Building a Backyard Deck for Beginners
Besler and Sons

In 2017 we were approached by the curators of the Chicago Architecture Biennial to produce a model for the exhibition “Horizontal City.” We were asked to choose a canonical image of an architectural interior, from any time period, and reconstruct it as a scale model. To ‘replay’ it in the curator’s terms. Of course, the history of architecture offers plenty of illustrations and photographs of canonical interiors, many with their own substantial and complex subtexts that are not necessarily evident in the image itself. But it seemed to us that the architectural imagery that we engage with day-to-day would be more productively challenging to translate into physical models because social media and online platforms have a capacity to embed and entangle many of these subtexts into the content itself, as metadata or other associated links, hashtags, and comments. 

The project that developed from these observations, titled “Enjoy Your Deck :-)” is an architectural model of an online “how-to” home improvement video. The project reframes online video sharing platforms as a category of media that circulates imagery, while simultaneously generating an attendant set of language, media, data, and associations, such as through comment sections, view count statistics, recommendations for related viewing, popup advertisements for local lumber yards, closed captions, and various options for sharing with friends and across social media. This project, like the rest of our body of work, is aimed at producing tools and platforms that give rise to their own sites for generating, storing, sharing, accessing, and downloading architecture.

Photo, Erin Besler

Online instructional videos provide opportunities for us to rethink the limits of differentiations that are typically perceived between expert and amateur practices in architecture, building, and design, and their increasing inadequacy for many models of production. Self-made, self-composed, and often self-narrated, the video tutorials that the “D.I.Y” aspirant produces and circulates today on YouTube and other popular online video sharing platforms are short, narrative clips that provide us with unique perspectives on how construction and building practices manifest in media imagery, and how issues of labor, competency, and discourse are staged around these sites of production.

Photo, Dongxiao Cheng

Through sheer volume (we find 272,000 results on YouTube in a search for “DIY Home Improvement”) and ease of circulation, this category of media is elevated into the canon by proscribing the “official” ways of doing and offering a space in the comments section for the ongoing litigation of terms, methods, and best practices. Amateur instructional videos reveal, translate, and mediate broader historical and societal establishments of class, creativity, consumerism, leisure, computational mastery, digital savvy, and millennial-age entrepreneurial self-assertion. And given that almost all amateur instructional videos are recorded in and around the context of the home, whether it be in the kitchen, the den, the bedroom, or the bathroom, they are inscribed with a uniquely domestic focus. Particular among these settings, the backyard is made to be an interior space, one with a simultaneous productive and recreative focus. Especially in the U.S., the residential backyard is a space of display, both public and private, where aspiration, leisure, and performance are engaged through chores, projects, pastimes, and parties. While numerous and variable, we can nevertheless identify conventions in the scope and format of many online “how-to” videos. Questions of material, budget, and tools are primary. Most projects that we find are necessarily limited to an inventory derived exclusively from Home Depot (or some other large-scale retail home improvement chain), and to a scale that can be reasonably confined to no more than one or two weekends worth of work. Judging by the volume of videos that take it as a focus, the design and construction of the backyard deck exemplifies all of these criteria.

Requiring little more than concrete, dimensional lumber, hardware, and basic power tools, the backyard decks that manifest within the running time of these online videos are surprisingly versatile architectural forms. Their formal complexity, size, and architectural style can be made to fit the site; sometimes unambitious, they will stick to a simple plan, tethered conservatively to a sliding glass door, and in other instances, taking on multiple levels, enveloping an existing tree, or wrapping around the side of the house.

Regardless of the details of construction, as viewers, our readings of these videos are informed as much by the expository prompts that our narrators provide (“Building a deck will definitely take some time, but in the end, it’s worth it!”), as by the choices of framing, editing, on-screen captions, asides, and digressions. More broadly these videos clear creative space for outcomes that rely less on architecture’s expertise and mastery, and more on ubiquity and access. In doing so they have the ability to leverage the accessibility of built form alongside the general public’s habits and familiarity with experiences that surround viewing and interacting with architecture as vital forms of contemporary communication of architectural ideas and frameworks.

Photo, Dongxiao Cheng


Erin Besler is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Princeton University School of Architecture. She is a principal at Besler & Sons, an architecture and design practice based in New Jersey and New York that she co-founded with Ian Besler in 2014 .