Stepping Out in Style

Terraces, Stairs and Corner Piers Tie a House to Its Sloping Landscape.

As spring approaches, new decks seem to sprout in back yards like so many dandelions. With some thoughtful design and planning, a deck can be made that both adds outdoor living space and helps integrate a house with its yard.

This blending of house and landscape was one of the virtues of Renaissance design, and in the Washington area there are many fine private and public examples of Renaissance-inspired landscaping.  Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW is a wonderful combination of terraces, stairs and small, restful spaces, sensitively designed to accommodate a rather steeply sloped piece of ground. The design is so successful that all the construction appears to be natural, logical part of the site.

Decks can be designed and built using some of the same ideas to good effect on sloped lots. A series of small terraces, stairs and planters tat step down and nestle into the yard will provide plenty of space for entertaining and will anchor the house visually.

The illustration shows a two-story house, about 28 feet wide, located on a site that slopes from front to back and from side to side. At the back of the house, the finished grade is about four feet below the first-floor level and falls farther as the yard slopes away. 

This three-level deck is laid out to serve several purposes and connect with the kitchen on the right and the doors to the dining room on the left. A long section extending the width of the house and four feet wide creates a walkway along the top of the deck between the two rooms.

Also, since the yard is highest by the kitchen door, one upper platform or terrace is laid off the kitchen, overlooking the lowest terrace. Several steps down to grade at the side of this upper level allows quick access to the back yard for taking out the trash and other chores.

The number of stairs and the height of individual risers is designed to accommodate the slope and keep each terrace as close to the ground as possible. Because the yard pitches down from right to left, am immediate landing is provided on the left side of the deck to minimize each expanse of stairs. Thus each stair consists of four risers about seven inches tall, and the lowest terrace is about 41/2 feet below the first level. Piers three feet square and three feet tall, containing planting boxes or benches, are located at the corners of each terrace and stair. These elements help define each level and create a repetitive motif that ties the levels together visually. Inside the piers are 6-by-6 posts that help support the framing for the various levels. Outside, the piers are wrapped with 1-by-8 pressure-treated wood that provides a fastening surface for the necessary stair and terrace railings.

Norman Smith practices in the Washington area. For help with your design problems, send snapshots and dimensions to him in care of