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Building a Ground Level Deck: From Footing to Decking (Updated 2020)

Building a Ground Level Deck: From Footing to Decking (Updated 2020)

What are ground level decks and what differentiates them from other types of decks? A ground level deck is built low to the ground, not higher than 30 inches above grade. It is probably the easiest type of deck to build, and because of this, it can be quite versatile. You can build it in different shapes and sizes, and it can be attached to or detached from any other structure, such as a house. Additionally, there’s typically no need to build guard rails or stairs because the deck will likely be built low to the ground. If you want it to be freestanding, you likely won’t even have to worry about digging footing holes or restrictive building codes.

Of course, any type of deck comes with its own pros and cons, and this one is no different. A ground level is easy to build -- compared to other types of decks, that is. There are still a lot of things that you would need to take into account if you would like to build a ground level deck. While this deck might seem like the best option for you, it’s still important that you check out a variety of factors that might affect the construction of your new deck, as well as the deck itself.

What to Expect From a Ground Level Deck

One of the first things you need to find out when building a new ground level deck -- or any type of deck, for that matter -- is whether or not it would fit in the space you currently have. This doesn’t just mean space on the horizontal plane; there should also be enough vertical clearance for a new ground level deck, especially if it’s meant to be attached to an existing structure.

If, for example, you want to have sliding doors that open up to the deck, you need to make sure that the doors themselves aren’t too low to the ground. If they are, you might have to excavate in order to make enough space for your deck framing. These are just some of the things you need to consider when designing your deck.

In this case, you might have to look into using a type of pressure-treated wood with enough preservatives that can prevent rot from setting in. It’s also important to note that allowing hardware to be buried in the soil is a bad idea, since the conditions in the soil can corrode the metal.

You also need to make sure that there is enough space under the deck for sufficient ventilation. Good ventilation allows the wood to move and breathe more easily and evenly, which prevents warping and buckling. Additionally, because the environment underneath a deck is dark and damp, it can allow rot to set in unless it’s properly ventilated.

In a nutshell, building any kind of deck is a significant endeavor that takes quite some time, money, and manpower. However, building a deck can be a rewarding endeavor that will allow you to comfortably enjoy the outdoors.

Tools and Materials for Ground Level Decks

Decks epitomize outdoor living, and even something as easy to build as a ground level deck can really define an outdoor space. The work that goes into building a deck is definitely worth it, especially if you’ll use your deck often for various recreational activities.

As with any other project, using the best tools and materials is definitely recommended. After all, even the best workmanship won’t be able to overcome the effects of shoddy materials. It’s also important to remember that not all ground level decks are the same. Some might need footings, others might not. Some might need ledgers, some might not. The tools and materials you’ll need will likely depend on factors like these.

Below is a rundown of the tools and materials that you can expect will be necessary in building a ground level deck. This is just to give you an idea of what you’ll probably need to use, but you can also expect to use or need fewer or more than the items listed below.

Personal Protective Equipment

Protective Equipment

  • Safety goggles
  • Ear plugs, best used when using power tools
  • Dust mask, should be designed for users handling timber
  • Protective gloves
  • Rigger gloves
  • Decorator gloves

measuring wheel

Site Preparation

Portable Mixers

Making Concrete Pads

  • Quick-drying concrete
  • Cement mixer
  • Brick trowel
  • Damp-proof course (DPC)

Installing the Ledger Board

  • Nails
  • Carriage bolts
  • Flashing

Angle Finders

Installing Beams and Joists

  • Post caps
  • Beam brackets
  • Joist hangers
  • Palm nailer
  • Hurricane ties
  • Decking joists
  • Coach screws
  • Coach bolts
  • Socket set
  • Combi drill
  • Combination square or angle finder
  • Weed barrier fabric

Cutting and Prepping Wooden Decking Boards

  • Pencil
  • Panel saw for small projects
  • Miter saw for bigger projects
  • Circular saw for cutting large amounts of thick timber
  • Jigsaw
  • Workbench
  • Sander
  • Decking and grain protector
  • Paintbrush

Screws

Laying Wooden Decking Boards

  • Wooden decking boards
  • Decking screws
  • Twist drill bits
  • Flat wood drill bits

Laying Composite Decking Boards

  • Composite decking boards
  • Screws for composite decking boards
  • High-speed steel (HSS) drill bits

Ground Level Deck Designs

Other than aesthetics, there are quite a lot of things you need to consider when designing a ground level deck. Some of the most important things are the size and shape of your available space, the placement or the deck, the climate in your area, and any obstacles that you need to take into account.

Of course, your budget is also an important thing to take into account when designing a deck. Like any other home improvement project, ground level decks will definitely cost a significant amount of money. Building one yourself will likely cut costs, but will still need a good budget if you want a sturdy deck that will last for a long time. 

Attached vs Freestanding Decks

Luckily, ground level decks tend to be simple and relatively uncomplicated. Typically, they’re square or rectangular in shape. If your deck won’t rise more than a foot above grade, it’s likely that you won’t need cantilever beams. Additionally, if you’re building a detached freestanding ground level deck, your design won’t need to account for a deck ledger and you won’t need to worry about footings. If you’re designing an attached deck, however, you’ll need to include a ledger and footings in the design.

Additional Deck Features

You can definitely get away with a simple but well-built ground level deck with no frills. It will still be perfectly serviceable. However, if you have the time and budget, you can also add things like railings, planters, a roof, or lights.

If there are obstacles like trees or large rocks in the area where you want to build your deck, you have two choices: have the obstacles removed, or build around them. Having trees and rocks removed will cost you, but it might be worth the expense if you’d rather not have to build around them.

Decking Materials

You have a lot of choices of decking materials, and each one has its own pros and cons. Typically, deck boards are lumber, but you also have other options like wood alternatives or metal. Before you make your choice, you’ll have to consider factors like insect resistance, appearance, durability, cost, and workability. Here are some decking material options that you might want to look into so you can make an informed choice:

Redwood

Redwood is a stable type of wood, which means it can resist warping and look good for longer. However, it can be quite high maintenance, since you’ll need to reapply sealant after some time. It’s also quite expensive, especially if you’re not on the West Coast. Another thing you have to consider is that the best redwood lumber comes from old-growth trees, which are quickly dwindling.

Cedar

Cedar is both rot- and insect-resistant, and has been used as lumber for a very long time. However, it’s also considered to be a softwood, and might be too soft to be used as decking. It’s better to use cedar for railings, planters, and the like. 

It’s also important to note that cedar wood from old-growth trees is also considered to be the best. However, old-growth cedar trees, much like old-growth redwood, are also in decline.

Mahogany

Mahogany is very nice to look at, but it’s also extremely expensive. If you want to build a decent-sized deck using mahogany decking, the costs will likely shoot up. You also run the risk of inadvertently buying illegally logged mahogany.

Ipe

Ipe, a hardwood, has been around for decades and was used to build the boardwalks at Coney Island, NY. However, the sustainability and legality of ipe wood is also suspect. It’s possible that the ipe available in the US was logged illegally in South American old-growth forests.

While ipe has been used for decking for a while now, and is also insect-resistant and relatively cheap, it can be difficult to work with. If you use ipe, you might have to pay more for labor.

Pressure-Treated Lumber

Pressure-treated lumber is cheap, resistant to both rot and insects, and is also widely available across the US. It usually works quite well as deck framing, and you won’t have to worry about replacing the framing for a long time if you use pressure-treated wood.

However, make sure that you avoid the lesser-grade pressure-treated wood, since it will likely warp and shrink. You’ll pay more for good pressure-treated lumber, but it will be well worth the cost.

Composite Decking

Composite decking is actually made of wood waste and recycled plastic. It’s also low-maintenance and weather-resistant, and it can come in different colors. However, it’s also prone to mildew and you might need to acquire special kinds of fasteners to secure it. 

Synthetic Lumber

Synthetic lumber is made of materials like PVC, vinyl, and polystyrene. It doesn’t need to be stained or sealed, and it can come in various designs. However, like composite decking, its installation will require specialized tools. It’s also important to remember that synthetic lumber should not be used to build your deck’s framing or support.

Building a Ground Level Deck

The best thing about a ground level deck is that it’s relatively simple to build, as long as you prepare properly and take everything under consideration. If you’re building a deck attached to a house, you’ll need to dig footing holes, which are typically required by building codes. These footing holes will prevent frost heave, which involves the expansion of water-saturated soils due to freezing. Make sure that the holes are deep enough to keep your deck stable and protected from frost heave.

Soil Probes

However, building a freestanding ground level deck is much simpler because you won’t have to worry about frost heave and digging footing holes. You can buy precast concrete deck pier blocks, which can just be set on the ground. You will then be able to set beams and joists on the blocks, which will then complete your substructure.

Here you’ll find a short guide to building an attached ground level deck. This means that this guide will include the installation of a ledger, which is essentially the part that secures the deck to the house. This is a basic deck and will not include railings or stairs.

1. Take Measurements

Precise measurements are vital in any construction project. Take measurements of the site you want to build on using a tape measure or a measuring wheel. These measurements will help you determine costs, how much lumber or material you need, and how high you’ll position your deck elevation. You can use twine, chalk, or marking paint to mark the shape your deck will take and the space it will occupy.

Marking Paint

Don’t forget to figure out where your ledger board will go, and how high it will be. 

2. Prep Your Site

Make sure that your building site is ready for action. If you’re going to be excavating to make sure that the deck elevation is just right, make sure that you’ve made the surface even and clean.

Cleaning the site of debris, plants, weeds, and more is vital whether you’re excavating or you’re building right on the surface of the ground. You might need some heavy machinery for the excavating and cleaning. After cleaning, use a spirit level or a rotating laser level to check if the site’s surface still has some unevenness.

Rotary Laser Level

You can build on bare ground, but you can also choose to build on concrete pads for better stability. If you’re planning on using concrete pads, dig square holes where the pads are supposed to be. Pour in quick-drying concrete and use a spirit level to make sure that the pads are all level with even surfaces. Once they’ve dried and hardened, you can cover the pads with weed-control fabric and gravel if you wish.

3. Install the Ledger Board

Once you’ve figured out how high your ledger board will be, you can begin to attach it to the house. First you’ll need to remove the wall siding on the area where you’ll be installing your ledger board. To make things easier, you can use nails as temporary fasteners to secure the ledger board in the exact spot where you want it.

Once it’s secure, drill bolt holes into the ledger board, right through to the house itself. Use carriage bolts to attach the ledger board securely to the house. Make sure this is done properly, because the ledger will serve as the deck’s anchor.

Moisture can cause problems in this other kinds of construction projects. This is what flashing is for -- it waterproofs your ledger board and protects it from the elements.

Check and double-check that your ledger board is level. Since the ledger board serves as the entire deck’s anchor, if it’s not level, it can cause problems for the rest of the building process and your deck will likely end up lopsided.

4. Dig Footing Holes

Typically, footing holes need to be below the frost line. However, it’s good practice to dig footing holes about 6 inches deeper than they need to be. You can dig out these holes manually with a shovel, but this might not be the best course of action. It can be tiring and it might be difficult to dig down to the required depth.

As an alternative, you can ask your contractor to use a hydraulic auger, or you can rent one yourself if you know how to use it. With an auger, you won’t have to worry about having to dig into hard or frozen ground. 

It’s important to remember that the footing holes need to be level. If not, they can throw off the entire structure.

5. Cut Your Lumber

You can order precut lumber in the measurements you want, but you can also cut your lumber onsite. To make things easier and quicker, you can use a miter saw and set up a lumber cutting station. This will allow you to easily cut wood using the same measurements.

6. Install the Beams

Take your post caps and place them on top of your deck footings. Make sure they’re all in a straight line; to do this, use a length of twine and stretch it over the footings. This will help guide the positioning of your post caps.

This is a good time to check again if things are level. Temporarily place a beam in the post caps, parallel to the ledger board. Then, take a joist and place one end above and perpendicular to the beam. The other end should be placed right against and perpendicular to the ledger board. Place your spirit level on top of the joist, and see if it’s level.

If everything is level, you can lay down the weed barrier fabric over the footings. Cut out holes in the fabric to accommodate the post caps. You can then place the beams end to end, and each seam should be positioned in a post cap. You can further secure the connection better beams by using beam brackets. 

An optional step would be to cover the beams with metal sheeting. This will greatly reduce the beams’ contact with the ground, thus protecting them from dirt, decay, and damage. Even if the wood you’re using is pressure-treated, metal sheeting will provide extra protection.

7. Install the Joists

The joists need to be perfectly perpendicular to the ledger board. You can use a combination square or an angle finder to make sure.

Secure the joists against the ledger board by using joist hangers. Install all the joist hangers into their correct spots with the use of a palm nailer. A palm nailer isn’t terribly vital, but it can make this part of the process easier and quicker. Once the joist hangers are in place, you can simply slip the joists into them. Don’t nail the joists into their hangers just yet.

You can now go to the other end of the joists, which should be laid over the beams. Use your palm nailer to install the hurricane ties on the beams, at the same places as the joist hangers on the ledger board. This way, the joists will be laid straight and perpendicular to both the ledger board and the beams. Lay a joist into each hurricane tie.

Return to the joist hangers and securely nail each joist into them. After this, go back to the hurricane ties and secure that end of the joists with nails as well.

At this point, you’ll be able to install the rim joists. These should be perpendicular to the joists, right on the same plane. They should also be fastened to the ends of each joist, parallel to the ledger board. Make sure to check if the rim joists are level.

8. Place the Frame

You’re almost through! The next thing you’re going to do is to place the frame over the ground or the concrete pad. Use a framing square to position the frame accurately and check the corners to make sure they’re positioned at 90-degree angles.

9. Lay Down the Decking Boards

Place each of the wooden (or composite) decking boards against one side of the frame to flush it against the outer part of the end joist. Then, drill holes into the that board you’re working with and into the standard joist and end joist. Use decking screws to secure the board into every joist.

Attach the next decking board to the next standard joist using two screws. Repeat the same process for the rest of the remaining decking boards. Don’t forget to evenly space the boards apart to allow water drainage.

Finally, apply a protective coating to your wooden decking boards. That way, you can protect your deck from cracking, splintering, or getting damaged, in general. You wouldn’t want your hard work to go to waste, now would you?

Enjoy Your DIY Deck

The most important step of all: grab a beer or any of your favorite drinks, go outside, and enjoy your new deck!

 


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