Topic: Patios and Decks

Date Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2015
Posted by: Tanya Zanfa (Master Admin)

Weigh costs, needs and aesthetics when building a patio or deck

Weigh costs, needs and aesthetics when building a patio or deck

By Nancy A. HerrickSpecial to the Journal Sentinel


The graduation cookout for your nephew provided a great excuse to christen his family's new deck. The Fourth of July party down the street? That patio was the best part of it. And let's not forget the neighbors' new outdoor kitchen, as well-appointed as the one indoors.

If all you seem to notice about summer gatherings are the outdoor settings, you might have a case of OLE: Outdoor Living Envy. Before this particular green monster consumes you, it might be time to make your own outdoor space more inviting — and there's still time to do it this summer.

The cost of adding or improving your yard's living area varies, but it's generally an investment that pays off.

Remodeling Magazine's annual Cost vs. Value Report indicates you will get back almost 75% of what you pay for a deck in the first year after installation. House Logic, the National Association of Realtors' website, lists a patio as one of the most financially savvy home improvements homeowners can make, with a return of as much as 60% of the initial cost.

But William Wandsnider, owner of Wandsnider Landscape Architects in Menomonee Falls, says it's not as much whether you choose a deck vs. patio, but the nature of the design that helps add value.

"You want to create something that is practical, pleasing and that takes into account the setting as well as the architectural character of your house," he says. "The aesthetics make a big difference."


An outdoor project is a way to increase your living space without the ordeal of adding onto or remodeling your house. Plus it allows you to spend more time outdoors.

"So many clients tell me they just want to relax and be outside as much as possible," says Lynn Goldstein, owner of Creative Landscape Designs based in Bay View. "And there are so many ways to make an outdoor space very livable."

Decks and patios are the most popular choices, and each can incorporate a variety of features, including gazebos, covered pergolas, fire pits, hot tubs, water features or kitchen areas with multiple-burner grills, sinks and refrigerators.

Because there are so many options, the planning can take almost as long as the construction. Even if you decide to do some of the work yourself, it's a good idea to consult an expert to present the possibilities and draw up the plans before getting started, or carefully study the books and specialty magazines that are devoted to such projects.

Even though summer is half over, construction on outdoor living spaces can last until the ground freezes.

"We can work through the middle of December," says Wandsnider. "We've had a busy year, so the only restriction would be whether there's room on the schedule."

If you plan to improve your outdoor living space this year or in the future, here are some factors to consider:


Which is best? Sometimes the setting determines that for you.

"A deck may be the only choice because of an uneven or sloping surface," says Andrew Wormer, editor of Professional Deck Builder Magazine. "Or if the outdoor living space must be elevated, a deck is the answer. You want the living space to be immediately off the entrance to the home, not a long flight of stairs away."

Wandsnider says 2 feet or so should be the maximum distance from the entrance to what is sometimes referred to as the outdoor floor.

"You don't want more than a few steps to get there," he says.

Some people are choosing multiple levels and incorporating both a deck and patio into their plan. If the area is flat and easily accessible right outside a back entrance or sliding door, a patio is probably the way to begin, experts say.

"I think the building materials that can be used to create a patio, whether stone or stamped concrete or brick pavers, really elevate the elegance of outdoor spaces," Wandsnider says, adding that his company designs and builds far more patios than decks.


Can you build a deck for a few thousand dollars? Yes. Can you create a patio for the same price? Yes. But you also could spend well over $20,000 on either one. That's because size, building materials and amenities vary widely.

"The days of a 12-by-16 rectangle tacked on a house are over," Wormer says. "There are so many more options."

Patios generally cost less to build (an average of $12 to $20 per square foot) than decks ($20 to $30 per square foot), in part because a deck's structural foundation is so important, even though it can't be seen. That foundation costs the same no matter what decking material is used on top. But there are costs involved in laying the groundwork for a patio, too, which determines its slope, drainage and whether it will be level.

If you plan to build a deck or patio yourself, you'll save on labor, of course. But be sure to research how to do it right, because the proper foundation, materials and building techniques will determine its appearance, durability and life span.


There is a wide range of materials at all prices for both decks and patios, with many new choices.

The least-expensive deck material, and most popular, is pressure-treated lumber, used as the primary material in more than half of all decks built today. Pressure treated Southern yellow pine usually is the lumber of choice in our area because it's fast-growing and readily available.

Midrange materials for decking include quality softwoods such as redwood and cedar. They aren't as chemical-laden as pressure treated woods, and they're naturally resistant to rot and insects. Premium tropical woods such as ipe or tigerwood, which are harder, tightly grained and darker in color, are a step up. The price of these wood options is roughly comparable to moderately priced composite decking materials, which are made of wood and resin.

The most expensive materials for decks are plastic-capped composites and cellular PVC, which is entirely synthetic. They look a bit more natural than the less-expensive man-made options and are available in matching balusters, railings and spindles.

There's even a wider range of materials for patios.

"There seems to be something new every year in patio materials," Goldstein says. "New colors, new shapes and sizes. We do concrete and natural stone, and there are pavers that replicate almost any look. The advantage of pavers is that they're a uniform thickness, so it's less labor intensive to get a level patio."

There is a wide spectrum of costs, starting with compacted gravel or concrete. For a step up, you could have the concrete integrated with stone or brick edging or masonry detailing. Next, cost-wise, would probably be pavers, which come in an ever-growing array of colors and shapes. Some are interlocking, which makes them easier to install and maintain.

Tile, with its many shapes and colors, also is an option. In fact, there are so many choices that an entire story could be written on this topic alone. As you study the possibilities, just make sure you choose an outdoor tile that holds up in our climate. It can be installed over an existing concrete patio to dress it up or it can be the original material used.

At the high end of the price range is natural stone such as limestone, slate and sandstone, which is beautiful and natural, but pricey. It also can be uneven, which is why it's best installed by a professional.

"Bluestone remains one of my favorite choices," Wandsnider says. "It works in every setting, always looks fabulous and adds an elegant touch."

With many of the patio materials, you have the choice of adding grout between the joints.

"We used to primarily use sand or a loose aggregate," Wandsnider says, "but now we most often use polymer sand that binds with the material."

It doesn't have to be replaced and does a good job of preventing grass and weeds from growing between the stones or pavers.

"It's a huge improvement," he says.


Wood decks should be washed annually and restained almost as often. Even so, the wood is susceptible to warping, splitting, cracking or fading. Composite decks can sag, fade and show signs of age. Nor are they resistant to mold and mildew, especially in shady areas. And on hot, sunny days, composite and plastic decks tend to get too hot to walk on with bare feet.

Generally, however, man-made deck materials tend to require less maintenance than wood.

"They cost more up front, but cost less in maintenance," Wormer says, "so over the long haul it evens out."

Goldstein says that the maintenance issue is one reason most of her clients prefer patios, whether they're made of concrete, pavers or stone.

"It depends on the size of the area and the complexity of the design, of course," Goldstein says, "but patios tend to be less costly overall than decks."

Patios aren't maintenance-free, however.

In our climate, concrete patios can crack and heave as the result of repeated freezing and thawing, just like any other poured concrete, so it might have to be patched. Pavers, too, can crack, and individual pieces might need to be replaced.

If the ground shifts, what once was a smooth surface can become irregular, regardless of what patio material is used. People can trip on uneven edges, and it can be particularly annoying to try to shovel the uneven surface after a snowfall. In addition, drainage issues can develop over time.

"Fifteen years is a ballpark lifespan for decks, even when well-maintained," says Wormer.

As for patios, with proper maintenance many last much longer than that.

"With a masonry choice, 20 years from now it will still look good and you won't have to rip it out," Wandsnider says.

The decisions are practical and personal, with pros and cons to both.

"To me, it's about how the entire space works together with your house, your plantings and the overall setting," he says.

"When it all comes together, you have a beautiful environment that perfectly matches how you live."


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