Patios and decks are typically flat level surfaces designed to be used for relaxation, entertaining, gardening or even secluded retreats. Outdoor living is a relatively new term in the landscape industry that describes the usability of the outside of our home designed as a series of spaces including patios and decks.

So is a deck the same as a patio if the function or purpose is basically the same? Why should you care what it is called? Part of the purpose of this article is to simply clarify the meaning because in terms of design, they are distinctly different when thought of as a structure related to the house and the site.


Architecturally, deck is a flat surface capable of supporting weight, similar to a floor, but typically constructed outdoors, often elevated from the ground, and usually connected to a building.

Wood or timber “decking” can be used in a number of ways – as part of garden landscaping, to extend living areas of houses, and as an alternative to stone based features such as patios. Decks are made from natural wood such as redwood, pine or hardwoods as well as mixed plastics and wood fiber (often called “composite” lumber). Artificial decking products are often called composite lumber.

Any home that has a second story or is built on a sloping terrain will have a series of decks that will be elevated above the ground. They provide useable outdoor living as an extension of the adjacent interior spaces. When placed away from the house in the landscape, they are usually built as a raised platform to either create a connection with the main level of the house, or to handle slopes with having to build retaining walls.

A wood deck can also be a freestanding structure specifically designed to capture views. Free standing decks can be built without regard to elevation changes as the posts are simply extended in length to accommodate elevation differences. This saves in the cost of grading. However, costs compared to the alternative of creating a retaining wall and backfilling should be explored.

The retaining wall alternative will result in a vertical face of wall reflecting the difference in height from the low point to your desired deck height. This may result in a very high retaining wall that will present a design challenge in how to soften its appearance. On the other hand, a wood deck built on posts will create an underneath “crawlspace” that is sloped and may seem to be unusable or difficult to screen. Depending on the height, this crawl space may be able to be salvaged and put to practical use.

Decks that are at least 30” above the ground must be equipped with a railing or barrier by building codes for safety reasons. Whereas anything at ground level need not have any kind of railing and allows a better flow between spaces.

If a deck spans over a sloping area of the landscape and you would like direct access to the lower garden levels, you will need to create steps to descend to the lower level. Stairs will also need to be equipped with a handrail and also conform to building codes.


A patio is typically a flooring surface built at ground level flush with the surrounding grade. They are most often provided directly off the back of the house and may or may not include a patio cover above which provides shade and/or protection from rain. When they tend to extend around the house to perhaps a side, they are referred to as a Veranda

Patios are typically not made of wood since they are built on top of the earth which may or may not be graded to create different elevations. If a site is quite sloped and a series of useable flat patio areas are desired, they patios may involve the use of retaining walls to create the level terraces. Just because a site is sloped, does not mean you have to use a wood deck to achieve a level area. Sloped sites can either have the retaining wall cut into the slope or at the downhill side of the slope and backfilled or a combination of both spitting the difference in the elevation change.

Patios built on grade can include a variety of materials including concrete, brick, pavers, stepping stones, flagstone or even gravel. The material choices will then most often extend into the walkways that may connect other patios or areas of the yard. Patio material choices can also be unique to delineate the transitions between separate use areas or individual patio spaces. For example a patio underneath a covered roof structure such as ramada or gazebo may be different than a more casual patio in another space that is not covered.

Patios can be any size or configuration and do not necessary mean that they are distinct “rooms”. They are however most often used for placement of furniture, but also serve as circulation to walk from space to space. Patio surface includes all the space around the furniture or other landscape elements such as fireplaces, firepits, benches, fountains or even islands of planting areas.

Most often, patio areas will be defined by default after the main uses are defined and landscape elements other than lawn and garden areas are specified. So if you want a main seating/entertaining area with tables and chairs, a bbq island and a fireplace all grouped in a single area, the patio area will almost be defined just by locating the exact spots where the elements will work together the best.

Patios and decks are an essential element of all landscapes as they provide for seating, interaction and circulation between spaces.