Help with deck on a slope overlooking water

teebooOctober 23, 2012

This is my first post on this site, so if I should be asking on another site please make suggestions.

I have purchased a 1971 creek cottage overlooking water. I had a deck built on the front of the cottage and removed all existing shrubbery to give me a blank slate. As you can see, due to the slope of the lot, the deck looks off balanced. It is so much higher off the ground on the right side than the left. I really need some suggestions as I want the little creek cottage to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye from the water.

I have contacted 2 landscapers in the area and each has given 2 totally different perspectives. One suggested that I have a terraced box built on the higher side filled with dirt. The other has suggested that I come off 2 steps down, remove the other steps and built another deck on the right side to balance. As you can tell this is a small cottage and I do not think I need a deck that is larger than the house. Please give me some advice or sites that I can go to online that will show pictures of how to landscape a deck that is on a sloping lot.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Flipping through photos on 'Houzz' selected by the search word 'slope' shows several homes (all very grand, of course) with trees growing on the lower part of the slope and at a distance from the house, adding visual balance. (that would put the trees at the bottom right of your photo) Add some kind of "critter screening" below deck, group some low-maintenance fluffy greenery a few feet from the deck (it will fill in), nestle a couple of large boulders into the soil between the steps and the trees, place 2 adirondack chairs on the lawn to the left of the stairs in your photo,(lawn appears to be requisite), and you are picture perfect. Choose your trees carefully -- tall slender trunks and an open habit (not dense and opaque) would look nice.

Here is a link that might be useful: Houzz: slope

    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 12:10PM
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Level ground around a home provides a look of stability. Slopes, while not necessarily unattractive, can make a home appear less stable. Plantings can compensate for the slope difference to help "level out" the appearance of the yard. Place taller/larger shrubs on the downhill side and shorter shrubs on the uphill side. Trim shrub units (same species shrubs) level. Height differences between shrub units will be stepped rather than sloped. You might consider adding some decorative trim or screening at the upper portion of below-the-deck and bring the shrubbery to that level instead of screening the entire below-deck area with plantings (or screen it entirely as suggested earlier.) The picture is a general graphic explanation of the concepts. Place trees where you need shade and choose trees whose canopies can clear at least the eaves when they are mature. (That's a 12' clear trunk at the left and a 15' clear trunk at the right.) These suggestions are not implying that "that's all you can do."

    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 10:39PM
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A question for Yardvaark: How were you able to draw lines on my picture? Where lines are drawn in front of deck, are you showing a planter box being built or a berm of soil in front of deck or just simply leaving ground as is with plantings? As stated earlier, 2 different landscapers have given totally different perspectives, one being planter boxes and another adding additional deck. I personally think plantings over more deck but am not sure about a planter box. However, we do have the height problem on the right side since we do not have railings just bench seating. Thanks for all the advice that has been posted as all will be taken into consideration.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 7:04AM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

You don't need more construction. I interpret Yard's green outlines as the outlines of shrubs planted directly into the ground at the existing levels. He makes a good point about the heights of the downslope plants needing to be tall enough to 'compensate' for the slope.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 11:27AM
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Catkim interprets my photo correctly. I'm showing ground left as is and compensation for elevation change being accommodated by varying height shrub masses. How much shrub variety would be up to one's taste and experience. I'm not showing a berm or planter box.

Build more deck if you need more deck space. Don't build it if you don't need it.

Teeboo, I'm able to draw on your drawing by pasting into Microsoft Paint. First, r-click on the photo and select "copy image. Open MS Paint. Hold the control key and press the "v" key to paste the photo into the program. Use the various tools to draw & paint. They are all well explained in the Help --> Help Topics.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 12:36PM
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Thanks for all your advice...I really do not desire nor want the additional expense of more deck. With the benches around the perimeter of the deck there is plenty of seating plus we have a deck on the dock...I like the illustration of the plant guides as well as using lattice or wood spindles underneath to balance; however, I do have one more concern. The height from the bottom of the deck to the ground on the right side is almost 5 feet and code says that it should be 30 inches. If this is the case, will the plants alone take care of the code or am I going to need to berm up dirt to the 30 inch mark? We really do not want to put railing behind the bench because of impeding the view of the waterway. Thanks. Jen

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 3:53PM
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Thanks for all your advice...Can you suggest a consumer friendly software that will illustrate landscaping and preferably be able to download the picture of the house.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 3:58PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I believe you are interpreting the code inaccurately or incompletely, however, your city may have an addition or an addendum that applies.
Standard Unified Building Code states that residential guard railings at a height of 42 inches are required when bottom of deck is over 30 inches from grade . Your pickets ( in any direction ) should not allow an object of 4 inches in diameter to pass threw in any direction ( I am paraphrasing as I don't have my copy of the UBC in front of me ) Your hand railings at the steps has a min. height either 34 or 36 in and there is a diameter hand grab notation that was added a couple of years ago that it must be greater than 1 -1/4 and no more than 2 inches in diameter.

If you have a hard nose inspector he would probably ding you for the height of the guardrails, which do not look to be 42 inches in height , the lack of round hand grab at stairs and possibly the opening at the bottom of the guardrail at deck looks more than 4 inches.

All this aside, I believe you can use landscaping to aesthetically address the uneven slope by layering up various evergreen and deciduous shrubbery juxtaposed against the deck.

Personally, I feel the visual weight of the guardrail cap on the deck does a disservice to your simple architecture. From my perspective it is too heavy in width.
I would also have designed a custom or off the shelf screen/ lattice for the open area under the deck .

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 7:27PM
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My guess, too, is that you don't have the code quite understood in regards to below the deck. Imagine a 2nd story balcony deck ... how would 30" max. ground clearance and berming apply there? It couldn't. Instead, I suspect that it has to do with whether or not guard rails are needed.

I don't think there is anything homely looking about your deck. It looks well proportioned and sturdily built. By the time plantings are incorporated, it will look well done. Some custom lattice below deck could look nice. If there are code shortcomings, you can bounce them off the forum for possible solutions, if you like.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 9:59PM
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When this picture was taken, the deck had just been completed. We had planned on having a bulkhead look built under the deck if needed to support a berm of soil or lattice. Now that I do not have to berm soil, we will add the lattice underneath which will certainly add to the aesthetics. Thanks for all your advice. Even though I really don't understand all the code talk, I will print it for my husband to interpret. Just remembered something being said about needing a rail around the bench since it was more than 30" from ground. Oh and underneath the bench is a picket that matches the railing behind the grill. You cannot see it in the photo.

Do you have any suggestions for simple landscape design software? Again thanks. Jen

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 8:48AM
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Re: suggestion for landscape design software ...

Unfortunately, these programs are not a "magic bullet" for creating landscape design. The various softwares are drawing programs that help one's design appear well presented. But they don't actually "do" or "know" design ... and can't, as it has been said, create good landscape design anymore than MS Word can write a good novel for one who is without writing skills. A person would already need landscape design skills in order to create a good design using these programs. My complaint of the lower cost programs in regard to planting has always been that their representations are very cartoonish. Most of the plant "pictures" they use do not look good, or realistic. In addition, there is a learning curve that must be accomplished in order to use the program. I think it's much easier for a novice to design using pencil, paper, tracing paper and basic scale measuring tools, the use of which is intuitive, no learning curve involved. Plain circles drawn for plants will work. The one thing software allows one to do if a person can get to that point is see a 3-D representation of what they've created. It can be a help insofar as understanding relationships between elements and is especially helpful for hardscape. I have explored Realtime Landscaping and think that it makes things look good, but found aspects of it to be troublesome and frustrating to use. For example, if one wants a ramp, one could look for days, but ultimately discover that the version of the program just doesn't do ramps. Creating correct details of the house to use as a backdrop for the landscape (if needed for visualization) can also take some time to figure out and involve frustration, while the planting part is relatively simple. Their library of objects is confusing and mystifying to use. Then, you might be more apt at using these things than I.

Most of the programs that are available have demos on Youtube. Explore those. Punch looks promising as a low-end program insofar as ease-of-use is concerned. It might do what you want for not too much money. You might check the review comparison I've linked below.

Here is a link that might be useful: Landscape software reviews

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 10:15AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I misunderstood your photo, it appears that those are 'benches' that are built into the deck and not railings.
You will have to put a railing in and it will have to be 42 inchces in height with pickets no less than 4 inches apart or you will have to augment the grade .
The only way that you would be able to not put a railing in is if the grade was less than 30" from the top of the deck.
Berms and or a planter box could address that as a solution easily on the left side. On the right side it will be a bit more tricky and expensive but it can be done if you really want to avoid installing a 42 inch rail.

Most design software worth using is more complicated and expensive than most hobbiest want .
I hear Better Homes and Gardens has a home hobbiest program and that might be fine for what you are looking for. Otherwise be prepared to spend several thousand dollars and hundreds of hours in learning how to use Vectorworks or Land Cad.

Below is a photo of how we used planter boxes around a terrace that had a seating wall but did not want to install railings.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 12:33PM
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Gorgeous place certainly not my little creek cottage....What does the other side of the terrace look like? Is this the lower side or the higher side of the terrain? So now that we realize that I will need to have a berm or planter box built, and considering the cottage style, which would you recommend on the right side (lower level)....According to the landscapers, with differing opinions, the left side is actually at grade and only needs to have a little fill in. Would you do one planter box that goes to the end of the steps with a berm of soil in it and a lot of ground cover to hold in place or 2 planter boxes for a terraced look. Will the boxes make the house look as though it is tilting to the left or will the larger plants underneath double window and in front of wrought iron fence balance it out. Wrought iron fence will replace the old falling down fence beside the house on the right. Again thanks for your help, I have actually landscaped several houses in the past. One a landscaper came out and actually was extremely complementary of my selections of plants. I have never dealt with such a slope before but the view was so magical overlooking the water, I felt like I could come up with something pleasing. Now after talking to the different landscapers, I am really confused so I am turning to you for help. I realize this is a very small cottage but I really want it to become the gem pulled out of the rough and the right plants and landscaping can certainly help achieve this. It just needs to be done right. Our son is actually getting married on the grounds next May, so we really need to get started no later than the first of Nov. Again thanks,.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 2:51PM
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deviant-deziner, is 42" a California thing? Here in the VA/DC/MD area guardrails only need to be 36" high. It may be worth the OP checking with their local permit store.

I realize that ship has sailed but that is a really "heavy" deck, visually speaking.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 3:51PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I would suggest designing a wood planter box across the right side of the deck so that you can close the code compliance loophole.
Then would work on a layered planting design.
I would also suggest installing a storage door in one of the side panels for outdoor storage ( canoes, ores, or gardening/ outdoor rec. equipt )

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 4:04PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

There has been a lot of heated banter around the water cooler in the planning and building departments of late on the subject handrail and guardrail height.
The confusion comes from several sources.
One source is due to the updated code ( some areas due to the big expense have not adopted the most recent update ) and the other source of confusion comes from which code your state / local community works off of : UBC vs IBC vs UCC ... or as I like to call them FUBAR codes ( Fk'ed Up Beyond All Recognition ).
We go with the grand daddy of codes to ward off any liability and use the UBC to comply with state building codes . UBC updated their guardrail residential height to 42 inches 1.5 years ago.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 5:27PM
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Love the illustration of the planter box, trees, etc. Thanks...I still have a question, initially I sent a picture and was told did not need to berm or planter box. I am assuming that my benches were perceived as wide rails. If the rails (really benches) work so I did not have to berm or planter box then why wouldn't a bench that is 20" wide not work so I would not have to berm or build a planter box. Please do not misunderstand but I am confused as to why did not need and now need since they are benches.
Also for the ones of you that feel that you need to make a statement regarding the design of the deck, it is our creek cottage and we built it to accommodate people having a place to sit. Easier to put bodies on a deck bench than trying to put bodies in chairs. This was a request of our son that lives in the area and uses the cottage a lot for entertaining. Besides what is pleasing to the eye of one may not be pleasing to the eye of another. We built the deck as a gathering place that I felt could be landscaped. Once landscaped properly, you will not notice a lot of the visual improprieties that you see now. But in my years of experience, I think it would be considerate of others to remember the old adage, "If you can not say anything nice, then do not say anything".
Again thank you so much for your understanding and help. Jen

    Bookmark   October 26, 2012 at 6:17PM
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Marcinde, Showed my husband your illustration last night of the front of the creek cottage. He really liked it. On the right corner of the house, you are showing a tree and some low growing shrubs. I am assuming that is so you can get to storage under the deck. Should I plant the same type of shrubs on the left side of deck as the right as well as a tree of a smaller proportion on the left side? Thanks

    Bookmark   October 27, 2012 at 10:43AM
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