Handling 300-pound loads of concrete slurry, pounding 30-inch holes into rocky soil and lugging 18-foot wooden beams in hot, muggy weather might strike some as torture, but it has left Glenn Shuster more than a little pleased.
Weeks after a contractor might have finished, the Frederick do-it-yourselfer is installing handrails and nearing completion on a 12-by-24-foot deck in his back yard. The project, which has taken him about 120 hours, has been challenging, but with handy friends and lots of sweat equity, he figures he has saved $10,000 and gained immense satisfaction.
Shuster's project is similar to thousands of others throughout the area, part of an annual rite that includes home improvement centers suggesting that building a deck is within almost anyone's abilities. But some advanced do-it-yourselfers and building experts disagree and urge careful thought before people order lumber and block out calendars.
Having built or helped build five decks, Shuster seems to be a natural advocate of the do-it-yourself route. But when asked if building a deck is a reasonable project for gung-ho but green do-it-yourselfers, he hesitated. Such a major project, he said, requires assessing the plan against one's skills, time, motivation and ability to pay attention to detail.
"Building a deck is not something to take on casually," he said. "When you attach a deck to a house, it has to meet the same construction standards as your house and involves some pretty serious rough carpentry and physical work. Learning how to do it on your own can be painful."
Leesburg resident Butch Thompson agreed. Building a deck is within the reach of a committed novice, he said, but experience smooths the learning curve. Like Shuster, Thompson is an advanced do-it-yourselfer who gained his know-how by working alongside skilled friends in "deck-building parties."
Unlike Shuster, Thompson faces an additional safety issue in his planned deck project. His deck will be suspended nearly 10 feet above the ground, meaning he will build it while balanced on a ladder or standing atop exposed joists.
Thompson estimated that he will save thousands of dollars on his 12-by-27 foot project, but the trade-off is lost weekends. "It would take a professional a tenth of the time to build this deck," he said. "The professional can do the design work, deal with building permits and it wouldn't cost any time."
But even Thompson won't do it all alone. "I won't tackle building the stairs on this deck," he said. Instead, he will hire a professional for that tricky task.
Brian Foley, chief structural engineer for Fairfax County's permit department, advises would-be deck builders to start by assessing their knowledge and skills. A good how-to book or video will outline tasks, he said, but can also deceive by making challenging steps look effortless.
Shuster, a nuclear engineer by training, emphasizes mechanical aptitude. "You have to understand the basic terminology and theory of construction and what the building codes are telling you," he said.
Complex designs (decks with two or more levels, angled corners or wraparound stairs) can bedevil even advanced do-it-yourselfers, Thompson said. Noting that small mistakes can morph into major blunders, Shuster suggested that beginners stick to a rectangular deck with no frills.
Most home-improvement stores offer to design decks at no charge. These stores use computer programs that produce impressive visuals, but those plans are neither comprehensive nor infallible, Foley said.
"I've seen people design a deck [by computer] and then come in and are told it can't be that size or shape," he said. "It wastes their time."
While those programs can provide a detailed materials list, he said, they typically do not produce plans "that will be approved by planning officials." Nor are do-it-yourself books always reliable. "I've seen major code violations" in them, he said.
"The best advice I have for anybody is to contact the building department in your city or county," Foley said. "We know decks better than anybody in the industry. We give people a huge wealth of information: Span lengths of beams and joists, how to connect to the house or how to make it free-floating; we even tell how to build the stairs and rails. If you build your deck to the minimum standards [in your jurisdiction], you don't need your own plan," he said.
Shuster and Thompson said beginners may run into problems interpreting and complying with building codes. Foley agreed but said deviating from them invites trouble, both regulatory and physical. Most summers, there are news stories about decks collapsing during parties; in many such cases, safety experts blame construction shortcuts as well as overloading.
He said a novice's dreams of a sprawling deck can run up against restrictive setback requirements -- the minimum dimension allowed from the edge of one's lot to a deck or other structure.
"Sometimes people have to cut their [finished] decks short or alter them in some way to comply," he said. Foley's point is clear: "Check what type of deck is allowed to be built on your property, especially in townhomes," he said.
Codes vary among jurisdictions, meaning that a Maryland friend's building tips can give rise to a noncompliant deck in the District or Virginia. For example, some jurisdictions restrict lumber species not native to North America. Unlike Fairfax County, Prince George's County prohibits attaching a deck to a dwelling and instead requires building a "free-floating" deck on sturdy concrete footers.
Faced with tough standards, some homeowners might feel tempted to cut corners and hope for a lax inspector, Foley said. Don't count on it. "We do a quality inspection, even if it's a short inspection," he said. "We actually turn bolts on the ledger [board] for tightness and probe the soil for proper foundation material."
Lack of attention to details can have major safety repercussions. "A lot of people take for granted that the deck is attached to the house correctly or that the rails are attached correctly," Foley said. "A failure of these two connections can lead to injury or death."
Pressure-treated lumber is the most common material used to build decks. A recent change in the chemicals used to treat that wood can present some complications. The older-style wood, known as CCA-treated wood, was phased out last year. Rob Curtis, manager of the Home Depot in Gaithersburg, said that using steel fasteners and hardware designed for old CCA-treated lumber with the wood that's now sold, which is treated with the chemical known as ACQ, can lead to accelerated corrosion and possible failure. Do-it-yourselfers should also check for underground utilities and applicable homeowners association covenants and deed restrictions, he said.
Shuster also emphasized the physical rigors. In Frederick County, post holes must be at least 30 inches deep, six inches deeper than in Fairfax County. When a rented two-man augur bounced off his nearly bulletproof soil, Shuster and friends resorted to hefty pry bars to tunnel their way to compliance. The county inspector, he said, measured each hole.
"It took a good couple of days to whack out all these holes," Shuster said. "It was a big effort."
David Mitchell of United Rentals in Annapolis said using the right tool can make difficult tasks tolerable. One-man hydraulic augurs, he said, typically outperform two-man belt-driven models.
"You can do a hundred holes in two hours and still have plenty of energy left," he said.
Tight space around his home's foundation prevented Shuster from using the better model.
Jerry Kaczmarek, operations manager at Lowe's in Clinton, acknowledged that building a deck can be intimidating to novices and suggested breaking the project into baby steps. Technical skills are less important than confidence and can-do spirit, he said. "To build a deck is really a comfort issue," he said. "How comfortable are you in using tools and accepting mistakes?"
The most difficult part "by far," he said, is building a long set of stairs with a mid-level landing. "I have so many people coming in for more material because they did something wrong," he said.
A deck built by a novice might suggest a poorly built deck, but Manassas homeowner Bert Kriebel doesn't think that's the case. The competent do-it-yourselfer, he said, can actually build it better. "Contractors do things for speed," he said during a lull in backyard construction. "I wouldn't say they are cutting corners, but they're doing things I wouldn't do."
Home Depot's Curtis emphasized the bragging rights that do-it-yourselfers enjoy. "The learning curve will slow down and discourage people, but when you're finished, there's the joy of knowing you built it yourself. Very few of us have real expertise, but we can still build a nice deck."
Foley, having seen his share of rookies falter, counseled preparation. "My advice is to learn all you can about building a deck first. It's not as easy as it looks."