Pergolas in Landscape Design

This backyard pergola defines the outdoor living space and provides a gentle feeling of enclosure.

As much as we’d like to spend time outside, we don’t necessarily want to be at the mercy of the elements – especially when we’re trying to relax in our yards and enjoy the beautiful landscaping. That can be a challenge in northern Illinois when summer heat and humidity can feel oppressive and full afternoon sun beats down like a punishment. The main purpose of a pergola in landscape design is to provide shade when large canopy trees aren’t an option. Like trees, outdoor pergolas filter light while allowing air to flow, but they can be customized to fit a space and – unlike trees – be placed directly on top of your hardscape or patio.

Pergolas used as a landscape design element also help accomplish several landscaping design goals by physically defining a space for relaxing or for dining. Pergolas and gazebos add an element of height to balance the visual weight of a home, and create a natural transition between the complete enclosure of the indoors to the open space of the surrounding backyard landscape.

While defining the eating area, this wooden pergola offers a break from the afternoon sun and festive lighting in the evening hours to enjoy your outdoor living space.

What is a Pergola, Anyway?

Typically made of wood, pergolas are normally square or rectangular and can be free-standing or attached to a building. Unlike an arbor, which usually includes built-in seating, the space under a pergola remains open and therefore flexible in use. The pergola posts that support the overhead structure can be round or square with simple lines or set off by brick or stone columns at the base. For structural integrity – and to comply with most municipal codes – the pergola pillars should be set on concrete footings.

Connecting the posts above and running parallel to the house are beams (in the case of a connected pergola, a ledger along the house and a beam on the far side). Above the beams rest the rafters, or horizontal boards that form the “roof” of the pergola. They run perpendicular to the beams and are typically spaced between 12-24 inches apart.

If additional shade is desired, another layer of smaller pieces of wood – called purlins – can be added above and perpendicular to the rafters. Purlins provide useful support if you plan on growing a flowering vine such as honeysuckle or wisteria on your pergola landscaping.

As with any wood project, you can choose to paint a pergola (in a color to match a feature of your home, perhaps), stain it dark for impact, or allow it to weather naturally for an aged look. Turn to a reliable pergola builder for assistance building an outdoor pergola to complete your landscape design.

If a full pergola will close off a space too much, consider a lighter effect such as this arch.  It frames the view nicely and adds a bit of height to balance the height of the house (unseen here to the left) adding to your backyard landscaping.

Pergola Upgrades

The columns of pergolas are a perfect location for lighting fixtures that cast light in both upward and downward directions. Small pergola light fixtures can also be tucked between the rafters for unobtrusive illumination. For a more playful, casual feel, strings of bistro lights hung from the rafters make for festive as well as effective lighting for your backyard landscaping. To add a bit more luxury to your outdoor living space, electrical conduit can be run along the rafters to attach a ceiling fan or even a heating element – increasing your comfort and extending the time you can spend outside.

The crisp lines of this pergola’s rafters create a patterned shadow – another visual element to consider when building a pergola for your landscape design plan.

Site Pergolas Properly

What do you need to consider before adding a pergola to your backyard landscaping project? First, you don’t want to block any windows with a large structure. Even if your patio level is down several steps from your back door, the actual roof of the pergola may obstruct views of your yard (or block light or create weird shadows) when looking from inside your home. If your spacing is tight, consider attaching the pergola to the house – thereby eliminating the floor space taken by two columns on one side. With an attached pergola, you’ll then have more flexibility when placing furniture and allowing foot traffic to move around underneath the pergola, allowing for the perfect outdoor living space.

If space allows, consider upgrading your pergola columns with a brick or stone base. While the look is elegant and substantial, the hard material will withstand kids playing or furniture accidentally bumping against the columns – unlike wood.

Adding another level of shade with purlins (the wood above the rafters) creates a more intimate outdoor living space within a larger entertaining area.

Pergola Adds Value and Curb-Appeal

A well-done pergola gives a sense of timeless elegant outdoor living to otherwise plain spaces. The solid structure of a pergola anchors a patio both visually and physically, bridging the indoor environment with the backyard landscape. A pergola also instantly evokes relaxation, gathering with friends and family, and enjoying life. It’s an investment in your landscape design that can be used by the entire family and is an incredible asset to your home’s value and comfort level.

An exposed backyard benefits from a patio pergola.  The addition of purlins over the patio creates more shade and privacy from the neighbors.

Pergolas are not a Weekend Project

Unlike a trellis that can be installed rather quickly and easily adjusted if not perfect here or there, pergolas require a lot of planning. Most municipalities require a permit, which means the project must pass a few different inspections during and after construction. Pergola builders will need to do a pre-pour inspection prior to the concrete footings being poured, a framing inspection if the pergola is attached to the house, an electrical inspection if it includes upgrades, and a final inspection once finished.

Most of our landscape design clients like a little decorative flair on the edges of the beams and rafters. Though our talented landscaping crews can cut stone beautifully, we rely on skilled professional carpenters to create those finishing touches – and do so uniformly on every piece, to bring you your perfect outdoor living space.

Pergolas need not be relegated in the backyard, or even completely shaded.  With an open center, the frames of this pergola provides enclosure and visual definition while allowing more light in a shadier spot.

Know when to hire a professional!

Pergolas are a more involved project and aren’t recommended for the average DIY-er. Landscaping professionals can add pergolas to a finished hardscape project or incorporated within a new hardscape installation. Our experienced landscape designers work with you to create the desired look and function so your new outdoor living space will not only meet your expectations, but thrill you! And, we take care of the permitting and inspection process so you don’t have to. Have you been dreaming about adding a pergola to your landscape but didn’t know how to make it happen? Consult with one of our landscaping designers by visiting us here


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