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Pergolas, arbors, and patio covers remain popular landscape features and can set the footprint for additional living space. They block the sun while still allowing air circulation, provide architectural interest, and can add value to your home. Because the terms are often used interchangeable, here are the definitions for each type of structure and some questions to consider when selecting the right shade solution for your home:
Pergola: A freestanding outdoor structure of any size that uses joists and rafters for shade.
Arbor: An outdoor structure of any size that uses joists and rafters for shade with at least one side attached to a home or another building.
Patio Cover: A freestanding or attached outdoor structure of any size, open on the sides, with framing and a roof that protects from rain and the elements.
- Freestanding or Attached?
This question is the best way to start distinguishing between these outdoor structures. If the project is freestanding, then it is either a pergola or patio cover. A patio cover can also be attached. Arbors will have posts or columns on one side and be connected to a home/building on the other side. This can be a point of confusion because many refer to arbors as being freestanding arches or gateways to a garden or backyard. However, when you say the word “arbor” to a professional builder they assume the structure will be attached to your house or another structure.
- Roof or Rafters?
Pergolas and arbors use posts connected by joists and rafters for shade and stability, but those rafters don’t keep rain or the elements out. Even if fabric or other materials are in between the rafters, if rain can get in from the top then it is considered a pergola (if freestanding) or arbor (if attached). Patio covers consist of framing over-laid with shingles or a roofing material to keep the elements out.
- How Big is the Structure?
There are no size guidelines differentiating arbors, pergolas, and patio covers. All three structures can be small or expansive. Some may argue that smaller freestanding structures are considered arbors, but unless the structure is attached to a home or building it is still considered a pergola.
It is also important when determining placement, to evaluate how much sun/shade will hit it during the day, and to make sure it isn’t blocking a key view while inside the home and the continues to offer the desired view while inside the pergola.
- Select the Materials
There are four reliable materials that are often used for building pergolas, arbors and patio covers. The choice is based on the size, style, and purpose of your structure as well as your taste and budget. A combination of these materials also works well.
The most commonly used material for building outdoor structures is weather-resistant wood such as cedar, redwood, mahogany, or teak. These woods are preferred as they are a sturdy, decorative, and they contain natural oils which make them resistant to rot, decay, termites, fungi, and insects as well as warping and shrinking. Regardless of the type of wood, it should still be sealed to provide extra protection against moisture from rain and dew and to reduce chipping and cracking.
Metal is considered the most durable of the many materials used for outdoor structures. The main deterrent to using metal is rust. Galvanizing or painting the metal will impede rust and keep it looking new. Most often metal is thought of when a contemporary or minimalist look is desired, however, Parasoleil offers a unique line of architectural metal panels to filter and sculpt light that are not only engineered to withstand the elements but are profoundly artistic. They can be used to shade special architectural places and offer patterned nuance to structural detail or create visual breaks, barriers, and privacy.
- PVC or Fiberglass
PVC is also a good option for outdoor structures. Using a thick type will provide a weather-resistant material that requires little maintenance. Fiberglass and plastic roofs are fairly inexpensive and are available in lightweight panels of different sizes that can easily be cut down to size as needed. Fiberglass may be harder to find but most fiberglass materials are made by using recycled materials so they offer the option of using a green material to your project.
One of the more versatile options for roofing is outdoor fabric. They offer sun protection, like other roofing options, and in addition, fabric canopies and fabric sails are a great way to add color and style to your patio. They are easy to install and remove and are just as durable as other options. Fabrics from Sunbrella, Coolhaven, and others will not rot or mildew and are typically covered by a 10-year limited warranty.
In one of our recent projects in Los Altos, we designed a pergola with a welded metal frame, containing eight removable plexiglass panels that slide into a custom-designed metal track. Underneath the panels, a durable fabric sail was added to provide addition sun protection and reduce heat in the summer months. It is easily retractable during the winter months to allow more natural light to enter the house.
Regardless of where your structure is placed, incorporating add-ons into the structure will provide a wow factor and enhance your outdoor experience. Installing up-lights and/or down-lights will make the space usable both day and night. Climbing plants or vines, growing alongside, up the columns, and over the top, soften the structure creating a more natural look. Adding a misting system—running it internally through the beams—provides cooling relief in the heat and a tropical ambiance to your backyard. To complete your outdoor room, consider mounting a TV and sound system to the design.
Visit ShadeFX for ideas:
Best vines for pergolas and lighting ideas to illuminate your outdoor space
Better Homes and Gardens:
11 Ideas for Landscaping with a Pergola
Fine Homebuilding explains the difference between a trellis, an arbor, and a pergola.
Visit Houzz for more inspiration and examples of arbors, pergolas, vines, lighting and more.
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