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3 Questions to Ask Before You Build a Pergola

The pergola is a classic form – less enclosing than a gazebo or pavilion, but more intimate than open sky. Pergolas help define space, using 4 posts and an open-raftered roof to set a particular part of your yard apart for a particular purpose. We’ve been incorporating them in residential Chicago landscaping designs for more than three decades.

Which means we’ve learned a few ways not to build them, too.

At Hursthouse, a great design always starts with asking great questions. If you’re building a pergola – or hiring a landscaper to build one for you – here are 3 questions to ask yourself before you start.

  1. Why are you building a pergola?
    One common misconception is that pergolas create shade. But they don’t. Pergola roofs are open-raftered, so they filter sun but never block it – and they let the most sun in at the hottest part of the day, when it’s directly overhead. If shade or shelter from the elements is your goal, you’re better off building a gazebo. Where pergolas excel is in setting off a more intimate area of your yard for dining or conversation, while still letting nature in. “Our ceiling is the heavens – it’s infinite,” Hursthouse landscape designer Jeff True says. “A pergola helps define an overhead canopy, making that space more intimate. It’s best over a passive area, where you or your guests are going to settle in. It says ‘come spend time here.’”
  2. What materials will be best?
    While availability and cost are always a consideration, the first thing to consider is the way your house and existing structures were built. “This one’s often ignored – even by the pros,” Hursthouse co-founder Bob Hursthouse says. “But in design, continuity is king – the more you can use the same looks and materials throughout your home, the more it ties together and pleases the eye.” If your house features a lot of cedar, a cedar pergola could make sense. Check the trim and paint colors on your house and consider matching those. At Hursthouse we custom-build our pergolas, so we can even cut pergola joists and features to align with those already in your home. The result is a landscape that feels like it belongs at your home, not at a hardware store.
  3. What will happen underneath it?
    It’s often not an option with pre-fabricated pergolas, but you’re best sizing your pergola to the activity that’s going to happen underneath it. Are you creating a dining space or an outdoor kitchen space? Is this a lounge or a place to play games? “If I put up a 10-foot pergola, then realize I can’t fit my dining table under it, that’s not ideal,” Jeff True says. “It’s better if I build it to be sized for how I’ll really use it. And the best approach is to do that, but also tie it into the rest of my architecture. The landscape should tell the story of the home – and of the family that lives there.”

Want more? Find photo and video of some of our favorite pergola projects right here, or learn how Hursthouse would approach your Chicago-area landscaping project on this page.