Renovating the House by Destroying Decks and Building She Sheds

One of Laura’s dreams, aside from possessing as many “happy” blankets as possible, has been to have a screened porch. This would enable her to enjoy nature without being desiccated by the swarms of Virginia mosquitoes that emerge each spring from our malarial backyard. Standing in the way of this dream was the deck that our house already had when we bought it. The deck was big and spacious, but its layout was not ideal for a porch. One reason for this was that the part of the deck near the sliding glass door had an awkward step and some benches that seemed to make screening it in impossible.


Plus, there is the “step of death,” where the step abruptly ends at the right side of this picture.

Another issue with the deck is that one of the previous owners of the house had painted it the dark brown color seen in the above picture, which caused the deck to do this in the summer in Virginia:


That led us to the conclusion that the deck must die in order for the screened porch to live.


We would no longer need this herb garden to protect people from the step of death.

The next step then, was to find a contractor to build the new porch. Contractors, as we knew from our last home renovation project, are largely immune to the social contract regulating American life. They often don’t always abide by conventions like “showing up when they say they will” or “returning phone calls.” In fact, there is such high demand for contractor work in our area right now that three of the five contractors that we met with didn’t even bother to give us a quote. After much searching, we found a contractor who would both give us a quote and actually show up to build the porch.


The first step in our renovation project, then, was to get rid of the deck. We had initially planned to do this ourselves, but it was almost as cheap to let the contractor tear it down, so we went with that option.


Plus, roughly 2/3 of Virginia’s wasp population lived under that deck.

In early March, the workers took down the deck in a matter of hours.


And they put it in this containment tank to shield us from the solar energy it had absorbed.

We were left with a sliding glass door and no deck.


So there was only one thing left to do…



The new screened porch would go where the sliding glass door was located, and the plan was for me and Laura to construct a paver patio where the rest of the deck used to be. With the deck out of the way, we were free to come up with a quick and simple layout of where all of that would go.


This is the Laura version of quick and simple: color-coded yard flags

Then came the worst part: using math to calculate things like the square footage of the new deck and patio. I had been assured many times that I would not need math in the real world, but, tragically, this was not so. We took a gamble and used my calculations to order the pavers for the patio.


According to my calculations, two pallets of pavers is either enough, too much, or too little. It’s in that range.

The area where the deck used to be wasn’t all that level, and we would need to dig in order to even it out and to provide room for a solid foundation for all of those pavers. Somehow, it seemed like a good idea to do this with shovels and wheelbarrows. From time to time, people would stroll by on the path behind our house as we were working, slowing down the way you might on the highway if you saw an overturned tractor-trailer explode in a fireball.

Having shoveled so much that I could no longer straighten my fingers, we were now in position to add the foundation for the patio.


Shoveling out several cubic yards fulfilled our motto for this project – Saving money in the most unpleasant ways possible

Now it was time to add the crush-n-run, which is a mix of granite and crushed granite, as the base of the patio. The idea was to pack a thick layer of crush-n-run so that the pavers wouldn’t sink and shift over time. For the space we were filling, we would need a whole lot of crush-n-run.


Fortunately, comparing our pile of crush-n-run to our pile of excavated dirt enabled me to figure out we needed more crush-n-run without having to resort to math. Suck it, numbers!

After making enough trips to YardWorks to buy rock that the cashier could ring us up on sight, we chose to believe that we had enough of a foundation.


This is plenty of crush-n-run since the soil around here is as solid as rock, right? RIGHT?!

Now it was time to tamp the foundation down, which we did using a rental tamper which weighed about as much as a dump truck.



How did we get all of the crush-n-run for the foundation, you ask? By filling up several medium-sized containers in Laura’s small-sized SUV, a Honda CR-V. Once again, we had discovered a way to save money in the most unpleasant way possible. Naturally, we used the same strategy to get the sand that served as the top layer of the paver foundation.

Now came the real test – while sloping the patio away from the house, we had to make sure it was level from side to side. Both the internet and our contractor advised us to use 1″ diameter poles as leveling guides. The idea was to pile the sand between and over the poles and then scrape a board along the poles to even out the sand. Mobilizing every measuring and leveling instrument in the house, we set to work.


Get me the 48″ level, STAT!


Did I mention this was how we spent our Spring Break?

Our past attempts to level things like curtain rods hadn’t always worked out, so I was skeptical that we’d be able to level a 200+ square foot space. Against all of the odds, the pole strategy worked, and we could start laying pavers on top of our level-yet-sloped sand. At first, this was a slow process, as we made very sure that the pavers were very level and slightly sloped.


Easy does it…

Then we realized that it was going to rain the next day. A lot. Which would potentially wash off our carefully leveled sand. Abandoning caution, we moved from the “Place Pavers Slowly and Ensure Leveling” strategy to the “Throw Shit Down as Fast as Possible” strategy. Nine hours later…


We have ourselves a levelish patio!

It was only after we laid the main part of the patio that we realized how much the yard dropped from one end to another. That kind of issue is unforeseeable, unless, you know, you use math and stuff. We had just enough pavers left over to add steps at both ends to account for the slope.


Look at how good the patio looks from this distance! No, don’t go closer!

Finally, we could use the giant dirt pile we had excavated for the patio foundation to fill in the areas around the patio.

We leveled out most of our dirt pile just in time for the numerous spring rains to come through, making the back yard an extended slip-n-slide.


Workers were coming to start on the screened porch the following week, and we were concerned that walking through the yard might degenerate to something like this.

giphy (1)

Our answer to this dilemma was an unconventional mulch land bridge that would enable workers to navigate safely through the sea of mud that our back yard had become.

img_5012Our mulch land bridge was finished just in time for phase two of the project – construction of the screened porch.img_5023img_5087img_5088

In keeping with the typical contractor interpretation of the social contract, work on the porch was inconsistent at times. McKenna would come home from school to inspect what had been done that day and express outrage if little or nothing had changed.


It’s possible that there are one or two very, very opinionated people in McKenna’s gene pool.

It fits and spurts, the porch was coming along.


Once the porch stairs and lattice around the base were up, we were ready to get some trees and bushes to fill in the beds around the porch and patio. Laura’s aunt and uncle, Anne and Carl, run a tree non-profit, so they brought down some plants from Fredericksburg.


Just a few plants and trees.

As we were planting, in a shocking development, it started raining. Again. Long, long ago, there was a period where it rained for something like two million years straight. This spring, I felt like we could challenge that record.


Fortunately, the patio was levelish and slopedish enough for the rain to run off into the mud lake in our back yard.

In a perfectly normal sequence of events that must certainly be a part of every family’s landscaping experience, Anne had acquired an 8-foot cherry tree that someone no longer wanted, transported it 75 miles to Midlothian, and helped us plant it as a cornerpiece of the patio beds.


Landscaping with other people’s spare trees is the American way.

In addition to receiving free cast-off cherry trees, we tried to make the porch project a bit more affordable by asking the contractor for bits and pieces that we could do that would save time and money, like staining the pine boards for the ceiling. We’re helpers!

For a while, the porch remained as it was above, with no siding. Days went by with no work. Then, with the typical timing of contractors, men showed up one Saturday morning to put the siding on.


“Is that a strange man cutting siding by our cast-off cherry tree at 7:50am? That is a strange man cutting siding by our cast-off cherry tree at 7:50am!”

Laura wanted the finished porch to have a tree-house vibe, so we decided to stain the wood rather than painting most of it white, which is more typical for our area. Inconveniently, all of the outdoor stains we tested were a poor match for the ceiling, and most of them were too thick to get a good “wood grain” look. The indoor stains looked a lot better, so we went with that plus spar urethane to seal it.


Spar Urethane – one of about twenty things I didn’t even know existed until we started this project.


Ahhhh, isn’t it lovely how the spar urethane catches the light in the evening!

Now that the porch had been spar urethaned (along with, inadvertently, several doorknobs, one pair of work gloves, and two pairs of shorts), it was time to assemble the furniture. We outsourced some of the labor on the furniture assembly.



Six to eight furniture configurations and three different rugs later, the porch was properly furnished.


The She Shed was almost complete.


Although the plants continued to migrate for a while. It’s their way.


As we closed in on finishing this project, a new issue emerged: the ceiling fan.


Only after the ceiling fan had been installed and was fully operational did Laura cycle through the PHASES OF APPLIANCE UNCERTAINTY.

  • Phase one: Doubt 
    • Laura: “Does the fan look cheap? Maybe the blades look kind of plasticky.”
  • Phase Two: Recruiting allies 
    • Laura: “McKenna, do you think the fan looks awful?”
    • McKenna, a genetic clone of Laura: “It just doesn’t pop.”
  • Phase Three: Rejection 
    • Laura: “Those blades are definitely plastic; they look cheap compared to the ceiling. And that white light looks like it’s from a hospital.” [Grabs keys and drives to Home Depot]

And that’s how we ended up with this fan, which, against the odds, has survived for 34 days.

The ceiling fan fiasco behind us, the porch was more or less complete.


Although some additional plants migrated in. It’s their way.


And now Laura’s dream is complete: we have a screened porch that is loungier than the loungy library with no step of death, a porch that provides great views of our hand-me-down cherry tree.

One thought on “Renovating the House by Destroying Decks and Building She Sheds

  1. Pingback: Building Beach Traditions that Aren’t Terrible in the Outer Banks | Endless Odyssey

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