Building a Deck To Code

Decks are an icon of outdoor living for many Americans. However, the CPSC estimates that over 6000 people are injured every year due to failures in residential decks. Building a deck to code would prevent most of these injuries. Nevertheless, many homeowners can’t resist the lure of building their own decks. There is nothing wrong with tackling your home projects as long as you take the time to look up building codes and minimum standards. With this in mind, we’ve compiled all the deck-building codes to keep you on track for your new deck.

Keep in mind that almost all jurisdictions require you to apply for a building permit to a build deck. Although some areas exclude some decks from needing a permit, this is rare. You should contact your local building department to determine your specific requirements.

This means your construction project will require a final inspection from a local building inspector.

All codes mentioned are from the 2021 International Residential Code (2021 IRC). Your local codes may be different. For example, California requires guards to be at least 42″ tall.

Basic Deck Building Terms

deck building diagram for building your deck to code

Ledger Board: The ledger board is attached to the house and supports the end of the deck. It is frequently attached improperly and is likewise the most common point of failure.

Deck Joist: The deck joists are the horizontal supports. Combined with the decking, these components make up the “floor” of the deck.

Rim Joist: Rim joists are simply joists on the outside of the deck.

Joist hanger: Joist hangers are the metal brackets that attach the joists to the ledger board.

Decking: Decking boards are installed perpendicular to the joists to make up the “floor” of the deck.

Footing: A footing in construction distributes a load over a larger ground area. Specifically for a deck, a footing distributes the post/column load over a larger area.

Deck Posts: The posts, also called columns, are the vertical supports. Specifically, they support the deck beams, which support the joists.

Deck Beams: The beams for the deck are the horizontal supports for the deck joists. Specifically, the joists may attach to the side of a beam with joist hangers or may bear directly on top of the beam.

Stair Stringer: Stair stringers are the stair-shaped boards that support the stairs.

Tread: Stair Treads are the horizontal part of the stairs where you place your feet.

Riser: Stair risers are the vertical part of the stairs.

Guard/Guardrail: The deck guards consist of the top rail, bottom rail, and balusters. Their purpose is to prevent injuries from falling over the deck.

General Building Code Terms

Live Load: Building codes refer to live load as the load imposed on the structure from occupancy. For example, people and furniture are considered part of the live load.

Dead Load: On the other hand, the dead load is the structure’s load. For example, walls, windows, and finish material would be considered part of the dead load.

Frost Depth: This is the depth, determined by the local building code authority, that groundwater will freeze. Freezing soil can significantly impact a structure, so this must be taken into consideration when planning the foundation.

Code Approved Deck Materials

The first thing to consider when building a code-compliant deck is code-approved materials. For a wood deck, all of the lumber must be preservative treated. In addition, areas subject to termites must use termite protection. Luckily, modern preservative-treated wood is also already protected from termites.

Any cuts, notches, or holes that expose untreated areas of your deck components need treatment applied. 

In addition, all fasteners and hardware need to be hot-dipped galvanized, zinc-coated galvanized, stainless steel, or other corrosion-resistant hardware.

The Footings

deck footings spread the load over the soil

What is a footing

A footing is the foundation component that is in contact with the soil. More specifically, it spreads the load of the foundation over a larger area of ground. Footings add stability and prevent settlement.

Deck Footing Requirements

Deck footings are required by code, with a few exceptions.

  1. You don’t need footings if your deck is free-standing with joists placed directly on the ground. However, this is rare and not recommended.
  2. Your deck is smaller than 200 square feet, not more than 20 inches above the ground, and has no columns or beams. But, again, this is pretty rare and not recommended.

Deck Footing Depth

There are no situations where deck footings are allowed on top of the soil. There is a common misconception that deck footings can be placed on top of the ground if it is a free-standing deck. The truth is that the footings don’t need to be below the frost depth if it is a free-standing deck. However, the minimum depth for footings is 12 inches below the undisturbed soil, even if it’s free-standing.

If the deck is attached to the house, the footings need to be below the frost depth. The frost depth here in Richmond is 18″. You will need to look up the frost depth in your area to get the correct footing depth.

How to Size Deck Footings

Check out this video to learn how to size your deck footings properly. Remember that you’ll need to account for additional loads such as hot tubs.

Deck Posts

Deck posts transfer the deck’s weight and live load to the footings. Most decks are built with 4×4, 4×6, or 6×6 wood posts. To size your deck posts correctly to code, you need to know the live load or snow load, the species of the wood, the height of the post, and the tributary area. You can use the chart below from the 2021 IRC.

use this chart to size your deck posts

You can see that for a load of 50 psf and a tributary area of 40sqft, the max height of a southern pine 4×4 post is 12’2″. On the other hand, the max height of a redwood is 11’8″.

Check out this video to learn how to calculate the tributary area.

Connecting the Post to the Footing

There are three ways to connect posts to footings that prevent lateral movement.

  1. The post is embedded at least 12 inches into the surrounding soil. Relying on the soil to prevent lateral movement is not allowed if “expansive, compressible, shifting or other questionable soils are present.” Also, don’t use the soil to prevent lateral movement if you are unsure about its quality.
  2. The post is embedded at least 12 inches into a concrete pier.
  3. You can connect the post to the footing with special connectors designed. In my opinion, this is the easiest method.
diagram for connecting deck posts to deck footings

Deck Beams

Deck beams transfer the deck’s weight and live load to the posts. The span of the beam refers to the distance between the deck posts. To figure out your max span, you need to know the wood species, the depth of the beam, and the joist span. However, beams generally are not installed at max span. Remember that the farther apart your posts are, the larger the tributary area and the larger your footings will need to be.

It is better to plan for posts closer together and reference the chart to ensure you are within the maximum span.

Finally, when adding two pieces of wood together to create your beam, a minimum number of nails is required. The minimum nailing pattern is two rows of 10d (3-inch x 0.128-inch) nails minimum at 16 inches (406 mm) on center along each edge.

code required deck beam span

Connecting the Beams to the Posts

First, deck beams require at least 1.5″ of bearing on wood or metal and at least 3 inches of bearing on masonry. Additionally, the entire width of the beam needs to be bearing on the posts. (This means that beams can not be bolted or nailed to the sides of the post).

Second, there needs to be a means to prevent the beam from moving from side to side. Nails alone are not sufficient for this purpose. If you notch a beam, as shown below, at least 2 1/2″ bolts (with washers) are required to prevent side to side movement. On the other hand, special connectors are available for this purpose. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when installing these connectors.

code requirements for deck beam to post connections

Deck Joists

deck building diagram for building your deck to code

The deck joists transfer the weight of the decking and live load to the beams. Similar to the beams, there is a max span for joists. The span depends on the load, spacing of the joists, the depth of the joists, and the wood species.

Exceeding the max span would cause the joists to sag and crack.

Joists are traditionally spaced at 16″ apart. However, if you plan to install diagonal deck boards, you should consider 12″ spacing. As you will see in the next section, diagonal decking boards have a shorter span than perpendicular boards.

Use the chart below to determine the maximum joist span. For example, southern pine 2×10 joists, with a live load of 40psf, spaced 16″ apart, can span 14 feet. If you were building a 15-foot deck attached to your house, you need at least two beam and post systems to accommodate that span.

code requirement for deck joist span

Connecting the joists

The joists will be connected to the sides of the beams, the house ledger board, or be bearing directly on the beams.

If the joists are bearing directly on the house ledger board and beams, you need to the following number and type of nails. 4-8d box (21/2” × 0.113″); or 3-8d common (21/2” × 0.131″); or 3-10d box (3″ × 0.128″); or3-3″ × 0.131″ nails.

If the joists are attached to the sides of the beams and ledger board, you need to joist hangers. Keep in mind that there is specific hardware required for joist hangers. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using hangers and other connectors.

how to install joist hangers

Image Credit:×8/5000876935

Decking Boards

This part is pretty simple. Decking boards are traditionally 1 1/4″. However, if you opted for 24″ joist spacing and want diagonal decking boards, you will need to use 2″ thick decking boards.

The boards should be attached to each joist with two 8d nails or 8d wood screws. If you are using specialty screws, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.


Attaching the Deck to the House

The attachment to the house is where most builders and contractors fall short. Here in Richmond, virtually no decks get flashed correctly. Unfortunately, most builders, contractors, and county building inspectors don’t understand this part of deck construction.

To properly attach a deck to the house, remove the siding from the area. A ledger board then gets attached to the home. The ledger board must be at least a 2×8. In addition, it must be attached to the band joist of the house. . Like the rest of the deck components, it needs to be treated to prevent decay and termites.

The deck attachment needs to be flashed to prevent water from leaking into the band joist and rotting it out. Once the band joist rots, the deck will collapse, causing injuries and property damage. The siding and house wrap must overlap the ledger board, and the flashing should overlap the ledger board to make the connection waterproof. The image below illustrates proper deck flashing. NOTE: The home wrap goes over the flashing, and the flashing goes over the deck ledger. This creates a waterproof area.

code approved deck attachment to the house

The next aspect of the attachment is what hardware and how many.

You can not install the ledger board with nails only. You have the option of 1/2″ bolts, 1/2″ lag screws, or proprietary hardware. Use the chart above for the spacing requirements of bolts and lag screws. NOTE: The bolts are going into the band joist. . Again, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions if you use specialized hardware.

Important Note about the Ledger Board

The ledger board is not allowed to attach to a cantilevered floor. This is when the home’s joists extend past the foundation. A good example is a bay window. However, in the 80’s and early 90’s it was a trendy style to have cantilever floors. The photo below illustrates how to frame around the cantilevered floor. Notice the double joist on either side of the pink area, the beam that spans between them, and the posts to support the beam.

decks attached to cantilevered floors are code violations

The Deck Guardrails

The last component of the deck you need to be aware of is the guardrails. The “code” refers to guardrails as guards.

They are required on any area of the deck that is 30 inches or more above the ground. There are several key requirements to be aware of when constructing your guards.

  1. They must be at least 36″ tall.
  2. Guardrails on stairs can be 34″-38″ tall.
  3. The guardrails should have balusters no more than 4″ apart.
  4. The balusters can be spaced up to 4 3/8″ apart, and the space between the stairs and the bottom guardrail can be up to 6″.
  5. The guardrails should withstand 200 pounds of concentrated force and 50 pounds on the balusters.
  6. The posts for the guardrails are not allowed to be notched.
deck guards and stair code requirements
code for deck rail loads

There You Go

There you go. That should be everything you need to build a deck to code and get through the county inspections. If you see anything you think we missed, let me know!