Pergolas: Centuries of custom shading

A pergola is a structure made up of pillars (or columns) supporting a layer  (or layers) of cross members to create an airy, open-roofed shelter.  The history of the pergola is embedded deep in European and Asian design. There are examples of pergolas being used in ancient Italy and Egypt as well as ancient China.

The word pergola can be traced back to the Latin word “pergula”  which meant the building or projection of an eave.  The shape, form, and materials have been modified over time in relation to the specialties and construction methods of that time period.  However, the main design intent has always been for a shading device to create an outdoor room.  Continuing need for shading from the sun and enjoyment of the outdoors has led to the modern garden pergola.

Pergolas, such as the ones shown here, are a great way to create custom shading with an elegant touch.  Pergolas can extend out as far as needed to help protect from any angle of sun.  They can be attached to a home or be free-standing, depending where a client would like to have shade.  With several projects we have worked on in the past, we have attached one end of a pergola on a house wall and extended it out over a terrace.  This allows for a client to have the ability to be indoors on a sunny exposure and yet have shading to cool that face of the building.   Additionally, they can be near the interior functions of a house (kitchen, family room) while being outside and shaded from the harsh mid-day sun.

Today, the modern-day pergola top framing members would typically be made out of wood.  We prefer to use western red cedar or other more rot resistant woods.  These can be painted, stained, or allowed to silver naturally.  More modern materials like cellular PVC can also be used to make a pergola be lower maintenance and rot free, and even powder-coated metals can be used for additional strength or a more modern look.

The posts or columns supporting the pergola can be solid wood, or wood trimmed around structural columns, or be synthetically wrapped trim around less attractive posts such as pressure-treated posts).  Again, synthetic materials such as cellular PVC hold paint well and do not rot, although this would eliminate the option to have the look of stained or weathered wood.  The posts can also be masonry piers such as brick or stucco, or stone veneer over a structural column.  Round or square columns can influence the feel of the pergola and compliment the style of the home.  Reclaimed or antique columns can even be used for a more aged appearance.

Some clients prefer the pure form of the pergola beams and framing to remain visible, and add additional layering of framing members to provide adequate shading.  However, pergolas can also be constructed to allow for vines and other greenery to be grown on top to help create a garden connection and provide additional shading for summer, yet leave the pergola more open in the winter to allow more sunlight to warm the house during that season.

If the pergola is to be planted, then nearby planting beds or over-sized pots need to provide a good rooting for the plants.  Care must be taken in selecting the plants to coordinate with the framing members.  For example, although the voluptuous purple blooms of Wisteria are romantically appealing, the strength and rapid growth of the vine requires an extra-sturdy framing and on-going, diligent pruning.  In addition, some plants such as climbing roses are lighter-weight but can attract bees and nesting birds which may not be as appealing to some clients.

There are also folding shades or fabric canopies and drapes that can also go along pergola beams to create more shade and shelter if needed. These can also provide more privacy in a more urban setting.

With more and more activities focusing on the joys of outdoor living and entertaining, the pergola can also offer a perch for outdoor lighting.  The lighting can be subtle, small track lights anchored to the sides of the pergola beams, or if the height allows there can be pendant lights or chandeliers added for atmosphere or ceiling fans for comfort.

Smaller projected pergolas are also gaining popularity as window shading devices on homes as well as being used more regularly as elegant accent pieces over garage doors.  The shading from these smaller pergolas helps to cut down on energy bills by reducing the amount of heat gain during the hot summer months.

Adding a pergola to your house is an easy addition that can add value to your home as well as create an elegant, comfortable outdoor living space. For past centuries, and centuries still to come, humans have been attracted to the idea of a pergolas and outdoor living.  We can work with any client to help design a custom pergola to fit their needs.