About Our Deck House

Our house, which has come to be known as “Highland House,” was “prefabricated” by Deck House, Inc. of Acton, Massachusetts, and built in 1981 by a local contractor. At least seven thousand Deck Houses have been built in the country, most of them on the East Coast. Deck House is one of the most successful prefab companies in the country, producing houses just as good as those by Joseph Eichler, but for whatever reason they have received less attention.

Deck Houses in the US

After World War II, architects, industrialists, and consumers were interested in employing mass production to build better, more economical homes. In 1959, Deck House was founded by architects William J. Berkes and Robert Brownell, both of whom previously had experience with Carl Koch’s early prefab corporation Techbuilt. Berkes observed that houses in the Northeast often were built into hills and reconfigured the single-family house into a then-radical split-level design to take advantage of this. Unlike Koch, they introduced more natural materials, particularly mahogany and cedar, in construction.

The classic Deck House side elevation. Children’s bedrooms below, master bedroom above.
We had a craftsman make light-filtering inserts for the trapezoidal parts of the bedroom window to reduce heat gain.

Being a product of New England, Deck Houses are known for the generous overhangs of their gable ends. They also characteristically have vertical siding, updating the New England aesthetic for the modern era.

What appears to be one story in the front turns to three in the back. The property has a 30% slope. We added the door and stairs to the basement for an extra egress and enclosed the area under the lower deck for gardening equipment. We used concrete with exposed formwork for the stairs to the basement to echo the exposed foundation walls in the basement. The stucco had been an unpleasant salmon color and is now Annapolis Gray. As inside the house, the beams supporting the deck are 8′ on center.

The bottom floor of a typical Deck House has bedrooms for children and an exit onto the lower part of the hill so that they could run out into the yard to play at will. Eliminating the attic upstairs allows the living areas and adult master bedroom, both located upstairs, to have soaring cathedral ceilings. I’ve always thought that low ceilings produce low spirits, so this works for me. Painted a dark brown, the beams of a Deck House reveal its construction.

The house soon after we moved in shows the post and beam construction and the cathedral ceilings.

Deck Houses are not constructed in the factory and hauled to the site, but rather are kits of parts hauled to the site and erected there. Construction eschews the typical American balloon frame for post and beam, allowing the interior to be freely configurable and permitting walls to open up to large glass windows and open floor plans. The most distinctive aspect of the house, however, and the reason why it is called a “Deck House” is the 3” thick tongue and groove structural cedar decking under the roof and supporting the upper floor. The rear deck is also 3” thick structural cedar, albeit not tongue and groove to permit water to flow between the beams.

The deck is made of cedar—originally solid cedar, now glulam cedar—and the railings are of mahogany. The beams from the interior cantilever out and support the deck.

There are at least seven Deck Houses on Highland Avenue in Montclair, built in the 1970s and 1980s. Ours was built in 1981. We bought it in 2011 and have extensively restored it, painstakingly removing the solid stain from the mahogany siding, as well as modernizing the kitchen and bathrooms.

Our house the year we moved in, before the year-long process of stripping the siding and the installation of the new garden. Note also the engineered Anchor Bergerac paving stones, wall, and stairs. These were out of character for the house and found a new home elsewhere.   
A more recent view. This façade, in particular, seems quite Wrightean to me. The windows and the overhangs seem to me to be a nod to Robie House.
The house has been restored, inside and out. The solid stain is stripped and the house is stained with PPG Proluxe CETOL 1:23, a high-end stain that does not require stripping before recoating. The exterior hardscape is now made of “Colonial Bluestone” from Pennsylvania, allowing moisture to naturally drain between the wall and paver stones. Exterior lights and duct covers are inexpensive and commonly available.