Jen Dessinger


The Guerilla Deck

Quit squandering your roof's potential. It's easier to fix than you think. My right hand, unaccustomed to labor more manual...

Quit squandering your roof's potential. It's easier to fix than you think.

My right hand, unaccustomed to labor more manual than pushing a mouse, is blistered. My back, indolent from so many hours on the couch, is aching. With great effort, I'm sawing through two steel pipes. One appears to be a leftover fence post; the other, the air intake for a kitchen sink. Sweating, I fell these metal saplings and stash them in a corner of my rooftop.The doorbell rings. It's the landlord. We're building a deck on the roof of his property, without his permission or the city's. The roof looks like a junkyard. We panic briefly, then wave him up. I show off the deck's strong, safe foundation that won't pierce the rooftop. I demonstrate the modular design that allows for immediate and, if necessary, permanent removal of the planks. I pretend that I know what I'm doing.My girlfriend Neena and I are lucky: We have a 530-square-foot roof space attached to our one-bedroom apartment. The previous tenants squandered this resource, littering it with cheap plastic chairs and a few patches of worn Astroturf. As the DIY-minded son of a staunchly DIY dad, I knew I could do better. But how?

Challenge: I can't afford a contractor, and wouldn't hire one if I could.

My father taught me that only fools hire contractors for anything other than plumbing and electrical work. An engineer who designed and built roofing equipment, my dad was a very creative guy in a traditionally noncreative field. "We are not lazy people," he once said to me. "Always finish the job." The smell of motor oil still reminds me of our many trips to the junkyard, where we picked clean the bones of dead Corvairs and, later, for my first car, Mustangs. Though he died several years ago, my father was telling me to build our deck the hard way-with our own blood, sweat, and junk.Done right, our deck could be a showcase of the 21st century's greenest thinking. So I drew up a plan. With five weekends and $3,000, we would build a low-impact deck from scratch.

Challenge: Trendiness has made reclaimed lumber a luxury.

Obviously, buying virgin lumber isn't a sustainable practice. It leads to deforestation, less biodiversity, and deadly landslides. But junkyard lumber, now in vogue among high-end designers who prefer to call it "reclaimed," is too expensive. The most eco-friendly option is composite planks made from wood and recycled plastic, such as those made by Trex. They're easy to work with, they don't warp or splinter, and they come with a 25-year warranty. They, too, however, are expensive, and all those planks would cost more than four times our entire budget. In the end, we settled for pressure-treated pine from Dykes, an employee-owned lumberyard in Brooklyn. Not sustainable, but the best we could do.With help from a generous friend, we hauled several hundred pounds of lumber up our narrow, lopsided stairwell, through the kitchen and onto the roof. Next came 300 pounds of rubber matting (to protect the roof's surface), a gazillion galvanized decking screws, two sawhorses, and several gallons of stains and sealant. I wondered-would my father have been so handy had he lived not in a suburban house, but in a third-floor walk-up?

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