Pergolas: Everything you Need to Know

If you’ve been considering adding some cool zest to your backyard or patio with the addition of a pergola, there are some things you’ll want to consider before making your purchase.  This article will explore the essential questions for picking the perfect pergola from whether to buy a kit or hire a contractor to choosing materials and location.

Click the item in the table below to skip directly to your question.

What is a pergola? What can it add to my backyard?

A pergola is a garden, backyard or patio feature that provides a shaded focal point for a walkway, sitting area, hot tub, outdoor kitchen, or even a carport. Pergolas can be used to create a gathering place in a spacious backyard, as a separator amidst multiple garden patches and paths, or to create a sense of intimacy for an outdoor hot tub. Pergolas can be free-standing or attached to a house or garage.

They are typically built from corner posts or pillars that support an open ceiling of crisscrossed beams that give moderate shade. Shorter “accent” pergolas can cantilever off of the house or garage and not need support posts.  You can gain additional shade by either adding a fabric canopy or lattice across the ceiling beams or, our personal favorite, planting vines near the posts which will grow to cover the ceiling adding a delightful charm and heavy dose of shade.

Should I buy a kit, DIY or outsource?

Deciding how to make your pergola a reality depends on your time, skills, and budget.  There are good reasons for choosing to purchase a kit, build a Do-It-Yourself project pergola, or to hire a contractor to build one for you.  There is also a combination option of buying a kit and paying someone to put it together for you.

Pergola kits offer the advantage of saving money compared to hiring someone to build you a custom pergola and saving time compared to building a DIY pergola from scratch.  Most kits range in price from several hundred dollars for a modest 7’x7’ model to over one thousand for a 12×12 pergola, with some larger or more extravagant kits costing even more.

Buying a pergola kit is a great option for those who’d like to have a hands-on experience of building a backyard structure but don’t want to figure out which materials and parts are needed. Though one thing to note if you’re planning to purchase a kit:  you will not want to plan on making too many changes to the pergola, as they come ready to build with set dimensions that are difficult to modify.

There are ways to extend the height by buying replacement posts or pouring reinforced concrete footings that are higher than the surrounding surface. Those footings could then be faced with brick or stone. If you choose to pour new footings, you can use sonotube. Sonotube is the brand name of a round concrete form that can be used to support a variety of structures, including your pergola.

You will only need a basic set of tools and assembly skills to put most kits together.  Tools most often required to assemble a pergola kit include the following:

  • 24” level (or longer)
  • tape measure
  • screw driver
  • electric or cordless drill/driver with drill bits
  • stepladder (preferably 8ft)
  • rubber mallet
  • concrete drill bit attachments (for some kits)
  • gloves & safety glasses

Most kits can be assembled at the beginning of a weekend and leave plenty of time at the end to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  While there is not as much room to customize your pergola design when purchasing a kit, there are plenty of great options of sizes and materials to find what you’re looking for.

If you choose to Do-It-Yourself, you will probably spend a similar amount on materials per square foot as buying a pergola kit. Although there is room to be more flexible with materials such as buying pressure-treated wood or choosing a more simplistic design that can help keep costs down.  You will also get a tremendous opportunity to completely customize your design to fit perfectly in whatever space you choose to add your pergola.

You will need some additional tools to those listed above for assembling pergola kits including these:

  • miter saw
  • jigsaw (for ornamental edges)
  • table saw
  • shovel
  • wheelbarrow
  • post hole digger or power auger
  • post level
  • paint brushes

If you aren’t ready to design your own pergola, you will want to find some free plans or purchase some and be familiar with them before getting started.  Plan to spend a full weekend, and maybe two, to build your own from scratch, and you want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to do it right.

Materials needed include:

Before you get started you will want to check your local building codes for any permits required, survey the site for clearances, accounting for the overhang of the horizontal boards, and check for any utility lines where you want to install posts.  After selecting your site and pergola design, here is the general order of construction:

  1. Dig your post holes (generally ¼ the overall height)
  2. Set your posts
  3. Prepare your horizontal pieces
  4. Install horizontal members
  5. Paint or Stain (this could be done before step 4)
  6. Enjoy!

Hiring a contractor is an attractive option for those with limited time, untested construction skills, and some extra cash in their pocketbooks.  To hire a contractor, you will want to ask plenty of questions up front.  Start by asking them what their schedule to complete would be and how much it would cost.  Most pergolas should cost between $3,000 and $5,000 to have built by a contractor, but you want to make sure you know if this price is for the estimated time it takes to construct (per hour) or is a lump sum price.

Make sure you have a clear understanding, and preferably have it in writing, of who is getting any permits required, what materials are being used (including fasteners: galvanized, stainless etc), if stain/paint is included, how it will be anchored, final dimensions, styling, and if any custom features such as built-in seating are to be included.  It is also suggested that you ask to see examples of previous work or get contacts of previous clients for you to speak with.

What should mine be made of?

There are quite a few options to choose from when it comes to material for your pergola. Wood, fiberglass, vinyl, and aluminum are the most common pergola materials. You’ll want to consider your budget, who is building it, the climate, your appetite for maintenance, and how’d you like the pergola to look when choosing the material.

Wood is the most common pergola material, and you will want to consider buying hardy woods or pressure-treated lumber so that your pergola will be more weather-resistant and stand the test of time.  The woods most often used are cedar, redwood, and treated pine.

 

Cedar is a strong, beautiful wood that takes stain and painting well and will last for years when maintained correctly. Stain will need to be applied at regular intervals, otherwise it will turn grey after several seasons. Some people consider the weathered look a feature, so it’s up to your preference. Redwood is another great wood that maintains its natural rich color longer than cedar but can be considerably more expensive.

Pressure-Treated Pine is is rot and insect resistant like cedar. It isn’t typically considered the best looking wood choice, but it can be painted or stained and is the most cost-effective option.

Wooden pergolas will need to be re-stained each year for best results; although because of their beauty and low-cost, many are happy to stain them. Wooden pergolas can span up to 20 feet, which covers most design ideas, before needing additional column supports.

Fiberglass pergolas are naturally weather-resistant and do not need yearly maintenance. They are sturdy and built to handle the elements, including strong wind. They’re lightweight in design but built to be load-bearing, if you’d like to hang a fan, fixture, or other feature for outdoor living. They are most common in white but can come in other colors or be painted to suit. The potential downside to fiberglass is the upfront cost. While it’s durability and ease of upkeep are strong selling points, it comes at a premium that makes it much more expensive than the other options.  Much of this cost will be off-set by money and time saved not needing to re-stain or paint.

Vinyl pergolas are a great mid-range cost choice. They have the maintenance-free (or close) perks of fiberglass, but the much more manageable expense of wood.  You can buy vinyl pergolas today that are fashioned to look like natural wood. The primary perks of this material are that it’s durable, easy to clean, and can be customized to your liking.

Aluminum is another option. It has a greater upfront cost, but due to lower maintenance needs, it will most likely even out with the lower initial cost of a wooden pergola. There are quite a few perks with aluminum. It doesn’t rust, generally has longer warranties, and it can span longer distances than wood, or it can cantilever above windows or garages doors.  Aluminum can be difficult to DIY since many manufacturers only sell to installers and do not have retail options.

One thing to consider for aluminum is that if you’re placing it in a spot that will receive direct sunlight, the pergola will heat up very quickly. It is not made to absorb heat in the same way wood or some of the other materials can, so if you’re imagining this around your pool or you have small children who might burn themselves, it would not be your best choice.

Attached or freestanding?

Pergolas can be attached to your garage, a large exterior wall, or your deck. Think of it like an extension of your house that can create an outdoor entertaining space, seating area, or a cozy dining room. The attached style will also add shade if built above windows or sliding doors – a bonus for your air conditioning bill during those warm summer months.

An attached pergola only needs two posts versus the traditional four used with freestanding, and some cantilever off of the wall requiring no posts. This allows for some functional accent options such as covering a garage door with a smaller 2-foot wide cantilever pergola.  You can build your own or there are cantilever kits available in no-rust aluminum.  For larger attached pergolas you will need to add a ledger board to the side of the existing structure to support the cross members if your pergola is larger than these cantilever models.

In certain circumstances a pergola can be attached on two adjacent sides and only need one post or be attached on two opposite sides and not need any posts. You can attach a pergola where extra shade is needed, and then plant some trailing vines or climbing roses to cover the structure. Just be sure that it can bear the weight of the full-grown plants!

One important thing to consider with attached pergolas is that they may need to have local building approval to ensure it meets code, as some places have restrictions. It’s best to check this with your city or other local jurisdictions.

Freestanding pergolas are a great option for providing lots of flexibility. You could use a freestanding pergola to add a shaded area near your pool, provide a nice sitting area amidst garden beds or create a patio space separate from the house. You could provide a more intimate setting over a hot tub, or some much needed shade over an outdoor kitchen, grill or concrete patio you already have but aren’t using during the hotter months.

Whether you do an attached pergola off the back door of your house or a freestanding pergola in your side yard, you are adding dimension, a sense of place where you can gather with friends and family for a good time.

What size pergola is right for me?

The answer to this depends on the design look you’re hoping to achieve, the area you’re looking to cover, and your budget. Pergolas can range in size from 7×7 to 26×26, and plenty of custom sizes in between when you are building your own or hiring a contractor to build it.  The most common sizes that kits available online come in are 10×10, 10×12, and 12×12 with some options larger and smaller than those.  Those sizes are perfect for putting over a sitting area, fire pit, hot tub, or dining table.  It is also popular to build a custom long and narrow pergola next to a pool or to cover a walking path in a garden or between the garage and house. The height is up to you but most typical designs are between 10 to 12 feet of overall height which allows for at least 6ft 7in of headroom.

If you choose to use wood, then your pergola can span up to 20 feet without needing any mid-span support. In this case, you’d want to use deeper spanning beams, such as 2x10s, because they will be less likely to sag over long spans. Aluminum and fiberglass can also span longer distances for custom applications.

What about weather?

Since this is an outdoor structure this is a question worth considering when purchasing a pergola.

If you live in an area that gets a large number of rainy days, then you’ll want to think about getting a roofed pergola.  There are many ways to add a roof including a close fitting, arched, or pitched roofs. Close fitting is a style that will sit right on top of your supporting posts and cover the entire pergola like a porch roof might. Arched and pitched roofs are designs that allow for more decorative appeal, but they’re also practical in that they will allow rain water to run off, like on your house. Depending on your style preference and needs, you can’t go wrong with any of these options.  The roofed option is mostly for DIY and contractor built pergolas, since most pergola kits do not come with roofed models.

If you’re looking for a roof that can be brought out when you need it, the retractable canopy option may be what you’re looking for. Retractable canopies can be added to most existing pergolas with some customization, or there are pergola kits available with retractable canopies built in.  If you live in a place like the southwest where the summer afternoons are full of bright, hot sun, a retractable roof provides the option of added shade. Also  if you’re in a place where an afternoon shower is a frequent occurrence, this same option can provide you protection from those rains, and just as quickly as the storm comes and goes, your canopy can be drawn to keep you dry.

Other kinds of weather to consider are earthquakes, heavy winds or snow. If your area is subjected to any of these throughout the year, then you will want all of your pergola posts to be on footers. The footers will go below the frost line, rather than resting on an existing slab.

Why a pergola?

You may be thinking about why you’d buy a pergola. Here are a few reasons:

  • It adds dimension and visual interest to your outdoor space.
  • You can create a new outdoor living area or kitchen and dining space.
  • It provides structure to your vining plants, whether that be wisteria, jasmine, roses or grapes.
  • If you’re in need of some extra shade or a covered walking path to your house, a pergola can provide both instantly.
  • It’s a timeless addition to any yard.

So maybe you’re a gardener that’s looking to add a strong base to support growing fruit trees or flowering vines, or perhaps you’re a master chef looking to take your culinary expertise outdoors. Either way, a pergola can provide you with space for both.

 Where can I buy pergolas?

There are many different places to purchase pergolas. You can find them at your local home improvement stores. If you’d like to have more creative freedom, then you can hire a contractor to design and build one for you. This would be your best option if you’d like to use roll-formed aluminum as wholesalers of aluminum for pergolas only sell to their authorized installers, and their installers won’t sell parts at retail.

However, if you are a do-it-yourselfer, then you may like the option of ordering a pergola kit, and there are several online retailers such as Amazon, that have a range of price points and design options to meet any preference.

Now that you’ve read this post, you are armed and ready to choose the perfect pergola to add some zest to your backyard space.

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