Building the outdoor room of your dreams

Melissa Tolsma is blogging during the renovation she won last year as part of the RenoMe! with FortisBC contest.



By Melissa Tolsma

Small houses are wonderful in many ways. They inspire their dwellers to value every square foot, and to thoughtfully inhabit that space. With less than 1,000 square feet of indoor space, the addition of a 320 square-foot deck has expanded our living space considerably! The deck really does feel like an extension of the house already, and when the natural gas fire bowl is installed it will truly be the outdoor room of my dreams.

Part of the backyard transformation involved the removal of some old concrete, which left a fairly sizeable patch of compacted dirt that needed to be dealt with.  I had already decided to expand the lawn rather than replace the patio, so the next decision was whether to plant seed or buy turf.  Sowing seed would be cheaper, but pretty risky with a resident dog, guinea pigs, and eight year old involved. Instead, I arranged to have a yard of top soil delivered, and ordered up a bakers dozen rolls of sod from a turf farm just outside of town. Picking up the turf rolls saved me a few bucks, and they fit just fine in my trusty Matrix. A few hours later I had a lovely, lush instalawn!

Next, Brad Fraser from Jonker Custom Building came to sand down the deck and install the benches for the fire bowl area. Brad had previously sent me a picture of the impressive cedar slabs that he had picked up from the mill. He had let the wood dry for a couple of weeks before he crafted the benches in his workshop. These are not your average cedar picnic-table-style benches; they are stunning pieces of outdoor furniture.  Not only do they serve as seating for the fire pit, they wrap around two outside edges of the deck, creating the real sense of a room inside.  They invite you to not just sit on them, but stretch right out on your back and experience a whole new vista of sky and stars on a summer night.  We’ve already enjoyed several clear nights of star gazing this year.  I’m looking forward to being able to do this on clear fall and winter nights, too, warmed by the fire.

After Brad sanded the deck, I had to make one of the most agonizing decisions yet: to stain, or not to stain.  I like the silvery grey of weathered cedar, but I love the rich colour of the deck when it’s wet and the wood grain shows more.  The idea of not using chemicals, and allowing the cedar to age gracefully, protected by its natural oils, was appealing. However, the idea of staining, to get even a couple more years of use out of the deck and to be able to see the depth of the wood grain was also compelling.  After many hours of Internet research and patient counsel by Pam, the paint expert at Slegg Lumber in Nanaimo, I made the irreversible decision to stain.  On Brad’s and Pam’s advice I went with a low VOC linseed oil-based Sikkens stain in a delicious-sounding butternut shade.  The pigment would add UV protection and extend the life of the wood, while still allowing the grain to show. Now, when to stain? Internet and in-person advice is abundant and confusing. Some say wait a year, to let the cedar cure and the oils settle first. Others say do it right away to minimize UV damage and seal in the oils.  Ultimately, wasps made that decision for me. They seem to be just as intoxicated by the pungent cedar as humans, and they were munching away on the untreated fresh wood, using it to make their nests. They had already chomped some pretty big channels and pits in the wood, so I decided to stain sooner rather than later.  A couple of days of staining later, the deck looks great.  It still smells good, too—the linseed oil-based stain has a pleasant earthy scent to it.  The colour is a little darker than I had anticipated, but will probably fade a bit.  I haven’t stained the benches yet, as I like the contrast of the lighter cedar against the darker deck.  I will probably go with a natural Sikkens stain on the benches.

To further the backyard excitement around here, the fire bowl arrived from Solus Decor!  It came expertly packed in an impressive wooden box.  I felt like a kid on Christmas day as we unscrewed the side panel of the box to reveal the cast concrete bowl.  I had expected it to have a rough texture, but it surprised me with its silky smoothness, and the truffle colour is delectable.  This outdoor room is going to be a sensuous space!

The fire bowl installation is scheduled soon, and I am on the lookout for a few other furniture and décor pieces as finishing touches.  It’s good timing ­– many stores are selling off outdoor stuff at greatly discounted prices this time of year.  And, neighbours be forewarned, it’s also time to begin planning the deck launch party!

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