A Perfect Season for Pergolas

BY DAWN KLINGENSMITH ON MAY 2ND, 2016

You can add upholstered furniture, throw pillows and a rug, but it takes a pergola to fully transform a backyard patio into an outdoor living space.

A pergola is a structure consisting of posts or pillars with spaced beams spanning the top. Or, as lifestyle blogger Carrie Anne Castillo puts it, a proper pergola “has posts but no walls, beams but no roof.”

Nevertheless, a pergola delineates an outdoor area as someplace cozy and livable. While providing partial shade, pergolas allow some sunlight through along with pleasant breezes and are often used for seating or dining areas.

Despite its openness, a pergola is usually designed to feel like an outdoor room. They can be freestanding or attached to the house. Home improvement stores offer relatively inexpensive, mass-manufactured pergola kits for the do-it-yourselfer, but for an attached or large pergola, it’s best to bring in the pros. Larger pergolas can get extremely top-heavy and may require concrete piers to anchor the base. Such a project could require a building permit, which a professional contractor can help you procure. You will also need to make sure your plans don’t violate setback requirements or homeowner association rules, warns Steve Walowitz, president of NuConcepts outdoor home renovation company in Northbrook, Illinois.

Pergolas typically are made of wood, aluminum or fiberglass. Cedar and redwood are the most popular wood choices, along with pressure-treated wood as a lower-cost alternative. All wood pergolas need to be re-stained (annually) or repainted (as needed). All woods will weather with age, but pressure-treated wood is more likely to warp and crack.

Low-maintenance fiberglass or aluminum pergolas are the other options. “You can often get by with just power-washing the aluminum once a year,” says Sue Barajas of A Grand View Deck & Patio in Denver.

Whatever material you choose, make sure you keep on top of any specific maintenance that may be required for warranty purposes.

Pergolas can be built in Craftsman, Colonial, contemporary or rustic styles. “Architecturally, it should be fitting and appropriate to the style of the home,” Walowitz says.

Standard pergolas with spaced beams provide more shade than you might expect but can be built to offer more. The structure can be completely covered or roofed (becoming, by definition, a portico), or lattice can be added to block out more sun.

“Most people who install pergolas don’t want them covered,” Barajas says. “They want to see and feel the sun and experience the outdoors.”

Perhaps the most charming way to provide dappled shade is by training climbing plants or vines to grow up and over the top to make a natural canopy.

Beyond the basics, “there are definitely bells and whistles you can add to an install,” Barajas says, including manual or remote-control curtains, privacy panels, and overhead fans and light fixtures.

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