Decks, Center City, Patios




When the homeowner for whom we built a pilot house and roof deck on Manton Street sent me a text about an additional deck, I was momentarily confused. Um, on top of the roof deck? I wondered. "2nd flr" he responded. Ah, silly me.

At the end of 2012 we had converted part of the roof and third floor bedroom into a pilot house, incorporating a large closet for the master suite into the design. We also built a roof deck with MoistureShield composite decking and railings. The deck and homeowner were later featured in a Philadelphia Inquirer article called Roof Deck is Liberating for Point Breeze Couple.

The homeowner wanted to add a deck off the rear 2nd floor of his 3-story row home. But we were also given two parameters– no support posts for the deck could block the cityscape view from the ground-level patio (outside corners were ok). And the underside of the deck needed to be watertight so the homeowners could sit outside and enjoy the view even during a rainstorm. Gotcha.

The basic construction of the deck was straightforward. We converted a window in the 2nd floor office / bedroom to a door and framed a 16-foot wide by 14-foot deck. We matched the MoistureShield decking and posts of the roof deck (luckily the line hadn’t been discontinued, always a risk in my world) as well as using the Mantis hidden fastener system to hide the screws.



To preserve the city view from the ground, we had to bridge the full 16-foot length of the deck without mid-span supports. We doubled up a 1 ¾” x 14” exterior grade laminated beam – I’ve seen too many decks eventually start to sag in the middle to take a shortcut there.



We hadn’t built a drainage system for the underside of a deck before. There are several systems available, but we wanted to keep labor and material costs at a minimum for our celebrity client, ha. So we designed a water run-off system using corrugated plastic pitched into a gutter which feeds directly into a storm water drain.

Not sure if the Inquirer will come back for the 2nd deck though…

Full Renovations, Bedrooms, Decks

When ANOTHER tree falls

A couple winters ago we had an ice storm that, in my estimation, did more damage to our immediate area than Hurricane Sandy. The power outages, downed trees and abysmal driving conditions paralyzed the region for days.





Soon after, I got a call from a neighbor of the client whose Wayne, PA house was wrecked by a tree during Sandy. He told me that a tree fell through HIS house during the ice storm.

Amazingly, again no one was hurt. But a section of his house looked like something from a disaster movie. And, standing at his front door, you can see the front door of my former client. That’s how close they are to each other.

The caller told me that, following the storm, he was standing outside trying to absorb the extent of his home’s destruction. My former client, bundled nearly to the point of unrecognizability, approached him with a folder.

“You’ll need this,” he said. “Here’s a tree guy, an insurance adjuster, a contractor, a storage facility for your belongings, an extended stay apartment…it’s all in here. Glad to share the knowledge.”

And I was glad to get the referral.

The reconstruction was streamlined by the fact that the homeowner wanted to rebuild the damaged area exactly as it was. Which made sense, as the tree fell through a (luckily unoccupied) guest room at the end of the house, so there was no need to reevaluate comprehensive systems . And the crushed windows, skylights and finishes had been of the highest quality and impeccable taste, so there was no reason to tinker.

When we were midway through the project, my new client asked me if that’s my thing – to find tree-damaged houses and rebuild them. “I never intended it to be,” I said. “It just so happens that you live two doors down from the last time this happened. I mean, seriously, what are the chances?”

Decks, Center City, Kitchens, Philadelphia

it's grilling season up here...

Most people who love the summer, I believe, don’t work outside. Especially on roofs.

Now don’t get me wrong – building roof decks, even if that’s all we did, would keep me very happy. I love them. Yet once the mercury hits 80 degrees down on the pavement, tempers topside start to flare. Productivity plummets. Also the wistful ruminations about graduate studies not pursued start to creep in (which, once we hit air conditioning, thankfully dissipate from our collective consciousness like a forgotten dream).

The lesson I’ve taken is: build ‘em in the cooler months, enjoy ‘em in the warmer.

We built this roof deck between last Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although the wind was biting at times and there was a grey pall over the city’s skyline, our concentration never faltered and the cold served as motivation to keep moving.

As usual, we framed the deck from the house’s side wall to side wall, using the masonry below as structural support rather than the roof. The spiral staircase, leading from an existing balcony outside the master bedroom, was custom-built of galvanized steel with diamond plate step treads to prevent slipping.

Federal_rail detail.jpg

We chose pressure-treated wood for the decking and railings to keep material costs more reasonable than composite, allowing the homeowner to add several“bells and whistles.” These details include built-in planters with a fixed bench, horizontal plank railings and a 6-foot privacy fence.

But the deck’s true gem is the fully functional prep kitchen and grill station. The cabinetry was custom-made by our lead carpenter, which he milled out of a felled cedar from his own property. We retrofitted a granite countertop leftover from our clients’ recent kitchen renovation and reshaped it to fit our purposes. We ran electrical outlets both for general use and to the permanent refrigerator. We also installed a working sink with hot and cold water.

OK OK I admit it – by the time we hit the last week in December, I was grateful to be wrapping up. It was starting to get a little too damned cold. It's funny, how some springtime weather and fresh flowers help you to forget.

See more here.

Center City, Philadelphia

Privacy with a view

We recently finished a stunning and elaborate roof deck in Fitler Square. This one has a rare feature - a private driveway next to the house provides passersby with a clear view of the deck. 

The deck is atop a small two-story row home. The homeowner (a successful businesswoman) wanted an "extension of the living space" so the deck would feel as comfortable and homey as a third-floor addition. 

The roof deck overlooks the Schuylkill river (aka Taney) Park's tennis courts, and we elevated it a bit for a clearer view of the Center City skyline.

We began by building a first-story landing in the rear of the house and replacing a guest bedroom window with an exterior door. From there we installed a custom galvanized steel spiral staircase to yet another landing above the 2nd floor bathroom. In anticipation of future remodeling, the homeowner requested that we not rest any framing on the bathroom to allow maximum flexibility for a bathroom reconfiguration. 

The top landing is attached to the main roof deck, accessible by a few steps. At 15x20 feet, the main deck is large enough to accommodate family and friends, yet not so large as to feel overly expansive. 

All decking is MoistureShield composite decking, as are the composite railings of the two landings. On the main deck, we did a combination of cedar-clad planters and a cedar privacy fence. The homeowner has a green thumb, so we wanted to provide as much potential for greenery as possible.

We also built a pressure-treated pergola to provide some much needed shade and capability for hanging plants. Additional "bells and whistles" are two exterior power outlets and an exterior hose bib to easily water the plants. 

Center City, Decks, Philadelphia

Roof Deck for a Weary Traveler

I had been discussing a roof deck project with a Center City homeowner for nearly a year. Scheduling was prohibitive, as his job requires travel for months at a clip. Then in early August I got his email (from somewhere in Europe): “OK Dave, I’ll be home from Labor Day to the end of September. Can you get drawings, permits, material and a finished deck on my roof by the time I leave again?” It’s never easy.

His house had an existing deck off the second floor bedroom, which we totally removed and rebuilt. Although the framing wasn’t in awful shape, we had to provide sufficient support for the (very heavy) new staircase, and the existing layout interfered with the stair reinforcement. The client liked the privacy of high railings on the lower deck, so we used a “shadow-box” approach for the new ones.

Construction of the new main deck was pretty straightforward. We used a MoistureShield composite decking and railing system with aluminum balusters.

My favorite moment of the project was when his next-door neighbor climbed up near the end of the project. I braced myself for a noise or dust complaint. Instead: “I want the exact same thing. How much to build me one, too?”

We finished, final city inspection and all, with two days to spare. The homeowner is looking forward to enjoying his new roof deck in the spring – when his travel ends for the season.

Basements, Bathrooms, Center City, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Philadelphia, Resources

Bringing a finished basement to new heights

There is some serious headroom in this basement playroom.

There is some serious headroom in this basement playroom.

This is part 2 of a previous post. Read from the beginning here. The symbolism almost made it worth it. We just began digging when our first (and hopefully only) obstacle was unearthed in the form of a century-old, eight-inch sewer main right in our path.

Luckily I hang onto aces for this kind of thing. Upon first seeing the ancient behemoth, my go-to plumber shook his head: “You’ve got a major problem here.” I listened to him explain all the reasons nothing could be done, patiently waited during a few minutes of thoughtful silence, then came the nod and “OK, I got this.” I never had a doubt.

He used a camera snake to confirm that the size of pipe heading towards the house’s rear was no longer essential and served nothing but the yard drain. He then removed the terracotta pipe from one end of the basement to the other (which we had to pulverize with a sledgehammer to lift out in buckets) and attached new 4” cast iron. The difference in the pipe size, along with a considerably slighter pitch, gave us exactly the clearance needed to reach our desired floor depth.

Back came the diggers and masons. We formed the benching and underpinning sections in alternating sequence and filled them with concrete. Then came the all-important floor pour day, which went without a hitch (though I held my breath while watching the massive concrete truck delicately inch its chute into the tiny, street-level window opening).

Since we were designing the basement details on the fly, I worked with the framers to maximize every possible space available. We used a “Chicago grid” system for the ceiling, which suspends the metal framing a few inches away from any wires or pipes and allows for finished drywall. The plumber and electrician relocated any junction boxes and shut-off valves in the ceiling, and we made sure to allow plenty of future access to the various meters, panels, boxes and valves.

The new basement space is planned as a playroom, so we weren’t looking for a lot of bells and whistles – just a simple, cozy, spacious and safe spot for the little ones to give mommy and daddy a moment’s peace.



Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Suburbs, Wayne

If a tree falls...

It’s Armageddon out there! Driving around the Philadelphia suburbs today in the midst of the ice storm, I was reminded of a little more than a year ago when Hurricane Sandy blew through the region. Although today’s damage seems to be more widespread than Hurricane Sandy’s, the latter’s force was devastating enough to fell a gargantuan tree through the roof of a colonial house in Wayne.

Imagine driving up to this after a long day at work!?!

Imagine driving up to this after a long day at work!?!

In just a few months time, we had the homeowners safely back in their house - which, I may say, enjoyed some improvements over its pre-Sandy incarnation.

In addition to the fundamentals – new insulation, drywall, chimney, HVAC system, French drain system, electric, windows and siding – we added some flourishes.

The original, rain-damaged flooring was replaced with red oak throughout, which we stained and finished in place. We installed a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom with small recessed light fixtures around the perimeter. We replaced the dated stair rail with an oak newel post and custom railing, and we fully renovated a badly damaged bathroom.

We removed a large section of bearing wall between the living and dining rooms; we then built a coffered ceiling to help camouflage the steel support beam. This main living space now gets natural daylight from three sides, and it’s large enough to be creatively arranged into separate areas.

Finally, the back deck also took a major hit from the tree. While some of the framing was salvageable, we painstakingly reinforced certain sections and replaced damaged joists. We installed composite decking and railings from TimberTech, as well as LED lights (on a daylight sensor) in the post caps. Finally came the doggie gate for their new puppy (adopted just before their Sandy-enforced relocation), and we were move-in ready.

Back to the icy present. There certainly are a lot of downed trees out there and, having seen the potential damage firsthand, I hope everyone is very careful, takes his or her time getting around and respects the power of Mother Nature - she can sure throw her muscle around.

Basements, Center City, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Philadelphia

Increasing the Ceiling Height in a Philadelphia Basement


Lowering a basement floor to increase headroom takes a tremendous amount of planning and care. Because of the complexity of the process - plans and permits, engineers, excavators, masons and city inspectors - many contractors will seek shortcuts along the way. Unless you'd like to risk your house falling down, I'd make sure it's done by the book. The process is increasingly common in Philadelphia as families grow but square footage doesn't. And it's true - there's only one way to do it - with shovels, picks, buckets and a lot of sweat. The concrete and dirt is usually passed in buckets through the small basement sliding or awning window at street level. Unfortunately there is no magic trick or innovative technology - just a bunch of guys workin' like the old days.

As we dig, there are two primary methods to stabilize the foundation on either side of the house - underpinning and bench footings.

Foundation underpinning involves excavating under the existing foundation to the desired depth and pouring a new, vertical concrete foundation to support the existing one above - basically creating a wall under the wall. Excavating must be done in alternating sections, as the load of the foundation is carefully transferred and supported as each section is completed. Underpinning is more time and labor intensive than bench footings, therefore more expensive, but it provides the finished basement with the maximum possible floorspace.

Benching or bench footings involves leaving a perimeter of soil untouched - usually about 1 foot wide per foot of depth. This method basically creates a concrete "bench" around the basement, plenty of foundation reinforcement but a significant reduction of the floor's square footage. You can get creative with this space, though, installing actual benches or cupboards or built-in shelving above.

We recently started a basement lowering and finishing project on Delancey Street. You can see from the photos that we began by replacing the dated water heater and HVAC system and relocating them to the back of the room.

We're using a combination of underpinning and bench foundations - because there are existing mechanicals such as electrical panels, gas meters, water heaters, furnaces, etc., underpinning the entire basement usually doesn't make sense. So we're underpinning the primary living space but benching the walls that have the mechanicals.

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Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Kitchens

A Bright, White Kitchen in Fairmount


When a couple from the Fairmount area of Philadelphia asked "How do you feel about an IKEA kitchen?" I felt pretty good. I've actually come around on IKEA kitchens.

Not long ago, the cabinets were flimsy, the drawers kept jumping the runners and installation was needlessly complicated. But they've come a long way.

In the past few years, I've come to respect the product and system improvements enough that we installed IKEA cabinets in our own kitchen. They're affordable, smartly designed, reasonably durable and machined so exactly that my nephew and his buddy were able to assemble mine in a couple days while on summer break from high school.

The construction of an IKEA cabinet frame (AKURUM) is particleboard with a white or beech-colored plastic laminate. Sounds flimsy, but actually similarly constructed to a more expensive KraftMaid cabinet. Only custom cabinetmakers consistently use solid plywood anymore, and you're going to pay dearly for that. Also the argument can be made that plywood can warp over time, that the wood-chip material in the IKEA cabs is more eco-friendly, etc.  - but really, the bottom line is that it's a box. Correctly installed, it's going to last as long as anything else on the market.

IKEA doesn't skimp on the doors, though. They're solid wood with a good quality veneer, and they have a variety of finishes, glass doors and lacquered-style colors. There are also companies online that will custom-make or refinish IKEA doors and panels to your style. If you're going custom, though, I'd recommend waiting until the cabinets are completely installed - the ease of purchase makes it very tempting to tinker with the layout while in process, and if you've already ordered doors based on the original plan...well, you see my point (yes I was guilty of this myself).

The glides, hinges and legs are just as good as any other manufacturer I've worked with. And the soft-closing door and drawer mechanisms are a nice touch.

The client's 1980s-era kitchen remodel in their 100-year-old Fairmount row home was relatively straightforward. We replaced the floor and backsplash with tile from our go-to team at Bell Floor Covering in Northern Liberties. The Cambria Torquay quartz was ordered through IKEA, where we also got the under-cabinet lighting. We added a peninsula with a wine/beer fridge and also installed several strategically placed 5-inch recessed lights.

We installed a Fagor induction cooktop, along with KitchenAid and Fisher & Paykel appliances.

A bright, contemporary, chef-friendly kitchen for the 21st century.

See more pictures.

Basements, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Finished Basement in Philadelphia


I got a call from a colleague, a plumber. “I did a little emergency work on this basement dig-out project for a nice family from Center City. Their contractor dug and re-poured the floor of their row-home basement, did a bit of hasty plumbing and framing, got a bunch of money up-front and then stopped returning calls. They’re understandably very upset. Would you meet with them?” I couldn’t help taking this project even more personally than usual. As a contractor, people give me significant sums of money and trust me with their homes. There is a great deal of responsibility inherent in that relationship. What an absolute bummer.

I brought my engineering consultant down to review what work had been done – digging out and reinforcing the foundation of a home is no joke. It turns out there was no underpinning in the exposed foundation, so that was our first order of business.

The planned bathroom in the basement needed an ejector pump to hoist the bathroom’s refuse to the existing sewer line. Although the contractor had started installation of the pump, there were no check valves or other needed parts in the system. I had the plumber pull the whole thing out and start over.

Once we took care of the existing plumbing and framing issues, the project went smoothly. The couple has a young daughter, so they wanted a rec room with the opportunity for office work. We built a new closet for their washer and dryer, a separate storage closet with access to the ejector pump system, a closet for their heating and AC units, and a bathroom with toilet, shower kit and sink.

We replaced both of the front windows, installed a dropped ceiling throughout, and built a custom staircase with open storage underneath. The remaining area we left open for furniture and playtime.

In the end, the client was very relieved. They finally got what exactly they wanted. I always shoot for thrilled but, after what they went through, I was happy with relieved.


Garages, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Patios

Bala Cynwyd Patio and Garage Renovation (Part 2)


As I mentioned in my first blog post on this project, this house in Bala Cynwyd had a concrete and flagstone patio, surrounded by a stone parapet wall. The flagstone surface was loosened and deteriorated, and rainwater pooled and leaked into the garage below. We first removed the existing patio and parapet walls, exposing the concrete slab. We then added to and reinforced the structural steel beams in the garage below.

We designed a steel railing and had it custom-built, and it was set in place to be embedded in the new concrete. The railing would be painted black and have horizontal cedar planks between the uprights – see future posts to see how that came out.

On the concrete, we installed a commercial poly vapor barrier and then rebar throughout. We also used wood forms for the perimeter and to provide sufficient slope for drainage.

Then came the big concrete pour day or, as I called it, “Super Bowl Thursday.”

Because the patio was on top of the garage, we used a crane to work in tandem with the concrete truck. So out came the orange cones, a Flagger Force traffic crew — and a lot of pacing on my part.

Our masonry team worked like Super Bowl champs. They seamlessly managed the crane operator and concrete truck driver, making the pour quick and efficient.

Once the colored concrete was up on the patio, they used a float to get a smooth coat. Then came the coolest part — they used textured stamping pads to get a wood-plank finish, carefully moving each pad and applying pressure until the entire 750 square foot area was uniformly patterned.

Check back next post to see the finished product …


Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Roof Deck with Pilot House in South Philadelphia


The clients for whom we recently built the tri-level roof deck in South Philadelphia were thoughtful enough to invite me to their deck warming party. I chatted with a young couple that had recently moved a few blocks away, and before long we were in their kitchen hunched over deck plans. The only access to the roof would be interior steps. Luckily the large master bedroom on the 3rd floor could sacrifice about 4 feet along one wall for the purpose. So we designed a pilothouse - the small, shed-like structure on city roofs that allows covered access to the roof.

Before opening up the roof, we relocated their bedroom door and framed the interior work, including a closet under the new staircase.

Setting the pilothouse walls on the rear corner of the roof presented a new challenge – the adjoining house was a story lower and 15 feet shallower than our clients’, so we couldn’t capably access the rear or one side of the pilothouse, even from ladders. Our solution was to pre-fabricate those two walls by framing, sheathing, siding and even flashing them before installing. And of course, as we’re set to stand the two walls up and secure them to the roof and reach other, the wind turns gusty. Typical.

Once the hole in the roof was cut and the walls were up, we moved quickly to roof the pilothouse and get it insulated and weather-tight (Hurricane Sandy was on the way that week, I should mention). We then installed pre-made oak steps to match the home’s existing stairs.

We also installed a powered ventilation fan system in the roof and at the top of the pilothouse to keep air circulating.

The homeowners were kind enough to also invite me to their own deck warming party this past New Year’s Eve. But this time, beckoned by a rare quiet evening at home with the family, I had to decline.

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Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Kitchens

Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd


A recent kitchen renovation was for a family that relocated from Fairmount to a beautiful home in Bala Cynwyd. They had just moved from the same block as both Fairmount kitchens we renovated (see Fairmount Kitchens 1 and 2), so I consider that a city block “hat trick.” The existing kitchen wasn’t in bad shape structurally – but it was surely in need of a full facelift.

One fundamental issue we did address was a hump in the existing floor – the kitchen was extended at some point, and the addition had settled more than the original structure. We removed the dipped section of the sub-floor, shimmed it to match the original, and installed new sub-floor. Hump gone.

The homeowner has a great eye for design (as you can see) and was especially involved in the lighting. We removed the dated dome lights and installed strategically placed 4” recessed lights. For under-cabinet lighting, we used a series of hardwired, non-heat producing LED lights. These are self-adhesive, paper-thin strips that provide plenty of attractive light, install easily and cost a fraction of standard under-cabinet lighting. And you can’t see them without bending down to look under the cabinets. Boom.

The new bamboo floor certainly brightened things up, as did the quartz countertops. We sought a lumberyard that carried the same dimension and profile baseboard as the rest of the house. A custom-made steel frame, topped by a matching slab of countertop, made the new kitchen table. Some new Bosch appliances, a few coats of Benjamin Moore paint, a custom glass tile backsplash… and we’re magazine-ready.

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Garages, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Patios

Bala Cynwyd Patio and Garage Renovation (Part 1)


I got a call from a homeowner in Bala Cynwyd. While doing online research, they found my blog posting about the garage reinforcement project in Manayunk. They also had a patio over their garage and were experiencing similar water, cracking and structural issues. Sure makes me grateful that we’re not limited to ads in the Yellow Pages anymore. The existing flagstone patio – though attractive – was problematic. The concrete sub-base, though reinforced with steel rods, was cracking and the garage had small stalagmites growing on the floor and ceiling. Also there was insufficient drainage, so water would pool on the patio and then seep through the cracks. Not ideal, especially if you’d like to use your garage at some point.

The homeowner wanted to make additional exterior changes to the house. A smaller flagstone patio, towards the rear, was covered by a glass enclosure that they wanted opened up. There were metal awnings along a second-story “sun room” – the awnings certainly had to go. And the homeowner was interested in replacing all the siding; we suggested using cement fiberboard for a long-lasting, attractive alternative to vinyl.

Read the second part of this post here.


Basements, Bedrooms, Decks, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Hurricane Sandy Hits Wayne (Part 2)


Read the first part of this story. Talk about a perfect storm. A project of this scope can take 4-6 months to plan – foundation and chimney repair, HVAC, windows, siding, electrical, insulation, interior finishes… the list is endless. And we had to get the work moving quickly so the homeowners could get out of the hotel. Oh, and it was smack in the middle of the winter holiday season.

Once the roof was put back together and shingled, we fired several rounds at once. Our mason tore down and rebuilt the chimney, which will actually function better and draw more air than the prior construction.

The foundation at the rear of the house sustained some cracking from the tree, so we followed a structural engineer’s report and provided additional concrete and steel reinforcement. Also in the basement we installed a new perimeter drain system, as the basement historically got water as a result of heavy rains (in the photo you can actually see the water gathering as we began to dig the perimeter drains).

We replaced the existing air conditioning unit, which was nearing its life expectancy, with a 16 seer, 4-ton, two-stage heat pump. Combined with new spray foam insulation in the roof and floor cavities, as well as a new two-zone heating system for the two levels of the house, the heating and air conditioning system will make the house exponentially more efficient.

Another opportunity was opening up the main living area on the first floor. We removed the wall dividing the living and dining rooms, relocated the existing electrical and ductwork, and installed a steel support beam to hold the floor joists above. This element alone will change the entire dynamic of the first floor, providing significantly more space and light.

We recommended installing a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom. We had the attic space, and the typical rectangular room needed a little flourish, if you will.

See the final project.


Basements, Bedrooms, Decks, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Hurricane Sandy Hits Wayne (Part 1)


It’s every homeowner’s worst nightmare. Settled in for the evening to wait out the worst of Hurricane Sandy, a couple was watching television in their Wayne family room. They had lived in the house for most of their adult life, raised three children there and planned to remain well into their golden years.

A loud crash rocked the house – and their worlds. An enormous oak tree had fallen from the backyard directly through the roof, basically crushing the master bedroom.

The damage, as you can see in the photos, was extensive. Most of the main roof needed to be rebuilt, the chimney shifted and sustained major cracking, and the rear deck was severely damaged. The debris from the roof and tree, as well as rain through the open roof, caused damage throughout most of the home’s interior.

Amazingly, the homeowners walked away without a scratch. “It’s a good thing that ‘The Voice’ wasn't a half-hour shorter,” they joked (after recovering a bit).

Of course I empathized deeply with their situation. They had to immediately load their belongings into storage and relocate to an extended stay hotel. Once we began planning together, though, we were able to muster up some optimism – beyond the obvious repairs and rebuilding, we had an opportunity to make their house more attractive, functional and efficient in the process.

As a remodeler, my dream project.

Read the second part of this story.



Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Patios, Resources

Choosing the Right Railing for Your Deck or Patio

Cable Railing

A critical decision in building a deck or patio is the railing system. One has to consider safety, durability, code compliance and aesthetics.

Railings represent a surprisingly significant portion of the overall deck cost (the below options range in material price from about $22 per linear foot to over $100). Yet they’re a great opportunity for design creativity and a chance for the homeowner to put his or her distinctive stamp on the project.

Here are some popular railing options to consider (see larger photos at bottom of post):

Cedar Railing
Cedar Railing

Cedar railings (or redwood or cypress) are a versatile and affordable option. I prefer the horizontal look, with minimal spacing between boards for privacy and to discourage tykes from climbing. They provide a warm, natural atmosphere and allow variation of the railing height for different sections and applications. A selection of grades are available — from clear vertical grain and clear all-heart (which can get pricey) to grades in which tight knots are permitted. These softwoods require minimal maintenance, although they will fade to neutral gray over time unless they are periodically sealed. By putting a piece of composite decking on top of the railing, we can provide a handrail and visually tie the cedar railing into the deck.

Metal Balusters
Metal Balusters

Metal Balusters (spindles) can be used with pressure-treated, cedar or composite posts / supports. On a large deck, especially, the composite spindle cost can add up, so the less expensive metal balusters provide a nice compromise. Using metal balusters with pressure-treated or cedar posts / supports is one of the most affordable and maintenance-free railing options, but the natural wood introduces a new material to the composite deck and can offend those with delicate design sensibilities.

Metal Railing
Metal Railing

Metal Railings (aluminum, iron or steel) also provide a wide style range, from simple to ornate. Metal railings come in sections, which allow high strength for long, unsupported spans. They need very little maintenance, and plain aluminum railings can be very affordable. As you get into iron or steel railings, though, they often require custom manufacture and can become expensive.

Composite Railing
Composite Railing

Full Composite Railing Systems are offered by most composite decking manufacturers. They provide deck uniformity, come in a variety of colors and don’t require any more maintenance than the composite deck itself (occasional cleaning). These systems are quite expensive, though, so they aren’t the default railing selection one might assume. We often use elements of composite railing systems (see Metal Balusters, above) combined with natural woods or metal to keep railing budgets from getting out of hand, especially on larger projects. See more photos of this deck.

Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railing
Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railing

Steel Skeleton / Softwood Railings are a welcome discovery I recently made while driving through South Philadelphia. I literally slammed on the brakes, took pictures, and dialed our steel manufacturer for pricing. A viable option for either a patio or deck, these railings combine a solid steel structure with short segments of softwood (usually cedar or redwood), resulting in a contemporary yet warm look. The cedar (as mentioned above) requires periodic sealing or it will eventually fade to gray — a small price to pay (in my book) for such a sharp-looking, durable railing.

Cable Railing
Cable Railing

Cable Railings, or wire rope railings, use horizontal or vertical stainless-steel cables in place of spindles or glass. They’re a terrific contemporary architectural approach and enhance the view with minimal obstruction. Frames can be built with a variety of wood, steel, extruded aluminum stainless steel metal post-and-rail components for different settings. These systems are certainly on the pricey side, though, and horizontal cables can provide climbing temptation for youngsters.

Glass-Panel Railing
Glass-Panel Railing

Glass-Panel Railings also provide a largely unobstructed view of the surroundings. They can be built with large glass panels or individual balustrades. They suggest a contemporary look, but rail frames and posts can be designed to accommodate a variety of architectural styles. Although using monolithic tempered, laminated tempered or heat-strengthened glass significantly reduces the possibility of breakage, they do require occasional cleaning to maintain optimal appearance and view. These railing systems are also among the priciest available.

There are myriad additional railing options, including vinyl, lattice, composite wood, galvanized metal sheets, etc. The above materials provide a solid base from which to start, and we are always open to exploring new and creative ideas.


Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Deck in Fairmount, Philadelphia


“I’ve had it with the dirt, David!” Happily, the Fairmount homeowner was talking about her backyard, not my own propensity for creating dust.

She was losing the struggle to keep her stylish town home immaculate, but she certainly had formidable foes — her twin 5-year-olds, who enjoyed nothing more than digging and rolling around in her overgrown backyard and then tracking through the house.

After considering several landscaping and hardscaping options for the yard, we agreed on the thoroughly dirt-free solution: deck it.

In came the pros. We removed the existing pergola, damaged fence panels and half-buried tools and toys. After digging and pouring nine footings, we were ready for framing.

Our framers barely broke a sweat putting together the deck’s structure — it actually took longer to screw down the 500-square-feet of composite decking than to build the frame itself.

We then replaced or secured any loose fence panels, keeping less than a ½” gap between the deck edge and fencing in any spot. Yet we were careful to leave a nice opening for the homeowner’s treasured fig tree.

Mission accomplished, or so I thought.

When I stopped by to chat the following week, I noticed that the tykes had dumped a planter of dirt in the middle of the deck and were building their version of a backyard sandcastle.

But can you blame them?

View photos from this project.


Decks, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Renovation of Manayunk / Philadelphia Garage and Deck, Part 2

Below you'll find some pictures of the completed project for the Manayunk garage reinforcement and deck. You'll see that we took care to ensure that the drainage membrane has a clear shot into the new gutter, keeping the rainwater off the garage roof. Just in case, we also covered the garage roof from inside with a masonry waterproofing sealant.

Since we spent all this time reinforcing the concrete garage roof, of course we didn't want to haphazardly drop a 300-square-foot deck on top of it. So before framing, we carefully measured and transfered the locations of the vertical steel columns below to the deck area above. Then we put masonry block footings for the deck directly on the locations of the steel columns, transferring all the weight of the deck to the columns and new footings below. Double 2x12 beams spanning the block footings provided the basis for the deck joists.

The adjoining neighbor was a little concerned about access, since we built over the existing passway, so we built gates on either side of the deck (with a nice little ramp for said neighbor).

We installed a garage light on a switch as well as an outlet in the garage (in case they want to vacuum their cars in the shade). We also put up a motion-detector light on the face of the deck, towards the parking lot, for a little security and to provide additional light as they approach or leave the garage.

A safe and solid deck and garage for many years to come. And, for those who are following, they had a beautiful baby girl.

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View photos of the entire project.