An Elevated State

Updating the deck is never a bad idea.


Ramona d'Viola/Courtesy of Blue Dog Construction & Renovation

When your house is built into a 45-degree slope, the only yard you can hope for is a deck.

The East Bay hills are home to some of California’s finest architecture and equally astounding feats of engineering. However, building, or replacing, a deck in these precipitous locations presents a unique set of challenges for Bay Area building professionals.

“Many of our projects are 10 to 30 feet up, on downslopes from 30 to 55 degrees, so preparations are extensive, and safety is a major concern,” said Rudi Schafer, president and CEO of San Leandro’s Schafer Construction.

Stacked, or “double-decker” decks are increasingly in demand throughout the region, especially for homes with near-vertical footprints. Moreover, high quality wooden decks consistently provide the best return on investment over other home improvement projects like bathroom or kitchen upgrades. Adding or replacing an aging deck maximizes a homeowner’s investment while extending a home’s living space.

“Our philosophy is an elevated deck is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ investment,” said Schafer. “By lifetime, we mean, with proper care, a deck should last anywhere from 30 to 50 years, depending on materials and the environment.

“We use the highest grades of lumber for an elevated deck project, ensuring quality construction and environmental longevity,” added Schafer. “And, although pressure-treated lumber is less expensive, the chemicals used to treat the wood can wreak havoc on a decks’ metal fasteners.”

Natural redwood and cedar are still the top choices for decking, along with tropical woods like ipe (pronounced ee-pay) and tigerwood, all of which are resistant to warping, cracking, and pest damage.

For the traditionalist, wood lends itself to the majority of early 20th-century homes built in the Bay Area. However, the profusion of composite and recycled decking products is giving wood a run for its money. Just like lumber, composites offer a variety of grades to choose from; however, the higher-grade products truly mimic wood and come in a variety of textures and colors.

Made from a combination of wood, plastic, or completely recycled materials, composite decking is not necessarily less expensive than wood. The added cost is recouped in durability and easy care.

According to Schafer, a wooden deck will need to be stained and refinished about every two years, depending on the environment; railings, every five to seven years, again depending on exposure. A composite deck can be cleaned with soap and water whenever needed.

“Homes in the hills are subject to a lot of moisture,” said Schafer. “Natural wood decks require significant upkeep in these environments since they stay wet a lot of time. Rot and mold can significantly degrade a wooden deck if left unchecked. Composites that also contain wood as an ingredient, can contract mold, so they’re not entirely maintenance free.”

For the modernist, or owner of a contemporary home, metal decks with cabled railings are becoming increasingly popular. Along with metals’ weather- and fire- resistance properties, metal decks offer an affordable and low-maintenance choice, with a strength-to-weight ratio that make it an efficient material. However, metal decking is not without its caveats. They can be slippery when wet and hot in direct sunlight and are best suited to shaded or covered locations.

Once you’ve selected your materials, building the actual deck—whether a single or double—requires extensive preparations, especially in hilly environments.

“Safety is a huge concern, both for our workers and the homeowners,” said Schafer. “We start an elevated deck project by erecting scaffolding, which typically takes three to five days. This is the platform that supports the workers, their tools and materials, and allows them to move freely—and safely—while building the structure. Occasionally, we’ll also use a crane or other heavy equipment to move metal beams and large timbers.”

As one might imagine, the cost of adding an elevated deck to your home can reach nosebleed heights as well.

“A high-rise deck in Montclair can cost anywhere  from $60K to $150K,” added Schafer. “Scaffolding can add $10 to $30K to the price of a deck.

“Some people are stunned at the construction costs of these structures, and others are more realistic. However, the added value and tangible benefits of extending a home’s livable outdoor space with a deck gives a property great curb appeal when you’re ready to sell.”


This report appears in the May edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on May 16, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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