It may be tucked away in the back of the house, invisible from the street and unknown to anyone but family and guests, but the back porch is the most important room in many Southern homes.
It’s the place where drinks – whether lemonade or something stronger – are poured, smiles are shared and deep thoughts take form, uttered between friends or conjured up during a little time alone with just the trees and the stars.
Lisa Allen Scalise, an interior designer and owner of Ivy Cottage Collections in Morrisville, N.C., knows this well. However, when she and her husband, Jim, built their house in Cary, outside of Raleigh, N.C., 17 years ago, the back deck was barely on their radar. They had two young children and she was expanding her two design stores: one in Morrisville and a now-closed one at North Hills in Raleigh, N.C.
“So when it came time to do the deck,” she recalls, “I was like … ‘I don’t care.’ ”
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As the years went by and the Scalises settled in, the original deck, little-used, started to deteriorate, and Lisa started making grand plans.
She envisioned a relaxing getaway nestled high in the treetops that buffer the house from a nearby greenway. And she wanted to go big.
“One of the big things I wanted was to have it feel like we’re living in a treehouse out here,” she said on a recent evening, against the sound of leaves rustling in a lazy late-spring breeze. “And I wanted to have enough space to entertain. I wanted that indoor/outdoor living experience, almost like you’re in a living room, but it’s outside.”
Perched high above the natural wooded yard below, the 1,400-square-foot deck truly does feel like a home in the trees. An outdoor kitchen tiled in muted green and blue glass rectangles gently separates a large round table that beckons diners to stay a while from a more casual seating area situated around a long, narrow fireplace. At the edge of that seating area hangs a swing that has hosted many a peaceful nap. As well it should – its base is a twin bed frame.
Cushions and pillows allow upright seating, but why stick to that when you can lie back and view the sky beyond the canopy of leaves above as you sway in the breeze?
“My favorite thing to do,” Scalise said, “is to come home from work, and if it’s still warm outside, get up on that swing with a book and I will literally be asleep in five minutes. It’s so peaceful, so nice.”
The peaceful feel was something Scalise carefully curated, a bit of a contrast from the more ener getic tones that mark her work inside her own home and for others.
“I’m a color girl. I like color a lot,” she said. “But when I’m outside, not so much. I want it very calm and very serene.”
But color works its magic on her new deck, too, if more subtly. One of the first things Scalise settled on for the deck’s decor was the glass tiles, usually used for pools, on the outdoor kitchen and on the sides of the fireplace.
“I didn’t want your stereotypical stone fireplace, stone grill area,” she said. “I wanted light and airy, no heaviness at all. There were enough color elements in the tile that I could really go to town with my other furnishings out here.”
With those furnishings, Scalise achieved another mark that’s important to her design aesthetic.
“I really like a space to look collected and not too matchy-matchy,” she said. For herself and for clients, she steers clear of matching furniture sets that can set a vibe to snooze. “I want different shapes and sizes and textures and then somehow have it all flow perfectly.”
A white pergola frames the seating area, which is a couple of wide steps down from the rest of the deck – a cozy, sunken plan inspired by Don Draper’s apartment on “Mad Men,” Scalise explained. Lighting the space – and adding a dash of Scalise’s designer flair – is a chandelier made from weatherproofed seashells.
Scalise was able to bring her vision to life, starting last summer, with the help of a landscape designer with 3-D software. With all the details settled, she turned to builder Bob Matthews of Carolina Custom Design & Trim to get it done.
Matthews welcomed the challenge, even though it was a tall order, literally: viewed from the back yard, the deck is nearly two stories off the ground.
“Half the year I spend the time trimming out a house or just building a standard deck or tiling something,” he said.
With this project, one of many he’s worked on with Scalise over the years, he said, “Everything was something that hadn’t been done in this area that big.”
Advice from the experts
Adding or remodeling a deck is a big investment, though it’s one that’s long been regarded as worthwhile in terms of a home’s resale value.
We asked Lisa Allen Scalise, an interior designer, for her advice when planning for the look of a deck (or any room in your home, for that matter):
▪ If tile is involved, always start with the tile, she said. “That’s a way you can get a very unique look and have that starting-off point for what your color scheme might be, and what your aesthetic might be.”
▪ Look for inspiration everywhere. She suggests poring through magazines and online resources: “You'll find something that will suddenly click with you,” she said, and off you'll go.
Scalise’s builder for her deck renovation, Bob Matthews of Carolina Custom Design & Trim, offers advice as well, based on his nearly 20 years of experience.
He advises getting more than one estimate, getting references and looking at contractors’ past work. Spend time gathering ideas and information on all the decisions you'll need to make, including types of decking, handrail styles, lighting, water features, entertainment, sound and more.
When considering size, think about how you'll use the space, he said, including how much furniture, how big a grill and how many people you'll want to fit out there. What seems like a large space can fill up quickly.
Most importantly, he said, don’t rush into it.
“You have to look at your project and love it before you have somebody price it,” he said. “Because you’re going to live with it forever, or as long as you own the house.”