Radius Decks and Why Curves are Expensive

 

Image courtesy of Matt Breyer, Breyer Construction and Landscape

Deck manufacturers love to use decks with curves in them (ie, a radius) in their advertisements because they look so damn cool. A deck with a curve or multiple curves in its framing is just plain sexy. Radius decks are far from typical and they just scream out “my deck is SO much better than yours.”

Often, new clients come to me at my Bergen County, New Jersey deck building company,  and, because they are savvy deck buyers, they’ll have some preconceived ideas about what features they’d like to include in their new deck.  One of the first things I hear commonly is  “we’d like to put some curves into the deck” and they’ll pull out one of those really cool ads from a magazine and say “can you build it kind of like this?” By this point, I’m just thrilled that these nice folks have at least put a little thought into the upcoming project, but then I have to drop the bomb. You know, the kind of bomb that knocks a customer off their feet…

I’ll be the first deck contractor to tell you that radius decks are awesome. They literally become showcase decks for the client and the deck builder (and sometimes the manufacturer). The only hitch is that radius decks are much more complex to design and build than a normal, angular deck. This complexity raises the cost to the client to the point where, all of a sudden, putting that radius into the design isn’t really that important anymore for most clients. Just like how a car company always puts the fully optioned car in their ads with the big shiny 18″ wheels that cost extra, deck manufacturers do the same thing in their ads.

So why are radius decks so expensive? I mean, it’s still framing and decking and railing, right?

The short answer is sort of. When a client wants a radius deck project they’ve purchased a one way ticket into a very expensive theme park I’ve nicknamed  “Customland”.

I think this is the door that takes you to "Customland."

First off, decks designed with radii (plural of radius) require a lot more foundation work (ie, footings) and a lot more rough framing work compared to an angular deck. This equates to more labor and materials and slows down the deck’s construction considerably. I don’t care if you hire Norm Abram himself to build a radius deck, believe you me, there is going to be a lot of head scratching and figuring going during the layout and framing process. Whereas an angular deck could be framed in three days, a similar radius deck might take five or six and could require double the materials with lots of waste. In Customland, this is par for the course so be prepared.

This set of curved stair treads takes significantly longer to build than a straight set of stairs. Image courtesy of Breyer Construction and Landscape

Secondly, installing the decking and trim boards gets tricky. Really tricky. Really, really tricky. In fact, many times, it’s trial and error for even the best deck contractors. Synthetic deck and trim boards must be heated in order for it to bend (wood presents its own issues we won’t get into) to follow the curves of the framing. This is not a scientific process by any means. Even the day’s weather can wreak havoc on the best methods. The tighter the radius, the more difficult the bending gets. It’s not uncommon for a deck builder to ruin many expensive boards just to get one that is just right. In Customland you really can’t worry about throwing out $500 in product  to get one good one.

And last but not least, the railings. Without getting into the math of a radius, I can tell you that every simple curve has an equivalent numerical radius. With this number in hand, the deck builder must build, or most likely order, custom railings to match the radius. Most premium synthetic railing systems can be special ordered (“special order” is the most frequently used word in Customland by the way) directly from the manufacturer to fit the shape of the deck. These railings are much more costly than a similar straight railing, they are more difficult to install, and because the deck contractor only gets one crack at making the cuts on site, the pucker factor is 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. One “oopsy” and that $600 railing section gets chucked into to the dumpster and it’ll take another 3 weeks to get a new one. In Customland, that “oopsy” is usually built into the cost of the project.

You might be able to take the risk out of the equation for the deck builder by offering to pay time and materials on a complex project. This way, you will only pay for the actual time and materials invested into the project. Otherwise, most deck contractors, myself included, will charge a very hefty premium due to all of the risk they assume by building a radius deck. They have no idea if they’ll make the bends on the first shot or on the tenth shot, so you’ll be charged for all 1o boards and the time it takes to bend them even if they get it right on the third board.

By now, you’re probably completely discouraged about asking your contractor about a radius deck, but you shouldn’t be. You should just be aware that introducing curves into your deck project will add a significant cost. That being said, if you pony up the money to build a radius deck, it’s safe to say that you will probably have the coolest deck in your town.