What You Need To Know Before Adding A Pergola
Learn about design choices, material options and architectural styles for adding a pergola or shade structure
A pergola is remarkably versatile. The material it is made of and where you place it in your garden can turn it from a functional but basic structure into a one-of-a-kind statement piece. Design extras can range from lights, ceiling fans and adjustable overhead slats to entertainment systems, fire features and outdoor kitchens.
A pergola covered with plants, both on the exterior and hanging inside, is the very definition of a garden room. For avid gardeners, this makes a pergola the perfect spot to show off spectacular climbing or vining plants – anything from ivy and wisteria to roses and clematis. You could even add some edibles, such as tomatoes or grapes.
Here’s what to know about adding a pergola to your yard – including ideas for the design and location, the pros and cons of different materials, and which professional to hire.
What is a pergola?
A classic pergola’s design is deceptively simple. Traditionally, it consists of four posts, which in turn support four crossbeams or a mix of beams and rafters around the top perimeter of the structure. A slatted or lattice roof provides filtered shade.
A pergola has the look of an arbor and, like an arbor, is typically covered with climbing or vining plants. The primary difference between the two structures is size. Pergolas are designed as places for lingering rather than passing through, so they are usually much larger, with dimensions similar to those of a gazebo or pavilion. Think of it as a hybrid of garden structures.
Which professional should I hire to build a pergola?
For most homeowners, hiring a builder, landscape architect or designer is necessary for adding a custom pergola. Even with pergola kits, hiring a professional is a good choice. For more extensive landscape projects, look for a landscape architect or designer. While the cost is higher, a professional can help you finalise your plans, including what will work best to provide the right blend of sun and shade.
Landscape professionals will also analyse your proposed site and do any necessary preparation work such as securing approvals and permits; marking off water, gas and power lines; and coordinating workers. If you’re adding electricity for lighting and fans, you will need a licensed electrician.
Before choosing a professional for your pergola project, be sure to see if he or she has experience with building the type of pergola you want. As with any project, check reviews on Houzz and elsewhere, and ask for references and to see examples of their work, and always check which building licenses they currently hold.
Design considerations for a pergola
Pergolas can be incorporated into many areas of a landscape and are usually found at the rear of properties, where they serve a variety of purposes. You can also adapt them to fit your personal style and preferred materials. Here are some things to consider when adding a pergola to your yard.
Where it will go?
Consider placing a pergola where it can best suits your needs – creating a getaway spot or secondary dining or seating area, overlooking a stellar view, capturing summer breezes or providing a bit of shade in an otherwise too-hot section of your yard.
Pergolas can also add a sense of enclosure for a pool or spa, while still keeping the space open to the landscape. Situating a pergola at the end or side of a pool creates a convenient spot for lounging away from the direct sun.
You can also add a pergola as part of a larger deck or patio project, as a freestanding structure or attached to one side of your home or another structure, such as a carport. Use a pergola within a larger deck or patio to define the dining area or outdoor kitchen, create a conversation area or add some afternoon shade.
Once you’ve decided how you want to use your pergola, you’ll need to determine how large you want to make it. If you’re planning to use the space for living or dining, be sure to allow enough space to make it comfortable for you and your guests.
The look you want is also a key factor in choosing a pergola design. Match your pergola style to both your home and your landscape to make it feel like a cohesive part of the entire concept. You might opt for wood in a naturalistic garden and with a traditional home, or a sleek metal design for a contemporary abode. If you really want your pergola to stand out, consider a design that will add some unexpected contrast.
The size of the support posts and overhead pieces will affect the look of your pergola. Slender posts and beams, whether made of metal or wood, lend themselves to a more refined and less intrusive look. More robust posts will add more weight and presence, along with rustic appeal.
Consider if you’d like your pergola to protect the space beneath it from sun and rain or to simply provide structure for climbing plants or overhead fairy lights.
The spacing of overhead slats and how they are set, whether horizontally, vertically or at an angle, will determine the amount of sunlight that reaches the interior of a pergola throughout the day. Moveable overhead slats or louvres can be adjusted to adapt to the available sunshine or even shut completely in case of wet weather.
Shade cloths and retractable canopies can provide additional overhead protection. For a more open, less confining feel, think about designing a gabled or arched roof, or even eliminating any sort of roof altogether.
Side walls or screens
While the sides of a pergola are traditionally left open, adding lattice screens, partial walls or even a full wall on one side of a pergola can provide privacy if needed. Less permanent privacy options include installing curtains or shades that can be pulled shut when needed, or lining the sides with tall plants.
Depending on your needs and where you live, you may consider adding amenities such as lights, fans and mounted heaters. Other options include permanent seating – perhaps even a swing seat – and gas and electrical lines for features such as a fire pit or spa. Keep in mind that these features can increase the project’s overall cost and installation time.
Material options for a pergola
Many people think of wood when it comes to pergolas, but your material options are surprisingly wide. Vinyl and fibreglass pergolas are lightweight and long-lasting options, as are aluminium pergolas. Steel pergolas are heavier but also a good choice to consider.
- Timber: Wood remains a favourite choice for outdoor structures, especially pergolas, thanks to its natural good looks, adaptability and durability – it’s able to handle most weather conditions. Wood pergolas can be either freestanding or attached. Their cost is typically in the mid-range for material options.
Naturally rot- and pest-resistant woods are good choices for a pergola. Before you buy, check that the wood is certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Pressure-treated timber is usually competitively priced and easy to work with, but some might have concerns about using materials that have been treated with chemicals to increase their longevity.
While outdoor-grade wood is a good choice for landscape projects, it may not last as long as high-quality vinyl, fibreglass or metal. Any type of wood requires sealing and usually staining or painting when you first install it. Sealing will keep some timbers from fading to grey. While hardwoods can be painted, many people prefer to simply seal them to showcase their natural beauty.
You’ll also need to maintain that finish, resealing and staining every year or two and repainting every few years. Even with regular maintenance, you may need to make more extensive repairs after 10 years or so.
If you’re growing plants on your pergola, the moisture from the plants themselves, combined with their weight, can damage timber posts and overheads. Trim back the plants and check for signs of damage yearly.
- Vinyl and fibreglass: High-quality custom-made vinyl pergolas are a great choice for a traditional look at a reasonable price. Vinyl pergolas are very long-lasting and relatively maintenance-free, requiring only cleaning every year or so to keep them looking good.
Vinyl pergolas come in limited colours – primarily shades of white – and can’t be painted. Their light weight limits their overall span, and they can sag under heavy loads if you grow weighty vines along them. They are usually freestanding, but some companies do offer the option to attach them to a home.
Fibreglass pergolas are less common than their vinyl cousins but share their care requirements. They are also one of the higher-priced choices, but they make up for the initial cost with their long-term, low-maintenance costs. They can be freestanding or attached, and your choice of styles and colours is far greater than with vinyl options – they can also can be painted. Though still lightweight, they are much sturdier than vinyl, especially for heavy loads.
- Metal: For a clean, contemporary look that will last for years, consider a pergola made of aluminum or steel that has a finish to prevent rust. Pergolas of either material can be freestanding or attached to the home.
Aluminum is a good choice for coastal locations, thanks to its resistance to rust. Its cost is higher than vinyl’s but usually lower than or equal to that of wood. One thing to know about an aluminum pergola is that its light weight means it has to be well-anchored in areas with heavy wind.
Steel is heavier, making it stronger and more impervious to weather. It also can span longer distances without needing supports, which is a bonus for larger installations. It falls on the high end of costs for materials.
Both materials are strong and extremely low-maintenance, and are good choices for a range of climates. Wipe down finished steel or aluminum with a non-corrosive cleaner every year or so. That’s also a good time to check the connections on the pergola to be sure they haven’t loosened.
When should I do this project?
As with any outdoor project, the best time to build is during good weather and low rainfall, which will vary from region to region.
How long it will take?
Depending on the complexity and the amount of preparation needed, including time for setting concrete footings and staining or finishing the materials, it could take about a week to build a basic pergola (after you’ve got a landscape professional on board). If your design is more complicated or you’re installing amenities such as an outdoor kitchen or fireplace, expect a longer timeline.
Source: Marianne Lipanovich Houzz Contributor