achieve a bigger project for Precision Homecrafters. But my motivations often begin from a place that isn't seen: it comes from my concerns about what is going on with their support posts. It is not a good idea to build any structure on a faulty foundation. And so I look at decks from the bottom up, not the top down.

Eight out of ten decks I look at have posts that are buried either in the ground or posts that are sunk into concrete that is buried in the ground. The result is that even though the timber is often a treated product, the act of placing the post underground, or in concrete underground, produces the effect you see in the photo above. The wood remains continuously exposed to moisture, is exposed to fungus and microbial activity that accelerates decay(think of what happens to a branch or a tree that falls to the forest floor), and in the case of buried posts, it places the posts in easy reach of the wood-loving insects that live in most backyards.

So: we analyze decks from the ground up. And that means that most porches and decks begin with us removing everything that was there and building it back brand new. And even when we build it back the same size as what was there, we still will begin with digging holes in the ground and start with new, properly sized, concrete footings(with rebar reinforcement) that have Simpson brackets installed to ensure that our posts are above grade and away from the perpetual moisture and away from the fungal-producing, insect-rich environment of top soil.

This is our typical footing detail:

We get asked to look at porches and decks quite a bit: probably a few times a month. With those calls, I will often have clients want me to just freshen up their decks.

Often clients are really surprised when I give the feedback that I do not feel comfortable removing the existing decking and replacing just the decking boards. Instead, I tell them that I think we need to tear down what they have and start fresh with new posts, framing, and then new decking. They usually tell me that is more work and expense than they are interested in and I can only assume they think I am trying to talk them into more work than is necessary in order to achieve a bigger project for Precision Homecrafters. But my motivations often begin from a place that isn't seen: it comes from my concerns about what is going on with their support posts. It is not a good idea to build any structure on a faulty foundation. And so I look at decks from the bottom up, not the top down.

Over the past 10 years or so, residential building code as really "upped the ante" regarding the structure that goes into porches and decks. We can no longer build the vast majority of the decks we construct with anything less than a double treated 2x12 band and treated 2x10 joists. Most decks I look at have a single 2x10 band and 2x8 joists, some even have 2x6 joists. The large porch project we are building right now has the main structure with beams as large as 5 ΒΌ" x 16" and has no member less than a 2 x 12. We also install every joist with a rated joist hanger (a metal bracket specifically designed for that installation) instead of the previously common method of placing every joist on a nailed-in-place 2x2 ledger board. We install shear posts under the band attached to the house and even with the above measures, we still have every deck inspected by a local building code official.

So, if your deck needs to be revived, consider taking a look at it from the bottom up. And don't be surprised if you have me look at it, that I tell you to tear it down and start over.

Especially if your deck has posts that look like our mailbox. Which, now that I think about it, I should probably tear down and start over and build it new from the bottom up.