Taking on a home improvement project is an exciting thing. This is especially true if you’re looking to decorate your backyard and are thinking of adding a permanent structure to it.
It just so happens that there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to what you call these structures. You’ve probably heard the names pergola and arbor thrown around interchangeably.
Well, there’s a difference between the two and we’re here to clear the air about what can be called a pergola or an arbor.
So stick around to know more about these structures, what they’re used for, as well as what it will take to build one in your backyard!
Let’s start by describing both structures and the main defining traits of either of them.
A pergola is an outdoor structure that has a flat roof, usually made of cross lattice wooden beams, as well as four or more columns or posts to prop it up.
It’s usually large enough to be a seating area, with a roof at least 10–12 feet high and an area 12–14 feet wide.
A pergola can be a freestanding structure in a corner of the garden. However, it’s more commonly found attached to the side of the house, garage, or shed.
That’s apt because another name for a pergola, commonly used in post-World War II construction, is “patio roof” which describes it perfectly!
That said, pergolas were around long before the mid-twentieth century. In fact, they date back as far as Roman times.
There’s archeological evidence of Roman villas having a shaded area attached to the main house that relied on pillars for support.
Just look at the name pergola, it’s directly derived from the Latin word pergula which means projection.
This was taken as a source of inspiration in Italian Renaissance architecture, and later on by the Victorians who enjoyed the same themes in their homes and gardens.
So you can see that pergolas have a long, rich history that brought them to our modern times.
But what about arbors?
An arbor is a freestanding structure that serves mainly as an entrance to a section of your backyard or garden. It’s made of two or four posts that carry an arch or a narrow, rectangular roof, usually made of wooden lattice, metal, or vinyl.
The main purpose of an arbor is to be a decorative separator or walkway, though it can also provide some shade for a bench or two. It’s usually not large enough to support more seating.
Arbors are also the background for ornamental plants that usually cover them. That’s because most arbors are fitted with trellises, which are wooden latticework structures that provide backing for climbing vines.
The most common plants to use with arbors are Clematis, American Honeysuckle, Ivy, Wisteria, and Roses. These usually have beautiful foliage that covers the entire arbor, with specks of color from the flowers.
That’s fitting because the word arbor itself is taken from the French word herbere, which means herb or grass. That means its original purpose was to support plants to grow in a decorative arch shape.
Now that we know what each structure is, let’s go over what the differences between them are.
Pergolas can be placed as an independent structure of the house, but are more commonly found attached to the side of the house. That’s because the house provides some support for the roof and makes the structure sturdier and more durable even in unpleasant weather.
Arbors are always found freestanding in an area leading to the backyard or garden. They’re used as a form of decorative entrance or as a separator for a new section of the garden.
Pergolas are larger and more intricate than arbors. They stand on at least four posts or columns, and usually have a higher roof of 10–12 feet in height.
Arbors, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller. They can be supported by only two posts and can be about eight feet high.
Since pergolas are bigger and wider, they should be made of sturdy materials that make them structurally sound. That’s why you can find pergolas made of hardwoods, like cedar or oak.
You can also find pergolas made of metal, like aluminum, which is lighter in weight, but resists corrosion and can perform well in unsavory weather conditions.
There are also some wicker pergolas that fit smaller areas and are lighter and easier to set up.
The roof of a pergola can be left open, but if you want to provide some shade, you can cover it with a tarp of weather-proof cloth. This should make it a nice, shady spot in your yard to chill in.
Arbors aren’t usually that sophisticated in terms of building materials. You can find prefabricated ones on the market made of vinyl or plastic.
That said, you can make arbors of more expensive materials like hardwoods or fiberglass. They can also be custom-made according to the dimensions and designs you’d like.
Pergolas can be made in plenty of designs, but the most common one is just a flat roof with four columns or posts supporting it. This simple design provides the most shade and a large-enough area to place a few seats.
Arbors can be either arched, rectangular, or triangular on top. It all comes down to the shape you want to create for the entryway into your garden, though flat-top arbors do provide the most shade should you add a bench underneath.
When it comes to decorating your pergola, you can go crazy with ideas! You can add trellises to the side as decorative panels with climbing plants on them, or you can get a little more creative.
Fairy lights, that are either battery or solar-powered, add a certain charm to the seating area and make it usable after sundown. You can also add a ceiling fan if you live somewhere humid, just make sure to properly insulate the wiring.
Lanterns are also a great addition to a pergola, especially if you want an exotic feel to it.
Furniture-wise, standard wicker chairs are common, but you can get creative with it and add comfy couches and a coffee table. If the roof and supports are strong enough, you can even go for a hammock!
As for arbors, they’re mainly a way to decorate your yard vertically with plants, but accents, like fairy lights, can also give a nice touch to the area.
If you’ve opted for a sturdily-built arbor with solid beams, you can hang a swing set from it. Just make sure that the arbor is well-supported and doesn’t move.
If you want the swing-set look without building a new arbor, just place a regular swing set under the arch and train your climbing plants to cover the pipework of the swing set. This should make the arbor look as if it’s attached to the swing set.
Now we get to the important part, the cost of building.
First of all, you have to decide whether you’ll take this on as a DIY project or hand it over to a contractor.
If you want a simple, light building that’s made using a prefabricated kit, doing it yourself will save a lot of money.
However, if you lack the proper experience needed to successfully set it up, you could be looking at a very expensive accident waiting to happen.
Unless you’re confident with building materials, it’s better to ask for a professional’s help.
That aside, the cost will greatly vary depending on the materials you’ll use.
Pre-made pergola kits can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on the material, size, and design you choose.
On the other hand, pre-made arbor kits can be as cheap as $130 for simple metallic structures. But you should expect higher-quality products to be more expensive, so anything between $150 and $500 is standard.
When it comes to custom-made pergolas, the cost depends on the type of wood you use, as well as the contractor’s fees. This can set you back anything between $2,000 and $10,000.
If you want a custom-made arbor, expect to pay $500 up to $1,000 for materials and contractor fees.
Building outdoor structures is often touted as a good strategy for home resale value. Just keep in mind that this is solely a function of the structure’s quality, shape, and general usefulness.
If you opt for a cheaply-made prefabricated arbor, it won’t pump up the value of your property as much as a solid hardwood 12 x 12 pergola.
Similarly, if you live somewhere with less-than-great weather year-round, chances are, no one will make much use of the outdoor seating spaces.
So keep that in mind if you’re thinking of investing in a large project that can cost thousands to finish.
Deciding between a pergola vs an arbor in your backyard comes down to a lot of factors. These include the available space, the purpose of the structure, as well as how much you’re willing to pay for it.
While both pergolas and arbors offer nice, shady areas for sitting and relaxing, pergolas are much bigger and more versatile. Arbors, on the other hand, could be a great addition to a small yard with not much room for a large structure.
Just keep in mind that the better-quality the structure is, the better it reflects on the resale value of your property should you sell it in the future.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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