What Is a Pergola and What Is It Used For?

Audrey Bruno
Written by Audrey Bruno
Updated May 3, 2022
Pergola on a backyard patio
Photo: JamesBrey / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Whether you want a place to hide from the sun or host summer gatherings, pergolas (literally) have you covered

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If you’re looking to add a shady sanctuary to your yard, a pergola is an alluring option. Similar to a patio, a pergola offers a picturesque place to host gatherings or simply relax. These outdoor structures are a little different than traditional patios, though. Read on for everything you need to know about pergolas, and whether you should add one to your outdoor space.

What Is a Pergola?

A pergola is a long, narrow structure that uses four freestanding pillars or columns to support a roof. It can be attached directly to a home or completely freestanding. The most common versions are topped with a series of cross beams for a thatched appearance, but there are also retractable, smart, and louvered options for different preferences. 

Visual comparison of 4 outdoor structures; pergola, arbor, gazebo, and trellis
Photos by Thomas Bullock/iStock/Getty Images Plus / Getty Images (Pergola); Darrell Gulin/The Image Bank / Getty Images (Arbor); laughingmango/E+ / Getty Images (Gazebo); krblokhin/ iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images (Trellis)

Louvered pergolas are covered with a mesh, waterproof fabric that creates complete shade cover and protection from the elements. Smart pergolas can be opened or closed automatically depending on the weather or manually via a remote or smartphone. Plus, a retractable pergola is equipped with a canopy that can be manually or digitally moved on or off. 

All in all, these outdoor structures can be minimalist or extravagant depending on your style. The typical thatched roofing is also an excellent opportunity for growing an entanglement of lush vines and other climbing plants.

What’s The Difference Between a Pergola and Other Outdoor Structures?

It can be difficult to distinguish between the variety of outdoor structures available to homeowners. Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences between the most common styles.

Pergola vs. Arbor

Arbors are typically much smaller than pergolas and not as architecturally complex. Most of the time, they’re completely freestanding and are usually fashioned with a curved arch. Arbors are constructed from hatched crossbeams and are also suitable for growing vines.

Pergola vs. Gazebo

Unlike pergolas, gazebos always have closed roofs and are circular instead of rectangular. They’re also freestanding and usually elevated rather than flush against the ground.

Pergola vs. Trellis

Though a trellis is a lot like a pergola in design, it’s generally a lot longer and more narrow and almost always freestanding. You’ll see them used as garden walkways more often than spots for hanging out.

What Is a Pergola Used For and What Are Its Benefits?

In general, pergolas provide shade and cover to a patio or terrace. Because they’re often built directly into a home, they extend your living area into your garden. Most people use them to host outdoor meals, though their design is uniquely suited to growing vines and displaying hanging plants.

Along with providing a place to cool off and hide from the sun, a pergola can significantly increase a home’s resale value. Building one in your yard can add 55% of their cost to the value of your house.

Cost to Build a Pergola

The cost of a pergola will vary greatly depending on the style you’ve chosen. In general, the average price is between $2,128 and $5,859 for materials and installation. If you’re planning on building the pergola over a pre-existing deck or patio, that may also increase the cost. Here’s the breakdown by type.

  • Standard: $30–$50 per sq. ft.

  • Louvered:  $20–$55 per sq. ft

  • Smart: $60–$64 per sq. ft

  • Retractable: $900–$3,000 total

Materials and Labor

Before building a pergola, you’ll need to decide on the type of material you want to use. Aluminum, cedar, and vinyl are among the most common options. Also, redwood is great for outdoor projects. Unless you’re planning on DIY-ing this project, you’ll also need to recruit a professional contractor. If you’d rather it be customized and prefabricated, the services of a backyard designer will also be necessary.

Upkeep

Your job isn’t finished once your pergola is built. Maintaining the structure will be necessary no matter what material it’s made of. While some styles are relatively low maintenance—like aluminum, which doesn’t rust or stain easily—wood pergolas will need to be cleaned and sealed every two to three years. Also take care to remove any grease splatter right away if you’re planning on using it as a spot for barbecuing.

Can You DIY This Project?

Though this is a project that can be DIY-ed—there are kits available for $600 to $7,500hiring a backyard landscaper will ensure the final product is structurally sound. A savvy homeowner may already have all the necessary tools and know-how to make it a reality on their own, but the difference in cost isn’t that great and having help will make the process easier in general.

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