One of the easiest and least expensive ways to improve a back yard is to build a pergola. These simple shade structures are beautiful and practical all at once.
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Why a pergola anyways?
Building a pergola looking to create shade in the garden is a wrong approach. This is because their roofs are open (usually with some mesh or trellis on them, providing a very slight shade), allowing sunlight and all the elements to go through it.
What pergolas actually do is to provide a special and intimate area where you can spend time with your family and friends, dining or just chatting, while enjoying the nature around and above you. It transforms an empty area into an inviting space for all.
You will build your pergola thinking about what you want to do there. Thinking about the space it will take to get a table and seats there or if you want to make it a barbecue place will shape the structure in your mind.
If after reading this you are thinking seriously about adding one to your property, then these tips will help to get you started planning and designing your new pergola.
1. Do you need a permit?
Always check with your local city building department and your Homeowner’s Association (if you have one) to see if you need a permit or any kind of approval before starting to build your pergola.
Although pergolas often do not need approval, since they are not truly complete outdoor buildings, some cities have stricter rules than others – especially in areas where severe weather is a factor – so the first thing you need to do is check with your local codes for permits. Anytime you decide to add any kind of electrical wiring, such as for a ceiling fan or outdoor lights you will almost definitely need approval first. Don’t do anything without checking! You don’t want to have to tear things down or make expensive adjustments later.
Also, at any time you decide to add any kind of electrical wiring, such as for a ceiling fan or outdoor lights you will almost definitely need approval first. Don’t do anything without checking! You don’t want to have to tear things down or make expensive adjustments later.
2. Check all utilities before you dig!
Perhaps an even more potentially costly mistake would be to select the placement of your pergola without first making sure there is nothing underground that could be damaged as you start digging post holes.
You’ve got to know where water, sewer, and electrical lines are because if you break any of those, the consequences would be quite disruptive and even more expensive than building without a permit!
Thankfully, there is an easy solution no matter where you live in the U.S. Every state has a “Call Before You Dig” line which you can call and the utility companies will come out and mark lines for free. Call 811 from anywhere a few days before you want to dig and you will be routed to your local One Call Center so you can request this service.
3. Know your frost level!
If you live in an area with frost, then it is important to know the average frost depth that occurs seasonally.
Frost depth refers to the level the ground in your area freezes each year. It’s important to know this level because, at the moment of placing and securing the posts for your pergola, you will need to dig below the average frost level to prevent frost heave – which happens as the ground freezes and then thaws – from pushing your pergola out of the ground.
Your local building code department would again be the best source of information on this topic so you don’t put in risk your pergola.
4. Choose your materials wisely
Wood is always a beautiful, inexpensive and readily available material to use for a pergola.
Redwood and cedar are naturally beautiful and insect resistant, but often more expensive due to scarcity. Pressure-treated pine is the least expensive in most cases since it is readily available everywhere. Most lumber yards and hardware stores will have pressure treated wood in their supplies.
Also, you should consider more modern materials such as synthetic vinyl for the roof, aluminum for the posts and structure or even fiberglass for details. Synthetic vinyl is a somewhat pricier option since vinyl doesn’t need to be stained and the only long term maintenance you would have is to hose it off to keep it clean.
5. Consider a pergola kit if it is in your budget
While we will always say that we think building your own pergola is quite easy to do and it can be done on a very tight budget, it is important to at least look into the pergola kits that are available either at your local stores or else online.
When you see pictures of pergolas online, so beautiful and stylish, it’s very easy to go on a frenzy of daydreaming and not-realistic budgeting. But you need to make a reality check of your financial and handcrafting possibilities.
You can also hire a local handyman to put a kit together for you. It would probably only take him a day so it wouldn’t be terribly expensive. The pergola kits are all pre-fabricated and partially put together in easy to ship sections. They come with complete instructions for you to follow. As an added bonus, you can use those instructions to submit as building plans for any permit you might need.
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If you’ve decided that you really want to add a pergola to your property, then your next step is to check out our Guide to Building a Pergola in One Weekend.
- Site Preparation to Build a Pergola
- Do I Need a Permit to Build a Pergola?
- Differences Between Trellises, Arbors, Gazebos and Pergolas