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Deck, patio or porch: Which upgrade works best for your outdoor space?

GTM Architects designed this custom home with a patio that can be wide open or enclosed by retractable screens hidden in the framework. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)
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A previous version of this report misstated Gary Lofdahl's title and company. He is an architect with Wilder Design/Build, not head of business development for WilderWorks. The report has been updated.

Now that the hot days of summer are here, you may be thinking about changing your outdoor space. Before you decide to hire a contractor or DIY a new backyard, you may want to consider the pros and cons of various outdoor options.

We asked three experts to provide some advice on how to choose between a deck, patio or a porch. Luke Olson, a senior associate with GTM Architects in Bethesda, Gary Lofdahl, an architect at Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, Md., and Greg Marks, partner and director of business development at Marks-Woods Construction Services in Alexandria, Va. They all replied via email. The following was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you decide which makes the most sense for your home — a deck, patio or porch?

Olson: Budget, the location of the house on the lot and the location of existing grade, and the intended use of the space are all important considerations when looking at adding outdoor features. Decks and patios are great for grilling in the summer and using firepits in the winter (provided you aren’t putting your firepit directly on a wood deck), while covered/screened porches can be more of an extension of the living space of the house.

House style will come into play when looking at how best to tie the roof of a porch into the existing house. Most people want to go directly from the kitchen or family room out to deck or patio, which is fine if the lot is relatively flat, but sloping lots require additional thought on the best location for a deck/porch and how to provide access up/down to grade. Construction costs will also vary depending on which option you choose, so it’s a good idea to have a budget in mind.

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Lofdahl: The largest factor in determining the addition of outdoor living spaces is the height of the grade relative to the main floor of the house. If the main level is more than five feet lower, then adding a deck is the obvious choice. With the newer houses being designed to have walk-out basements instead of basement stair wells, decks have become the predominant outdoor addition. Decks are typically not in keeping with any residential style. Most architects would try to not have a deck on a custom house for that reason. Decks also add living space at the main floor level at the expense of the ground area underneath them, which is usually an unused area. Porches will have roofs and materials that help it blend in with the home’s style and massing. They typically have stone or solid wood porch floors, which look more in keeping with traditional house design. Porches inherently provide shade for the users, where shade on a deck has to come from nearby trees (which take awhile to grow), or umbrellas or awnings that also appear “foreign” to the house style and an unfortunate fix to shade issue.

Before walk-out basements, the grading around the house was typically closer to the main floor level, which allowed for patios to be built on-grade with only a few steps down from the house. These patios could be located any distance from the house to take advantage of views, shade, terrain, or deal with privacy concerns from neighbors. Landscaping can be incorporated around the patio, which makes it easier to shade and also easier to spend more time in a garden.

Marks: The home’s location and surrounding environment are key to consider. Decks provide less privacy in a city environment vs. a patio that is below fence lines or a covered or enclosed porch. Decks, however, provide a better view if you are looking for something with elevation. The other key things to consider besides privacy and view include budget and space. Also, note that a south-facing backyard is going to get more direct sun. It is better to have a covered structure to increase the longevity and decrease maintenance of your backyard structure.

Q: What’s the price difference between a deck, patio and porch?

Olson: It really depends on the design, but generally speaking a wood-framed deck or a simple at-grade patio would be least expensive, while a raised patio and a covered porch will be more expensive. You’ll also see a pretty significant range of costs depending on the material choices. A covered porch on posts with a wood deck and an asphalt shingle roof, for instance, will be significantly less expensive than the same sized porch on a stone/brick foundation with a flagstone deck and a metal roof.

Lofdahl: Decks are generally the least expensive option because they require minimal foundations, use readily available wood products, and can be built very quickly. Patios are typically more expensive than decks because they require more in-ground work, concrete slabs, stone finishes and are built by more skilled labor. Patios that are less than 30 inches above the surrounding ground, do not have to guardrails, and do not require large stairs to get to grade like decks do.

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Porches are the most expensive because they involve building a floor and roof. They involve many more steps, trades and permitting issues. A structural engineer may need to be consulted to size beams, floor framing and roof framing. A covered porch is also likely to be counted toward your allowed lot occupancy and subject to zoning setbacks from property lines. An architect can help with these issues and coordinate the project with the permitting and zoning office.

Q: What are maintenance issues with each to consider?

Olson: A wood deck will require the most regular maintenance, as you need to stain it every two to three years to keep the wood from deteriorating. Paying a bit extra for composite decking and PVC trim will help reduce the maintenance required.

Patios will depend on the substrate. Pavers on stone dust or sand will need to be periodically re-leveled. Concrete slabs should be reinforced and poured over a gravel base to prevent differential settling and cracks.

A porch will need to be repainted every few years. For all options, sloping the surfaces to properly drain water will avoid many issues.

Lofdahl: Patios require the least amount of maintenance because they do not incorporate high maintenance products like wood, paint, and roofing. Flagstone will last for many decades with very little care. Repointing joints and washing off tree sap are the most likely issues to keep an eye on.

Decks, which are made of wood, require frequent treatments to keep the harsh effects of the sun in check. Decks with newer composite decking have higher initial costs but require much less care than the older pressure treated wood.

Covered porches have the most maintenance as they are an extension of the house. They can require painting of the columns, ceiling and floor. The advantage of this is that the color scheme of the porch can change with the color scheme of the house.

Q: How long does it take to build a deck, porch or patio? If you want something for this summer, is it possible?

Olson: It depends on the complexity of the design and the local permitting requirements. In most jurisdictions, you can get a deck permit with a simple drawing of the general size and location of the deck on a site plan or building location survey to confirm it meets the applicable setbacks along with a package of prescriptive deck details provided by the jurisdiction. It might take a week to get a permit and then you just need to find a builder available to start right away or call up a few handy friends to help you build it. Smaller at-grade patios would have a similar time frame but can trigger land disturbing activity permits if they get too large. I’d recommend consulting with a local landscape contractor on permitting requirements and timelines for construction. They book up quickly in the spring and summer months, so reach out well in advance of when you plan to start.

Raised patios and covered porches will require additional time to develop a set of drawings to submit for permit review and bidding. It could take one to two months to finalize the design and get in for permit, one month for permit review and bidding, and another one to three months to build.

Lofdahl: If you want outdoor space this summer, then either a deck or a patio is the better option. Neither of these require extensive design work. Deck companies typically design and permit their decks without using an architect. Once permitted, a simple deck can be constructed within a couple weeks.

A patio requires some grading work, concrete and flagging work, so construction is usually at least a few weeks.

A porch requires more time for design, creating building plans, and permitting. A covered porch involves more trades and can take one to three months depending on the size and complexity of the construction. A covered porch is not out of the question for this summer but finding a contractor who can fit it into their schedule will be the biggest challenge.

Marks: A patio or deck takes a few weeks to build. A porch takes closer to six weeks. If you start now on any of these, you can have it done before summer is over.