The process, takeaways, and lessons learned from having a contractor build a deck and pergola.

We Built a Deck: Lessons Learned

Okay, we didn’t build it. That would be sheer lunacy. But we hired a contractor who had various crews work to bring our design and vision to life. It has been the hardest/longest project I could imagine, and I didn’t even lift a finger. So here is an abbreviated version of the process of having a contractor build your deck, with some major takeaways.

Lesson #1: Start by Looking Up Your Property’s Zoning

HAHAHAHAHHA. Oh, that I had known to investigate this first! This is the most important, most basic thing I can stress to people who want to build any kind of permanent structure (i.e. there’s concrete involved): before you even start getting quotes from contractors, or fall in love with a design, look up the zoning for your property and find out how much impervious coverage you can add.

Original Patio Plan - Deck Building Lessons Learned
What we started out planning to build.

We had gotten all the way to framing a foundation for a covered patio before the permit application guy slammed the breaks. He discovered we would be in violation of the max impervious cover requirement for our property’s zoning. SO THAT SUCKED. It took 7 weeks to get from writing our contractor the first big check to getting a foundation framed, and that same day we had to completely abandon the project as planned.

Fortunately, our contractor hires a pretty sharp guy to fill out the permit paperwork and he helped steer us toward a solution. Ultimately we were only allowed 158 sq ft of impervious cover, which is less than half of the 360 sq ft of patio we wanted when we started out. However! Decking does not count as impervious cover. It counts as 50% impervious cover! So we were able to build a 316 sq ft deck with a pergola that got us much closer to our original idea. Within a few days, we had designed a beautiful deck and pergola in Google Sketchup and our contractor agreed to switch directions for the same quoted price and we moved ahead.

But honestly, what a nightmare. I think our contractor works mostly out in the country where zoning isn’t an issue. If you live in a somewhat urban area, though, or have an HOA to comply with, definitely start there first.

Lesson #2: Do Not Rely On A “Designer” — Know What You Want!

Even when we were doing the first round of design for the original patio, I felt less than impressed by the designer our contractor used. He seemed to be proficient with the software they needed to create the plans that the engineer required… and that’s about it. So communicating our needs and desires was of the utmost importance because there was zero creativity coming in from his direction.

Initial Deck Design - Deck Building Lessons Learned
Deck Design Take 1: Almost but Not Quite

Gather every single piece of inspiration or reference material you can and provide your contractor and/or designer with them. You will find a much, much happier result and faster. That being said, don’t be afraid to push back either when the design doesn’t meet your expectations. Even with a Google Sketchup mockup to work from, our designer got columns and railings all wrong on the initial deck design (above). So I provided detailed, firm feedback and we eventually got things right and back on track.

But damn. Your designer may not design. Your designer may just follow instructions. So prepare yourself and have detailed design instructions to provide!

Lesson #3: Timelines — They’re Really More Like Guidelines, Anyway

I’m a planner. I am a natural scheduler and spent 3 years of my career as a project manager. So naturally, when I am spending dozens of thousands of dollars on a project, I expect a similar regard for schedule and setting expectations. This is, apparently, unreasonable.

We started out with a simple timeline goal: have the patio construction completed by Thanksgiving. Our contractor assured us on September 16 when he took our initial check that this would be no issue. When October 20 rolled around and we still hadn’t broken ground, I started to really panic. When October 26 rolled around and we had to start over, I about had a meltdown.

With the new deck designed and underway, I asked for a Christmas completion date. This seemed more than reasonable when we decided upon it on November 6 during a team visit with the designer. Unfortunately, nothing happened until December 2, when my husband took the reins because I was dealing with a family loss and could no longer give into the stress and anxiety surrounding this project. I begged for us to just walk away and cut our losses. But my husband wanted to get a timeline from the contractor and hold him to it.

Day 1 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 1 of Construction: Dig and pour beam footers
Day 1 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 2: Frame out the entire base… except way too high!

The “timeline” consisted of a series of made-up dates and order of operations that never came to fruition. Sure, the build happened faster than planned. However, the lack of time or understanding what would happen when meant that there were fits and starts of progress. I was worried about the deck height after day 1, but I didn’t have a chance to weigh in until day 2 was finished and the build was higher than expected. So we had to cut in to make steps!

Day 3 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 3: Step solution, wrong privacy wall and ceiling.
Day 4 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 4: Correct ceiling beams and privacy wall

After the wood construction wrapped up, the electrician missed four appointments in a row and we ended up staining both before and after electrical. So just expect to not have a timeline, and if you do have a schedule, take it with a grain of salt.

Lesson #4: View the Build as Step 1 of a Larger Work In Progress

I know this last lesson may seem both painful and absurd, but hear me out. I got so pent up in the idea of this deck as being THE DECK and THE PROJECT and I just wanted everything done, done, done ASAP. As a result, I made some poor, emotional choices.

Day 5 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 5: Stain in progress

For example, I thought I knew what kind of fan we needed (an outdoor fan, duh!) and picked one out online. I sent this to our contractor WEEKS before we needed it so there would be time to order it. On the day the electrician finally showed up, my contractor texted me that Home Depot didn’t have the fan. Time to pick something else! He texted me a series of blurry pictures of products in stock. I made the best decision I could and then went home to see it.

It looked all wrong and too small for the space. I had another meltdown. Actually, I got so upset I kicked a cabinet and ended up breaking the top of my foot. (True story!) A day later I had calmed down enough to realize that this is just the “starter” fan. Sure, it’s not perfect. But I didn’t realize that we actually need a wet-rated fan for the pergola and those are REALLY expensive and much harder to come by. So I have months and years to research and find the perfect fan. And when I do, we can upgrade it. And the deck will get a little bit better.

Day 8 - Building a Deck with a Contractor: Lessons Learned
Day 8: The finished product. We love it!

I spent more than I wanted to on bistro lights for the deck because I wanted to enjoy it IMMEDIATELY. I wish I had seen that as another opportunity to embellish the new deck so that I could buy some at a good deal at a later time. I’m trying to be smart about it now, as I look at deck furniture, and not splurge just because I want it “finished.” Every project is essentially a work in progress. Even after something is done, you will fall out of love with some decisions you made and want to make upgrades and edits. So don’t get so hung up and bent out of shape about non-structural decisions. You can always make it better over time.

The Moral of the Story

So it all came together eventually. Although I thought I might come away from this experience with more deck-specific lessons, every real learning had more to do with the larger process of working with a contractor and how to stay sane. I failed at that last part, but at least I’ve learned from it. I don’t see us working with a contractor again anytime soon. But, if we had to, I like to think that at least I am a bit wiser for this experience. 

Now to go enjoy the deck with a cool glass of something bubbly. 

The process, takeaways, and lessons learned from having a contractor build a deck and pergola.

3 comments

  1. “Even after something is done, you will fall out of love with some decisions you made and want to make upgrades and edits.” Truer words have never been written. Even if you get absolutely _everything_ you want, exactly _how_ you want it, in a year or two you’ll be like, “Meh, why did I do this? It would be so much better if X,Y,Z….”
    Your deck is absolutely beautiful. Get out there and enjoy it!

  2. Thank you! Definitely grateful to have gained a little perspective as part of this process. 🙂

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