Building a Deck or Addition to Your Home

Add value and summer fun to your home!
Summer is just around the corner!  When the sun breaks through the fog in San Francisco, we all want to spend as much time as possible outdoors.  What better way to do so than with a deck party or barbeque?

In addition to adding utility, both decks and home additions can make the interior of a home feel and look more expansive.  Details such as windows and French doors will open a house to additional light sources and gardens, improving not only your quality of life, but also the selling price of your home.  This month we’ve brought in Greg Upwall of UPWALL, a respected San Francisco architectural firm, to give us tips on building a deck or addition to your home.
First things first:  Permits

San Francisco’s planning code is designed to preserve open space and to prevent the city from becoming overly dense.  The San Francisco Planning Department is the arm of the city government that ensures compliance with this goal by issuing planning and building permits.  To that end, the city requires nearly every expansion, addition, or deck within San Francisco to have a planning permit (possible exceptions might include small structures such as a low deck within three feet of the ground).

One example of the type of restriction the planning department considers when issuing permits are “set-back requirements,” which dictate the minimum depth, or required distance, from the rear-yard property line.  In San Francisco there are only rear and front yard set-back requirements (none for side yards), and vary from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on zoning.

To find out your zoning setback requirement, you can visit the San Francisco Planning Department, however, the process of researching restrictions and applying for a permit can be quite complicated and exceptions abound. For that reason, most homeowners use architects experienced in this area.

Once your architect has applied for a permit, the planning department issues what’s called a “neighborhood notification.”  This gives your neighbors 30 days to comment on your plans.  If they dislike your plans, they can request a discretionary review from the city.  Typically, the planning department encourages neighbors to work with each other directly to attempt to resolve issues, rather than elevating them to the department.  If negotiations are not successful, issues can be sent to a zoning administrator.
The Costs

Building an addition or deck to your home is not cheap, but when built with skill and the proper permits, it can add tremendous value to your home.

As mentioned previously, you’ll definitely want to hire an architect for your addition or deck.  Don’t be tempted to cut costs in this area.  Disaster stories are common when homeowners try to cut costs by hiring an inexpensive contractor or laborer. Greg Upwall recalls a client who had previously retained an unlicensed contractor to build his deck, only to have his project shut down by the city because of a lack of permits.  “The planning department forced the homeowner not only to tear down his new deck, but to rebuild the stairs that had existed before,” says Greg. “Meanwhile, the contractor had left down never to be heard from again.”

Most architects will provide a complimentary first consultation, and then charge a flat fee, typically 5 – 10% of the cost of the construction.  This fee typically includes:

  • Field measuring of the existing house
  • As-built drawings
  • Planning and building code research
  • Review of the owner’s program
  • Development of schematic design options
  • Design development (of selected scheme)
  • Construction and permit drawings
  • Coordination of work with engineers and other consultants
  • Responses to comments of the planning and building officials.

The average cost for a deck project depends largely on the height.  The taller the deck, the more expensive it will be because of structural requirements.  The majority of costs associated with installing a deck will typically not lie in the actual decking and railings, but rather with the foundations, supports, and firewalls.  Costs can vary widely from a simple deck for $15,000 to a more complex one with screens, heaters, and shading devices for $100,000 or more.
The Process

  • Your architect will meet with you in your home to discuss your wish list for the new addition or deck, as well as to talk about various options.
  • He or she will document the existing building to generate “as-built” drawings”.  If you have the original blueprints for the house, you should provide them at that time.
  • You’ll then receive your schematic designs.  The architect should provide designs with several options.  For instance, you may receive designs showing your addition situated to the side and also to the back of house.
  • Once you arrive at a design you like, the architect will suggest a structural engineer, if necessary.
  • The design begins to take form in the drawings.  You’ll be able to see the elevation, floor plans, appearance of the walls, and the like.
  • When drawings are finalized, the architect will prepare them for permit submittal.
  • The planning department may have comments or requested changes, which will typically be handled by the architect.  For example, if the addition or deck is along the property line, the planning department may require you to install firewalls separating the deck from your neighbors.

Materials and Costs

If your home addition is a deck, you’ll want to use rot-resistant wood or composite materials.  Redwood is the most commonly approved wood, although many people now prefer higher-end materials such as Iron Wood (also called Ipe).  In either case, be sure you use environmentally-friendly wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Another sustainable product is referred to as composite decking.  Typically, these boards are produced from a mixture of sawdust and recycled plastics.  Many companies produce this type of product, and have recently improved the materials to be very natural looking. They do not require stains or treatments and also give you the peace of mind knowing that no trees were harvested in the process.
Finishes and Stains

For finishes on wood decks, Greg recommends using natural, penetrating, oil-based finishes such as linseed oil and tung oil.

UPWALL was founded in 2004 by Greg Upwall, who brings over 15 years of experience with various architectural firms.  Greg is a licensed architect in Utah and California, as well as a green building professional.

UPWALL focuses on residential architecture, and has extensive expertise in both single-family and multi-family housing. The firm also specializes in the design and implementation of residential remodels and additions within San Francisco, and the Bay Area.

For more information about UPWALL and to view a similar project as those discussed in this article, please visit:

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