A: Using a design/build firm might seem like the easiest route, but it can pigeonhole you into the same old, same old when it comes to design and materials. I’d recommend instead finding a good landscape architect or deck designer to help you come up with a look that suits your needs. I am a fan of hiring these folks independently so the finished design is yours and you’re free to take it to several installation contractors to get the best price.
Once the layout is done, you have lots of choices for materials. For the deck, choose among woods, synthetic blends, or PVC. A hot choice is ipe, an exotic wood from South America that is extremely dense and tight-grained and has a rich dark brown look. Or consider redwood. Note that there are several grades of redwood; “construction heart” is commonly used for decking. Both ipe and redwood resist rot and bugs and hold up well in our climate; they cost around $9 and $7 per square foot, respectively.
Be aware that the color of wood you see on the day of completion will not last forever—over time, both ipe and redwood weather to a gray tone. You might like that look—if you don’t, a yearly cleaning can bring the original color back.
Talk to your installer about hidden fasteners so that no nail or screw holes are visible on the surface of the deck. Installation will take longer, but the results are worth it. If you need to screen out a bad view or neighbors, consider horizontal two-inch boards for a more durable, modern look than premade lattice.
For patios, concrete pavers are not your only choice. Clay pavers offer rich texture and deep color; bluestone, flagstone, and granite can also make a real statement. But no matter what you use on top, the base is key. Your installer should provide a six-inch compacted stone base with setting sand or a one-inch screen paver bed on top of it to ensure a solid installation. Clay and natural stone come already sealed; a yearly sealing of concrete pavers will keep the color true and make the surface easier to keep clean.
Lou Manfredini is host of the Mr. Fix-It show on WGN Radio and House Smarts on NBC5.