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The Homeowner’s Guide to Pergolas

The Family Handyman logo The Family Handyman 1/29/2021 Rebecca Winke
a large stone building © alabn/Getty Images

Like many words borrowed from Italian, "pergola" rolls off the tongue, conjuring up images of al fresco meals served beneath a canopy of heady bougainvillea or jasmine vines.

Judging from Google Trends, Americans have caught pergola fever over the past year. Searches for the term in 2020 doubled compared to the average over the entire previous decade, as families stuck at home looked for new ways to make their outdoor spaces more livable.

Outdoor living will continue to be an important part of life for the near future, so now may be the perfect time for you to look into adding a bit of Mediterranean flair to your deck or patio.

What Is a Pergola?

A permanent garden feature known as a hardscape structure, a pergola is composed of columns or pillars that support an open crossbeam roof. The columns and roof are designed to serve as a framework for climbing vines or flowering plants. The pergola as a whole can be freestanding, extend out from a building or home, or connect two buildings.

Contemporary pergolas sometimes forgo the greenery for chic bare crossbeams or more roof-like coverings like bamboo cane, clear vinyl or even fabric.

Why Get a Pergola for Your Deck or Patio?

A pergola is a great way to extend your living space outdoors. The cross beams and greenery or roof provide enough shade to make your deck or patio comfortable during the hottest hours of the day, while allowing a breeze and sunlight to filter through.

If you cover your pergola with a waterproof material, or are patient enough to wait for your vines to form a thick, impenetrable canopy, a pergola can even be a functional outdoor space under a light rain shower.

Pergolas also offer additional privacy so you can relax outdoors without worrying about prying eyes. A traditional pergola is an open-sided structure, but you can add fabric panels, vine-covered latticework or even billowing outdoor curtains to one or more sides to create an open-air retreat.

Although they are permanent hardscaping, pergolas are relatively inexpensive and easy to build from scratch, or with a pergola kit that includes pre-cut wood and all the required hardware. There are a vast variety of materials and designs to choose from to fit your budget and complement the style of your home while creating a stylish centerpiece for your yard.

Finally, pergolas create a defined space that you can decorate for outdoor dining and entertaining as if it were an indoor room. With glowing lights, comfy couches and armchairs, soft outdoor rugs, hanging flower pots and other personalized accessories, you can create the inviting feel of an open-air living room.

Types of Pergolas

Once made exclusively out of wood, pergolas today are made from a multitude of materials:

  • Cedar or redwood: One of the most popular options, cedar and redwood are naturally insect-resistant. They can be stained and sealed to retain their color or left untreated to naturally weather over time.

  • Teak or exotic woods: These hardwoods are particularly durable, resisting rot and cracking more than softwoods like cedar or redwood. They also cost significantly more.

  • Pressure-treated pine: Although reasonably long-lasting, pressure-treated wood can warp, crack or split in dry climates or when exposed to the elements. Pergolas made from this material are generally the most affordable, but must be stained or painted and carefully maintained.

  • Composite decking boards (Trex): More durable than natural wood but with an authentic wood-like look, composite decking boards won't splinter or rot and are weather resistant. This popular DIY material does, however, cost more than pressure-treated pine.
  • Alumawood: This aluminum material, painted and embossed to resemble wood, is more resistant to the elements and less expensive than wood. It can fade in the sun and is easily dented, thus requiring periodic maintenance. Alumawood pergolas are generally only available in kit form.

  • Vinyl (with a wood or metal core): Needing little or no maintenance and uniquely durable, vinyl is a top choice for pergola kits or assembling a custom pergola with pre-cut parts. A power washing every couple of years will keep most quality vinyl looking like new for decades.

  • Fiberglass: Generally the most expensive option, fiberglass pergolas offer significant perks. Light and strong, they are ideal for adding to an existing deck or patio because they require fewer columns and shallow footings. If you opt for fiberglass, however, you'll need to go with a kit or order a custom pergola with pre-cut and formed parts because this material isn't available for DIY projects.

What to Know Before Adding a Pergola to Your Deck or Patio

Wooden pergolas require regular maintenance. How often depends upon the type of wood, how it was initially treated or sealed, and where you live. Plan on cleaning, treating and/or repainting your pergola at least once every two years to keep it looking fresh, as well as checking regularly for signs of mildew or termite damage.

If you have a traditional pergola covered in greenery, you also need to trim it regularly so the pergola isn't weighed down and the vines stay healthy and lush.

How Much Do Pergolas Cost?

The cost of building a pergola depends upon the material, size and placement. The average ranges around $3,600 for a 10-ft. cedar pergola, including materials and labor, although you can find quality DIY kits for less than $1,000. High-end custom pergola kits cost up to $10,000, plus $500 to $1,000 in installation costs.

Should You Build or Buy a Pergola?

A custom pergola is an expensive project, especially if you hire a hardscaping company to take care of the design and labor. That said, a custom pergola has the distinct advantage of complete flexibility as far as the size, material and style. If you have a quirky outdoor space where a standard pergola won't fit, designing one yourself or with professional help may be your only option.

Assembling a pergola from a kit is generally a less expensive option. With all the pre-cut wood and hardware included, it can be built in a day. Kits offer limited choices of sizes and styles, however, as most stick to a fairly standard square or rectangle shape and traditional Mediterranean design. Some kits come with retractable covers, a convenient feature if you need more shade and prefer to avoid the hassle of ordering a cover to fit a custom pergola.

Here are your five main options for adding a pergola to your yard:

Custom Pergola Assembled Professionally

Pros

  • Limitless choice of materials;
  • Sized to fit your space;
  • Designed by experts for structural stability;
  • All-inclusive from materials and hardware to final build.

Cons

  • Most expensive option.

Custom Pergola with DIY Assembly

Pros

  • Freedom to choose materials and sizes;
  • Stability of a professional design;
  • No labor costs.

Cons

  • Level of customer support for troubleshooting during assembly may vary;
  • May require specific tools or hard-to-find materials;
  • May require two or more people for assembly.

Pergola Kit Assembled Professionally

Pros

  • Generally less expensive than custom designs;
  • Stability of a professional design;
  • Pieces and hardware included;
  • Professional builders with experience and tools.

Cons

  • Labor increases final cost;
  • Less choice of materials;
  • Standard sizes won't fit some spaces.

Pergola Kit with DIY Assembly

Pros

  • Least expensive option with no design or labor costs;
  • Stability of a professional design;
  • Pieces and hardware included.

Cons

  • Limited choice of materials;
  • Standard sizes won't fit some spaces;
  • Level of customer support for troubleshooting during assembly may vary;
  • May require specific tools;
  • May require two or more people for assembly.

DIY Pergola from Design Through Build

Pros

  • Limitless choice of materials and style;
  • Sized to fit your space;
  • Careful sourcing of materials;
  • No labor costs.

Cons

  • Stability may be compromised if you don't have design experience;
  • Time and hassle of purchasing materials;
  • You're on your own for troubleshooting during the build;
  • May require specific tools;
  • May require two or more people for assembly.
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