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Post Magazine
This Week: A Do-It-Yourself Deck
Hosted by Michael Franz
Special to the Washington Post

Monday, April 28, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

"They tell us that if we really want things done right, we must do them ourselves. And they're correct. They neglect to mention, however, that doing a big-time home improvement yourself will also make you nuts and exhaust both you and your bank account."

So wrote Michael Franz Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine's Spring Home & Design Issue. And -- after taking eight months to build a deck complete with a kitchen, a spa and a fireplace -- he should know.

Franz was online Monday, April 28 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about his article, his deck, and the perils and pleasures of do-it-yourself construction projects.

Franz is a wine columnist for the Post's Food section and a professor of political science at Loyola College in Baltimore.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Michael Franz: G’day Mates! Thanks for looking in on this show, and I look forward to your questions regarding the deck featured in yesterday’s Spring Home & Design edition of The Washington Post Magazine. The story was a lot of fun to write…and a lot more fun than the deck was to build! Having largely recovered from the process, I may now be able to offer a bit of passably lucid advice to those of you who may be contemplating a similar home improvement project.
First, a word of encouragement: I’m actually half kidding when suggesting that the construction was a trying experience that turned me into an “obsessive wreck.” For one thing, I was already thoroughly obsessive before undertaking the project, which cannot fairly be blamed. I tend to get totally absorbed in new challenges when something of real interest arises, and the sleeplessness and general mania noted in the deck story is really a personal idiosyncrasy that has shown up periodically in my other activities as well. If you’re generally able to compartmentalize things and avoid fixation, you’ll probably do better than I did on this front.
Second, a word of warning: I’m only HALF kidding about how trying it is to undertake a big home improvement yourself. I was reasonably prepared (by my prior work in the construction business) and amply supplied with assistance (from friends and an excellent carpenter and lots of helpful suppliers), and yet the project was still among the toughest things I’ve ever taken on. Not quite as bad as writing a dissertation…but a really humbling challenge in lots of different respects. If I hadn’t been so fortunate to have two jobs that offer great flexibility and a very trusting (and indulgent!) spouse, this project would really have done a number on me.
One last thing: Since I couldn’t really name the friends who helped with the project in the magazine, I’d like to do so here. The former carpenter who produced the drawings for the permit and who guided the project is Richard Boothby, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola College in Baltimore. He is also—among many other things—a sculptor, and his artistry found its way into many little details on the deck. The neighbor whom I mentioned is Andres Mejia, who is a General Superintendent for Turner Construction. Andres helped with many, many important and daunting challenges, and I should also thank his wife (and our friend) Brenda—for letting him put in so much time working on our place rather than theirs! One of Andres’ major contributions was coming up with a great electrician and plumber with whom I’ve now (sadly) lost contact (Mio! Vince! Give me a call at my office, 410-617-2860). I also benefited from the very able assistance of Architectural Ceramics in Rockville, which has a fantastic selection of products. Call them at 301-762-4140, and ask for the incomparable Marina Agostinho! Finally, I must credit my friend Dave Fary for his magnificent cabinet work. Dave built the outdoor kitchen counters as well as the frame and cabinets for the fireplace, working with a difficult (and fairly exotic) hardwood called Ipe. Dave is a terrific artisan and a good and honest man, and I recommend him with the strongest enthusiasm if you’re contemplating a project. His number is 301-384-3159.
So, let’s get rolling with your questions. Anything roughly connected to the project is fair game!


Baltimore, Md.: Are there any legal/liability concerns to be aware of when an amateur do-it-yourselfer undertakes a home expansion project that may involve water/sewage and electrical installations? I'm thinking in particular when the homeowner decides to sell and move elsewhere.

Michael Franz: Hi Baltimore,
Yes! You are legally obliged...in these parts at any rate...to get building permits for this sort of thing, and naturally anyone who gets injured on your property may have a valid liability claim. Even if their claim is invalid and their suit is dismissed or you are found not to be at fault, you still confront the need to defend yourself. So, we never seriously considered doing this without a permit, and the electrical upgrade for the spa was also done under a permit. My wife is a lawyer (and former prosecutor), so there wasn't ever much question for us in this connection!


McLean, Va.: Michael, congratulations on your new, beautiful outdoor living space. Questions: Did you consider using manufactured decking, e.g., Trex or something similar? Also, did the County up your property assessment due to building the deck? I am inclined to build decks by the local code but without a permit due to the latter.

Michael Franz: Thank you! Someone else has also asked about Trex, so I'll take that part of your question in a subsequent response. On the issue of property taxes, let me confess that I am ignorant on the subject, and purposefully so! My wife handles this, which makes sense as a division of labor between the two of us (lawyer and professor of political philosophy...taxes go to the lawyer!). I don't have any doubt that the taxes will be affected, though, since the deck adds considerably to the value of our property.

Nevertheless, I warn you once again against going into this sort of thing without a permit! There would be no way to conceal an undertaking of this scope, or even a much more modest deck, since there is so much noise and scrap to be loaded out and concrete for posts and...you just wouldn't believe it. We needed a HUGE dumpster, and even that didn't handle half of the flotsam and jetsam from the project. And, if you've ever had the slightest scrape with a neighbor, you'll be offering them the perfect opportunity to drop a dime on you!


Alexandria, Va.: Michael,

Did you intend the deck to be as grandiose (in scale) from the beginning? Or, did it evolve into a much bigger project once you decided to take it on?

Michael Franz: The latter! Its expansion was a joint venture. I'm the cook in the family, and I just had to have the counters and the inset grill once I saw them in a magazine (for the record, it was _Sunset_). The grill itself had to have burners once I saw that one could get them included, as I had had to settle for a four-burner range when we re-did the kitchen the prior year. My wife was of course the "person who shall remain nameless" who wanted the hot tub, so she gets credit/blame for that. (All credit.) Once the tub was voted in, I pushed for the fireplace. Some of my fondest memories of childhood involve a fireplace (in the warming house at the park where I used to skate and play hockey), and I felt that a fireplace would be essential for making the deck enjoyable year-round. Also, as for sheer dimensions, I had the whole thing staked out, with construction warning tape to show its exact size, and when my wife came out for approval, she took one look and said, "this thing's got to be bigger!" What a woman!


Charlottesville, Va.: All I could think of when I saw your outdoor kitchen was how could you possibly keep it clean? We live in a similar wooded area and our deck and outdoor furniture is always getting coated with all sorts of dirt and organic material from all of the trees. How do you do it?

Michael Franz: Really not so tough! It does take a bit of effort, since we've got two tulip poplars right overhead, and they cast off a lot of junk. However, with a quick whisk brooming, the counters are clear, and with a big boat sponge and some cleanser, I can clean the whole surface in just a couple of minutes. The sink was essential, though, and if you had to carry water out in buckets, I don't think you'd continue using the counters for long. The tables clean up very easily, using the same boat sponge and my giant squeegee, and with my Stihl leaf blower set in vacuum mode, I can have the whole deck presentable in less than ten minutes. Truly!


Accokeek, Md.: I loved your deck and accessories. Can you please tell me the name of the manufacturer of the granite table and teak chairs? Where can they be purchased?
Thanks.

Michael Franz: Thank you! The teak chairs are widely available, but I'll run out on the deck and check the mfg...
...which is OUtdoor Designs, Ltd., from Danbury, Ct. I designed the tables, and my friend Rick Boothby figured out how to make them work. You'd need a bird's eye view to really get the idea of how the big table and the buffet fit in, so I won't go into detail, except to say that I went to great effort to foresee how different sizes and shapes for the tables would affect both the geometry and the "feel" of the deck. I then started shopping for different granites, learned about Black Galaxy, picked a stone big enough for all three tables, and put the job up for bids with countertop specialists in the area. My friend Rick designed a very simple rectangular frame for the big table, and the legs actually run right through the floor and are bolted straight through the joists...an ingenius, super-stable, ultra-strong setup.


Falls Church, Va.: Michael:
I loved the article! It's always fun to read about other peoples' projects, and live somewhat vicariously through their experiences.
As for your black granite tabletop, did you consider Silestone or Zodiaq? They're the 90 percent quartzite/10 percent polymer stone surfaces that look and feel just like granite (as quartzite is a rock with a hardness similar to granite) but come with a better warranty. But mostly, what made you choose granite over a regular wood tabletop?

Michael Franz: Hi! I just thought that there would be too much wood, as the deck is quite large. Having a different surface breaks up the appearance, and the granite is actually much, much easier to maintain than wood, and will essentially last forever. Black galaxy is spectacularly hard, so I never even thought about the warranty issue. In fact, the guy who gave me the lesson that I mention in the story did a demonstration that persuaded me on the spot: He took a two-pound sledge hammer to a piece of black galaxy, and it took him five major swings even to knock a piece off a corner of a jagged, uncut piece. Amazing!


Fairfax, Va.: I give you all the credit in the world for this undertaking. Just curious... in your dealings with various experts, did anyone point you in the direction of or away from the new man-made decking materials for deck floors, such as Trex? Did you stick to wood all around for your deck? Seeking various opinions, both pro and con.

Michael Franz: Hi, thanks for your question. I was aware of it, and elected not to use it for several reasons. First, it was more expensive, and I thought it best to start with wood, invest in some accessories like the high-end grill and the fireplace, and then perhaps re-deck with Trex or a hardwood after the flooring showed wear (and after we recovered financially!). This still seems right to me in retrospect, though I wasn't nearly as attentive as I should have been to issues of maintenance. The wood requires a lot of work. However, Trex looks--to me and perhaps only to me--just a bit cheesy, like the plastic benches one sometimes sees at bus stops. If I ever re-deck (and the whole thing was designed to me replaceable right down to grade level), I'd probably use Ipe (brand name, "Ironwood"), which is the stuff I used for the handrails and the cabinets.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Hello Michael,

I enjoyed your article on the deck. Please tell me where you had your tables made? I love them!

Michael Franz: You'll see a posting above that will give you the basic story. I got the idea in southern italy, on a wine research trip. Saw a stone coffee table outdoors by a swimming pool and knew immediately that I needed natural stone. Started doing drawings on the spot (and got caught by a fellow wine writer who saw I wasn't taking notes on what the winemaker was saying!), and planned my speech to secure spousal approval on the plane ride home!


Fairfax, Va.: What I want to know, is what did a set up like that run a do it yourselfer, and what would it have be if somebody else tried to replicate it in their own backyard but didn't want to do any of the work?

Michael Franz: I'm guessing here, but it is a fairly studied guess: It would have cost twice as much to have the thing designed by an architect and constructed by a builder.


Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: So what wine do you recommend for lounging in the hot tub?

Michael Franz: German Riesling from the 2001 vintage, preferably at the Kabinett or Spatlese level, and preferably from the Mosel Valley! With only 7.5 percent alcohol, you won't pass out and get cooked!


Fairfax, Va.: Hi! Your deck looks great, but it also seems like too big an investment to leave out in the open. Is there some sort of awning?
Thanks

Michael Franz: We get that question a lot from visitors. Actually,we really WANT to be outside, and want this as unalloyed as possible. In late spring, summer, and early fall, the poplars provide wonderful shade, so sun isn't an issue. In winter, we love looking at the stars from the hot tub. Sure, it might be nice to have an awning to pull down when there's a shower, but otherwise the thing would be stuck to the back of the house, which doesn't seem so great....


Burke, Va.: Good afternoon!

I loved the article and was impressed with the end result, but the pictures did not give me a good sense of the deck in proportion to your home, or in proportion to the backyard drop you described.

(1) What portion of the backside of your house does the deck cover? Is there a place on the Web where you might have already placed a picture of the finished product?

(2) What were the primary concerns for you in selecting the sink, stove, etc., for the outdoor kitchen? What brands did you settle on?

Thanks!

Michael Franz: Hi!
The deck is exactly as wide as the house is at the back, with a driveway on one side and a walkway on the other consuming almost the entire width of the property. There is a significant change of grade both from front to back and from side to side, and it really took some work to think through the elevations. However, after considering the level of the kitchen door and a few other elevations that were set in advance, the decisions weren't too tough. This sort of thing is really worth the investment of time though, as is clear when one looks at how many decks done by builders just look like boxes haphazardly tacked to the rear of people's homes.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Did you do everything yourself? Including digging the footings? Here we are about to embark on our summer project (building a deck that is far less involved than yours) but our big stumbling block is digging the post holes. We have to go down below frost level (52") and that seems maybe a bit too much for me. Other than the electrical-type stuff that is too difficult or risky for a DIYer, what else did you farm out?

Michael Franz: That was one of the few parts that I knew I'd want to do myself! There were more than 30 holes (not counting the additional 8 for pilings for the fireplace), but that was my strong suit, since I'm pretty good with a shovel and a post hole digger (lots of Ph.D. jokes in my case!) after all those years doing pipeline work. My friend Andres Mejia arranged for a redi-mix truck, and this was really not one of the more challenging aspects of the job.


Silver Spring, Md.: Looking back at the whole process, what would you have changed if you were to do it again? Material choices? Features to omit or add (related to deck, kitchen or hot tub)? Professionals to consult for various tasks?

Michael Franz: This sounds snotty, but the fact is that there's almost nothing that I'd do differently. This is NOT because I'm some sort of genius, but rather that the process was slow enough that we were able to continually re-design and adjust the thing as we went. Also, I had the help of three very bright people who shared their ideas as we went, and there is no way to over-estimate their contribution. I bought one of the most affordable Jaccuzzi spas (from Home Depot), and wonder if that was the right idea, since I've seen some fantastic looking ones since completing the job. Perhaps I'll end up rueing that decision if we develop problems, since we could only replace the one we've got with an identically-sized alternative. We'll see!


Michael Franz: Yikes! Out of time already! Please forgive me if I couldn't get to your question. Thanks to everyone who joined in, and good luck if you're launching a project this spring.
Cheers,
Michael


washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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