Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Pergola Dreams

For years, I've dreamed of a vine-covered pergola ablaze with flowers, something like this (snatched from here):

In 2020, I decided to look into making this a reality.

Pergolas are not hard to build. As Dave Berry might say, you can throw a pile of lumber on the ground, and it will form a pergola. You just put up the posts, attach the beams, put the rafters on top of those, and cap the whole shebang with stringers (aka runners or perlins). It's been said that a pergola may be the ideal DIY project for a long weekend.

That's assuming you build it the conventional way. The conventional way is not really me. I dislike seeing fasteners, so my pergola dreams lack visible hardware (e.g., bolts or screws). I also dislike the stacked look of rafters atop beams and stringers atop rafters. I'd rather have it look like all the roof components are pretty much at the same level. And I don't care for the look you get when you look up through the roof of a typical pergola. All those rectangles! I want something more visually interesting during the years before the vines have grown to cover the structure.

After a few iterations, I came up with a design for a "floating pergola," whereby the roof sort of looks like it's floating above the posts and rafters (at least from the front). Cross-lapping the beams makes it look like they pass through one another:

I also came up with ideas for hiding the hardware holding the structure together, e.g., putting vertical metal rods in the posts which would fit into holes bored in the underside of the beams. Whether that would prove structurally sound, I can't say, but it would hide the hardware, and it would allow the top of the pergola to sit on the posts and be held in place by gravity.

The more creative aspect of the project was figuring out what the roof would look like from below and above. The view from above is relevant, because the second floor of our house looks down on the site for the pergola. 

My design above has the beams and rafters forming this pattern:

The question is what to do with the stringers. From the pergola's perspective, they're just decorative, but once the vines have grown to cover the structure, the stringers will need to hold their own under the weight of the vines lying on top of them. They thus need to be both visually interesting and relatively sturdy.

I mocked up a number of possibilities:

Design 5 was my ultimate choice:
With these plans in hand, I approached a number of local contractors.  I figured I'd get a few bids, choose a contractor, and watch the sawdust fly.

That's not what happened. Three contractors never responded to my email inquiry about the project. Three came and talked with me, looked at my plans, promised to send a bid, then ghosted me. An additional three didn't do pergolas, didn't work in my area, or weren't accepting new jobs. One wanted payment of several thousand dollars to develop a 3D model of the structure to be built before issuing a bid. One offered a time-and-materials bid that he estimated would come to about $11,500, but it made no mention of the footings for the posts. The twelfth contractor offered only a "very rough" estimate of $21,500. Nobody was willing to offer a fixed-priced bid for the work. 

I was astonished. I knew that my design was unconventional, but it's still just carpentry. I was working on this during the first year of the pandemic, so perhaps that played a role, but oh-for-twelve is still a pretty dismal record.

I briefly considered doing the construction myself, but I just don't want to. It's a lot of work, and I'd rather have a professional do it. Anyway, it eventually dawned on me that keeping a white pergola that's covered with vines looking good means coming up with a way to clean or paint it, and I don't know how to approach that task. Look again at the pergola at the top of this post. How do they keep that gleaming white structure gleaming white? However they do it, it's probably time-consuming, and what I want is a picture-perfect vine-covered pergola without any fussy maintenance. I'm guessing those don't exist.