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What Is a Pergola, and What Are They Used For?

Updated: 4 days ago


Pergolas have a unique place in history and many people wonder what they are and what they are used for.

Pergolas have a unique place in architectural history. Just as the seeds of beloved plants were carried across seas and continents by immigrants and emigrants, the idea of an open-air garden structure was also carried across cultures. First known to appear in Ancient Egypt and Ancient China, early outdoor rooms were made from wood and used as temples, seasonal housing, and functional trellises for growing grapes and other vine crops.


Romans were introduced to these simple alfresco spaces for the first time during their conquest of Egypt. Thanks to their popularity with Roman soldiers and politicians, the pergola soon became a must-have feature in every Italian garden—beautiful and functional shade structures captured the imagination of French gardeners visiting Italy during the Renaissance. And from there, they were introduced to English gardeners where the naturalist movement was gaining speed, and manufactured materials like brick and mortar were losing favor for building garden features.


Sometime later, around the 20th century, renowned English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and famed horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll revived the modern romance with the classic structure by successfully harmonizing the hard lines of wood and metal—rather than stone and brick used by former generations—with the soft lines of garden flora.


Pergolas Today: Shade and More

Modern pergola materials like durable woods, natural finishes, and convenient metal pergola kits with brackets make it possible for almost any do-it-yourself enthusiast to erect the perfect custom pergola in their backyard.


Open-air structures are more than a beautiful place to escape the sun, read a book, host guests, or simply relax. They also enhance the outdoor experience of your property and provide more versatility and functionality to your landscaping options.


What Is a Pergola, Exactly?

If you’re unsure what type of structure technically qualifies as a pergola, you’re certainly not alone. Arbors, gazebos, trellises, and carports all share similar architectural features with the historic garden staple. What is a pergola as opposed to other outdoor structures? Let’s compare some differences:


  • Arbor

Arbors are relatively small and portable, and they often have a curved top. While an arbor may be attached to a fence, they are typically freestanding and used to define or enhance a pathway or garden entrance (or exit).

  • Gazebo

Gazebos are very similar to pergolas, but two defining features of a gazebo set the structure apart. First, they are round or octagonal-shaped. Second, gazebos have a closed roof and are the most permanent and costly structure out of these options.

  • Carport

A carport is a roof supported by four or more wood posts. While the construction is similar to a pergola, a carport has a closed top and, usually, a concrete or finished floor. It is usually constructed specifically for housing a motor vehicle.


What Is a Pergola? The Defining Features

Some of the characteristics of a pergola include the linear structure, flat top, and wood and metal materials.

Over time, the term “pergola” means almost any wooden structure in the garden. But some distinguishing features define this specific open-air space, including:


  • Linearly structured

  • Can be attached to a house or be customized as a free standing pergola

  • Large in scale

  • Flat top

  • Open ceiling

  • Post-and-beam construction (traditionally wood and metal materials)

  • Has custom pergola shade covers or can provide shade on its own

  • Typically placed in the backyard (not at a gate or over a driveway)


Now that we’ve answered the question “what is a pergola,” let’s explore the purpose of a pergola and how having one can add to the way you enjoy your backyard.


What is the Purpose of a Pergola in My Backyard?

The first reason to have a pergola is that they are simply beautiful. Pergolas are also relatively easy to build and will immediately transform your backyard. No matter what style of garden or home design you prefer, an open-air structure can enhance it. You can design and decorate your outdoor space to suit your taste and lifestyle—even if that means no decorations at all.


Here are five great reasons we think you’ll love living with this type of outdoor structure:


1. They Add Value

Most experts estimate homeowners will receive 50-80% on their ROI for deck and other backyard improvements that are well-maintained. In areas where shade or outdoor living is essential, that return could even be higher. A pergola can do for “backyard appeal,” the same thing upgraded landscaping does for curb appeal.


2. They Add Shade

Even with their classic open-roof design, pergolas can provide a surprising amount of shade for both plants and people. Larger roof slats, thoughtful positioning, and climbing plants can significantly increase the amount of sun protection offered. If you have a backyard patio that’s too hot to enjoy during the summer months, a pergola may be the perfect solution.


3. They Add Three-Season Living Space

Whether attached to your home or freestanding on the back of the garden, a custom pergola is an extra “room” well-suited to dining, entertaining, working, or relaxing from spring until fall. They can even provide an excellent, shady spot for the kids to play outdoors on hot days.


4. They Add Versatility to Your Garden

If you live in a hot, dry area or would simply like to lower water usage without sacrificing your love of gardening, a pergola can help. Pergolas are large enough to cast a considerable amount of shade inside and outside the structure, creating a cooler zone where shade-loving plants can thrive. If water costs or usage are a concern, giving thirsty plants a little sun protection during the day can dramatically reduce the amount of water they need to thrive.


5. They Are Affordable

Compared with awnings, patios, and covered decks, custom pergolas offer a cost-effective option for backyard improvements. Depending on the size and the wood and other materials chosen, you can quickly build a pergola for under $2,000. And pergolas are a great DIY project, especially with pergola kits, pre-cut woods, and specialty hardware to make it easier.


What Is the Point of a Pergola? It’s Everything!

What is the point of a pergola, you ask? Ultimately, the purpose of a pergola is to make life more enjoyable. The answer is that simple. Whether you dream of a space to cook and entertain outdoors or a quiet place in the shade to relax, this historic outdoor structure can make those dreams come true.


Complete pergola hardware kits and easy-to-use metal brackets and pergola beams from Bjørn Woodworks simplify the process of building your own durable and striking pergola. Contact us today with questions about sizing, design, or materials. We believe the best things in life are natural and real—perfect in their imperfections. Let us help you translate our philosophy of genuine beauty to your construction project.


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