Getting All Decked Out

June 16, 2015

Paul Lafrance hammers home the basics

By Jacquie De Almeida


So you’re planning on building a deck, something on which you can enjoy lazy afternoons, cook up a scrumptious dinner, and entertain friends and family in style. You’ve got lots of ideas about what you’d like, but an expert opinion on all facets of design and construction would also be welcome.

Enter Paul Lafrance. With myriad television programs like HGTV’s Decked Out, Disaster Decks, and Deck Wars under his tool belt, this ‘rock star’ designer and carpenter has seen it all, from do-it-yourself decks ending in well, disaster, to spaces he’s helped design and build you can’t help but settle into. And if that’s not enough, he’s also a celebrity judge on Canada’s Handyman Challenge.

It’s no wonder Pools, Spas & Patios checked in with this charismatic contractor for his expert advice on building a backyard deck.


PSP: For backyard decks, do you recommend people hire a contractor, or can these projects be handled by an everyday handyman?

Lafrance: I always recommend that someone build their own deck if they can. Keep in mind, though, the most important part of doing so is to not bypass the design phase. Anybody can build a square deck if they’ve got some skill and the ability to operate power tools without hurting themselves. However, there’s a big difference between building something that is going to draw you into that outdoor space and a square deck everyone else has with absolutely no appeal whatsoever.

PSP: What steps should you take before you/your contractor start to construct the deck? (e.g. checking local bylaws, permits, inspecting property, etc.)

Lafrance: Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that most homeowners skip getting a permit. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that someone has built a deck without checking their local bylaws for setbacks—either rear yard setbacks or side yard setbacks—only to discover they’ve built something that is actually illegal. They then have to apply for a variance; if they are denied, the deck must be torn down. So do your homework and make sure you don’t spend all kinds of time and money building something you end up having to put into the wood chipper.

When designing a deck, the possibilities for creating an inviting ambiance are just as numerous as with interior spaces.

PSP: What questions should you ask a contractor before hiring him/her to build your backyard deck?

Lafrance: I have a different approach to this. For years, it’s been said you want to find the guys with the most experience, and I highly disagree. Sometimes, I find contractors that have been in the game for 20 years are also the same ones that are now bored and no longer passionate about what they do. When I first started out, I had no experience. But what I had was passion, and without people giving me a chance to show them what I could do, I never could have started my business, Cutting Edge Construction and Design. The question I ask is, how much of your heart is being put into this? Are you a creative person? Are you someone that loves what you do? You can usually figure out the answer to any of those questions just by looking at the person before they open their mouth.

PSP: How important is it to have a well-thought-out deck design? What things should be considered? (e.g. shade elements, BBQ position, furniture, swimming pool, etc.)

Lafrance: When someone asks how important it is to have a well-thought-out deck design, it’s sort of like asking, “Hey Paul, how important is breathing?” It is crucial. If our homes were just great big square boxes with furniture thrown everywhere, they would have no appeal. So why should the outdoor living space be so dreadfully boring? It is so important to incorporate the same kind of interior elements in outdoor rooms, but the fun part is, you can be 10 times more creative. For instance, you can add level changes, aerial structures, lighting systems, and water features and waterfalls, things that are much more difficult to incorporate inside a house. The instances of wasted opportunity blows my mind.

The two most misplaced items in the backyard are always the barbecue and the hot tub. The barbecue is typically set up wherever the gas line is, which is a terrible idea—the gas line should come to the barbecue, not the other way around. I also find a hot tub looks better when sunk into the deck in a way that looks intentional, not like a huge monstrosity put any old place.

PSP: How involved should a homeowner be during the construction process? Is there a point at which you should ‘back off’ and let the contractor do their job, or should you stay as vigilant as possible?

Lafrance: There’s no way I could ever tell a homeowner to leave me alone. The whole point is that as a contractor, you want your client to enjoy the process and feel at peace. The biggest problem with the contractor-homeowner relationship is a lack of communication, which then causes stress and steals the fun away. I find it’s a 50/50 split between the people who let me go nuts and have a lot of fun and those that want and need to be more involved for their own enjoyment. I wouldn’t tell them to back away because it would cause more grief in the end—they should ask questions and feel comfortable with everything that’s being done.

PSP: Do you have some basic rules/advice you can share specific to deck building? (e.g. size, types of material, placement, elevation, structural footings versus deck blocks, floating deck versus connecting the deck to the frame/foundation of the house, etc.)

Lafrance: Known as steel footings, helical piles are one of the most revolutionary products to come into the market in the last number of years. They are absolutely the way of the future. I build all my decks now with helical piles. The reasons are obvious. With concrete footing, you dig a huge hole in the ground, displace a lot of dirt, clean up the area, wait for an inspector to approve it, then pour concrete, and allow it to cure. It is anywhere from 48 to 72 hours between the time you dig to the time you can start building. With a helical pile, you drill into the ground, hand a report to an inspector, and start building right away. The amount of production time saved is unbelievable, and in my experience, the structure can be stronger when installed correctly. You can also have wider spans between the joints and beams, which lessens the amount of materials required overall. I could go on forever about how awesome helical piles are. Unfortunately, people get blown away by the price, without thinking about what is being saved over the long-term.

Steel framing is another favourite and something I see will become a very common element. Pressure-treated lumber, as good as it has been for deck framing, can still move, twist, and warp over time. As steel framing becomes more widely available, people will see the advantage of avoiding these issues. Homeowners are already spending money on composite decking because they want something low maintenance. So why place an upgraded material on wood framing that over time is going to deteriorate? At the end of the day, any product that decreases maintenance for people is going to be popular.

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If you’re going to build a new deck, create a comfortable and appealing space that will draw you outdoors.

PSP: What, if any, special considerations should you make if your deck is to be built near or to surround your swimming pool? What about if you plan to place your hot tub on the deck?

Lafrance: If you get a lot of sun in the backyard, be aware that darker colours on the deck absorb more heat than lighter colours. You want to be careful of this around a pool or hot tub area, since dark-coloured decking combined with sun exposure and bare feet equals ‘owie.’ So definitely use a lighter tone. At the very least, you may want it on the level of your spa or pool simply to protect bare feet from a hot surface.

PSP: What are some tips for easy ways to enhance decking patterns?

Lafrance: Decking patterns are absolutely crucial to creating visual appeal. It is one of the most undervalued esthetics. If you’re unsure exactly what you’re going to do, but you know you want to include something creative on the deck floor, make sure you overdo it on the deck frame blocking. In other words, block around the edge for bordering and in the centre for some sort of decorative inlay, whether it’s a piece of stone or centre pattern using decking material. If you forget to do the blocking first, you’re going to be stuck with the same old boring deck pattern as your neighbour.

PSP: If you already have a backyard deck, what are some telltale signs that your deck is in need of repair or an overhaul? (e.g. rot/mould, shifting, bad design, etc.)

Lafrance: There are a few things to look out for. First, if you step out onto the deck and it sounds like you’re walking through a haunted mansion because of the creaking and groaning, then it’s time to take a closer look. A rough handrail that leaves your hand covered in splinters is another sign the deck needs work. And finally—and this is a big one—if the actual surface of your deck looks more like ocean waves, you know the frame beneath the surface is no longer sound. Put it out to pasture ASAP for something that will be a lot more useful and a lot less dangerous.

For more information on Paul Lafrance, visit[5] and[6].

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