Building Outdoor Rooms

Design Tips From an Expert

Image of vine-covered pergola.
This vine-covered, freestanding pergola is simple yet elegant. But to take your outdoor room to another level, consider a pergola with a retractable canopy. David Beaulieu

Would you like to build an outdoor room, creating a spot where you could take meals al fresco during the summertime? Or perhaps you visualize yourself lounging in a comfortable chair in the yard, reading a book or working on your laptop? Problem is, for you to be able to enjoy these activities on a regular basis, you would need a space that shades you from the scalding summer sun and keeps you dry on rainy days.

Enter Steve Ostrowski, co-founder of Shade Pergolas. Steve specializes in pergolas fitted with shade canopies. The Q&A below is the result of an interview I conducted with Steve. Its purpose is to give the general reader some insight into the benefits and cost of an upscale pergola. Use this information to help you decide whether building an outdoor room makes sense for a person with your particular wants, needs, and budget.

We begin with an introduction to building outdoor rooms, in general, before moving on to look specifically at his covered pergolas.

Outdoor Rooms Offer Rain, Sun Protection 

Q. Steve, what are the top factors homeowners should consider when thinking of building an outdoor room?

A. One major factor to consider in outdoor room design is getting the most enjoyment out of the opportunities of being outside. It all starts with gaining protection from the elements. Without that, you don't really have a "room."

Q. What is the number one thing homeowners struggle with when making decisions about building outdoor rooms? Are there any trade secrets you can share to shed light upon this type of struggle, helping to simplify the process for homeowners?

A. I think a lot of homeowners buy nice furniture and accessories, then curse the sun and rain all summer long. Again, the first step to enjoying comfort in an outdoor room starts with sun and rain protection. Another obstacle is the hardscaping. The foundation of an outside room is important and can be a large part of the landscape budget. Unless there is an existing deck or patio, the homeowner must start with the foundation.

Q. Beside pergolas, what are the top items or structures every outdoor room design should include?

A. It is important to know how the outdoor room will be used. Is it for reading, entertaining, dining, or perhaps all of the above? With this in mind, choose the space to be protected from sun and rain. From there the furniture choices and layout of the space are almost unlimited. Also, becoming more popular are outdoor kitchens, bars, TVs, outdoor fireplaces and fire pits, and water features. Many of these are traditionally thought of as interior décor accessories. It is necessary to invest in a protective covering to ensure the longevity of these items.

Trends, Benefits of Outdoor Rooms

Q. Could you please provide insight into the consumer research being conducted regarding trend shifts in outdoor living that have influenced the concept of shade pergolas and other structures for outdoor rooms (i.e., real estate market, unpredictable weather, staycation factor, outdoor room design changes, etc.)? How have these shifts effected changes in accessory options for outdoor rooms and availability?

A. We have not, currently, conducted independent research on outdoor living trends. But we have observed the trends and have trusted our own judgment in assessing them. Our observations tell us there are numerous forces driving the growth in popularity of outdoor rooms. For instance, staycations are driven by the lack of disposable incomes for travel among the middle-income homeowners in this economy, while higher income earners are less enthusiastic about weekend travel, which can be another source of the stress they want to avoid.

Real estate may be down in some areas of the US, but the premium on square feet of living space will always be a luxury in urban locations. Many homeowners find that expanding into an outdoor room is the most affordable way to enhance your lifestyle three or four seasons of the year. A shade product is a fraction of the cost of a home addition and can offer three-quarters of its benefit, if designed properly.

Disposable income is another force that is driving the baby boomers to grow beyond their walls. Inside their homes they have everything from flat-screen TVs and home theater sound to kitchen islands and stainless appliances. The backyard is a new frontier to be enjoyed, since the indoors can feel enclosed in the summer months. Finally, air conditioning is having its own fatiguing effect on the homeowner. Twenty years ago, homeowners air conditioned their home then escaped into the bowels of its cool at the height of summer. Now, with vacations in the islands and Europe exposing Americans to the benefits of shade canopies, they are coming home and realizing most of the pleasure of going south is in sitting in the shade with a relaxing drink in their hand. And, they can do that in their backyards, too.

Q. What are some of the less obvious benefits to homeowners in erecting structures that will serve as outdoor living rooms?

A. The emphasis in outdoor living rooms is on comfort, luxury and lifestyle. But there are practical benefits that may be less obvious. These include the fact that adaptable shade is a critical element of sustainable building design, as endorsed by NASA. Studies show a south facing patio door covered with an awning in the summer and uncovered for sun in the winter can save up to 70% of the energy cost to heat and cool that room over the year. Another critical benefit is that everything under the canopy in the outdoor living room is protected from the sun’s UV rays. Hence the risk of skin cancer is diminished, while the life of the deck and furniture is extended.

Q. What are some trendy colors currently being used in outdoor living rooms? How should homeowners and/or their designers decide which colors to use for building projects?

A. The drama of black makes it among the most popular awning fabric colors. However, there is regionalization in this. Forest green is most popular in New England, while Terra Cotta rules in Arizona. If there is a popular color without geographic boundaries, it is beige.

Q. How would adding an outdoor living room affect real-estate value? Have you conducted studies or gathered this kind of information in a specific way?

A. Currently, we have not conducted such studies. However an outdoor living room is the back side of "curb appeal." An addition of such a space can add value if it is in good taste, reflects the architecture of the home, has the correct proportions, and is in good repair, just as any interior room.

Q. Discuss the relative importance of design and function for an outdoor room.

A. Design without functionality is not good design. Outdoor rooms that have sun and rain protection need a little more consideration of factors, such that the finished space can result in endless pleasure or nagging nuisances. Planning is the key. Outdoor living rooms are used differently than decks with patio umbrellas. Many homeowners enjoy reading and computing in outdoor living rooms, with the similar comforts of indoor rooms. So, be sure to consider prevailing winds and the potential need for a wind screen or privacy screen. Be aware that drip lines will occur at the edge of the canopy. It’s terrible if the drip line lands on top of a railing when another 2 inches of width can have the drip line outside the railing. Consider the location of the sun as it arcs through the day and how morning sun is nice but afternoon sun is too hot. That can adjust the location of your sitting vs. doing areas.

Q. Should the entire outdoor living room be installed at the same time? How difficult is it to add new structures or additions to existing outdoor living rooms?

A. Adding structures after the fact is not difficult. However, you’ll want to consider the locations of things like sliding doors, stairs, paths, wires, trees, etc. to make sure that the first half of your project allows the second half to happen. A common problem is the chimney of an outdoor fireplace getting in the way of a shade pergola canopy, or any taller item for that matter.

Another problem homeowners face is using patio stones for a base that can’t properly anchor a shade pergola and the other items needing foundation. Later, they need to be pulled up so post holes can be sunk when a 4-inch concrete slab would have been best. Planning the layout and foundation first is often thought of as ideal, but later installations of outdoor living room components are very possible with the right products, direction and information.

Q. Steve, what are some of the hottest design trends currently being seen in outdoor rooms (i.e., structures, fabrics, accessories, furniture, materials, etc.)?

A. I know I am biased, but pergolas are hot, and pergolas with retractable shade canopies are red hot. We are inundated with inquiries from consumers and designers alike that are thrilled there is finally a retractable shade canopy for pergolas. The fact it is wind and rain resistant takes their enthusiasm to an entirely new level. Based upon current forecasts, we expect to grow 300% this year.

Also, implementing interior accessories / appliances to outdoor rooms is a very popular trend.

Q. What is the range of creativity in installing pergolas with retractable shade canopies?

A. As the manufacturer of the ShadeFX shade canopy systems, we have done some extreme installations that step beyond the overhead element of retractable shade canopies. ShadeFX systems can be oriented on angles and vertically as well. Because they are frame supported with “wings,” they offer wind protection you can’t get from roll down screens. With the new View fabrics from Sunbrella we can offer translucence on the vertical shade canopies to match the overhead shade canopies which are opaque. We can also insert LED lighting into the shade canopy wings for the ultimate in 21st century atmosphere. We have a few projects in the approval stage that turn a pergola into an enclosed room at the touch of a button.

Pergolas can range in size from very small entry pergolas that add architectural interest to a homeowner’s front door to very large structures that help define an outdoor eating area at a restaurant, and anything in between. As for creative choices, design style can be contemporary, rustic, formal, etc. Material can be rustic full timber cedar, mahogany, smooth and finished cedar, to the latest low maintenance cellular vinyl. Unstained, stained or painted. Strong simple lines to romantic flourishes using lattice panels, decorations, brackets….the only limit is homeowner’s imagination and budget.

Q. Beyond the obvious, what are the benefits of installing pergolas with shade canopies? How do these structures affect / enhance outdoor living?

A. In a word: Comfort! Shade pergolas allow the deck or patio to be used comfortably whenever the temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees. Rain or shine. That can change a homeowner's lifestyle. Outdoor living spaces are used about four times more if you have rain and sun protection. The best part is the value. On a per hour used basis, the return on your outdoor living space investment is multiplied three- or four-fold, making the product quite cost-effective.

Retractable Shade Canopies Are What Make These Pergolas Special

Q. Steve, since the shade canopy is retractable, I’m wondering what the mechanism is that controls it. Do you retract it manually or is the mechanism powered?

A. ShadeFX canopies are available in three operating versions: No drive, rope drive, and motor drive. There is a big price jump to the motor drive; it has enough power to operate a 30-foot long by 20-foot wide canopy. Canopies up to about 150 square feet operate easily with our rope drive. The rope drive extends and retracts the canopy the same way you would open and close the drapes in a hotel room.

Q. I see from your website that the shade canopies come in either a waterproof fabric or a water resistant fabric. Is there a difference in cost or durability between these two types of shade canopy materials?

A. The durability of both canopy fabrics is the same in terms of color fastness, resistance to rotting and mildew, etc. However the resistance to rain and "drip through" is where the products differ. Water-resistant fabrics will protect from light rain and light rain that even lasts for a few days. It is entirely suitable for most homeowners. Waterproof fabrics will protect from heavy rain, for three seasons of the year. So, just like homeowners, restaurants and clubs prefer to have the knowledge that drip points won’t develop over their dining tables even in wet locations like Portland, Oregon.

Q. As a New Englander, I have to ask how well the product would hold up to a New England winter. Do you just retract the shade canopy for the winter and let it be, or would you have to remove the shade canopy altogether for the winter?

A. The canopy fabric is very durable and resistant to weather. We have never had a failure due to weather exposure. However, care must be taken to ensure the heavy winds of winter don’t blow the fabric against any abrasive surfaces. With that being said, we have customers that prefer to remove the canopy for the winter, while others leave the canopy retracted. Keep wildlife in mind: We have seen squirrel damage in canopies left out over the winter that were retracted against the wall of a home. Also, leaves can build up in the folds of the canopy fabric in the fall; unless this is removed it can stain the canopy fabric -– and probably attract those squirrels! Removal is very fast and easy and does not require tools.

Q. Steve, tell us about the pergola styles your company offers.

A. As far as “standard” shade pergola styles we offer two pergola top designs: Flat Top and Arched Top with a choice of Round or Square columns. Standard sizes are 10 feet x 10 feet, 10 feet x 12 feet, 10 feet x 14 feet, 12 feet x 12 feet and 12 feet x 14 feet. However, Walpole Woodworkers, co-founder of Shade Pergolas, has crafted many, many custom pergolas in all styles. 

There are so many variables -– column choices, freestanding and attached, sizes, material, fret work, historic replication, color, canopies for covered pergolas.... Again, the only limit is your imagination and budget.

Q. How are covered pergolas superior to retractable awnings for providing shade?

A. Their superiority over retractable awnings ties back to the fact that shade pergolas have the strength of a frame. Therefore they can be:

  • Projected up to 40 feet
  • Left out in the wind and the rain
  • Installed flat, so that headroom is not lost over the length they project
  • Installed as a stand-alone garden feature

None of these capabilities are available from retractable awnings.

Q. Would you consider installing covered pergolas to be a DIY project? Why or why not?

A. It can be DIY for covered pergolas up to 200 square feet. Beyond that you would be wise to have a contractor do the installation. Basically, the components are big enough to risk product damage or personal injury if handled incorrectly.

Q. Can covered pergolas be added to existing patios, decks, etc.?

A. Absolutely! Walpole Woodworkers and ShadeFX Canopies make many covered pergolas to order. Custom orders make up the majority of our sales.

Q. Can covered pergolas fully protect outdoor furniture, etc., thus, reducing replacement costs of such items for owners due to damage from the elements?

A. Absolutely! Furniture, upholstery, even the deck surface, deteriorates from the sun’s UV rays. An extended canopy will take that punishment and then some. The fabric is very color stable; most homeowners will get more than 10 years enjoyment before the fabric shows signs of deterioration. Even then, ShadeFX keeps a record of every canopy we make, so replacement canopies, even 10 or 15 years later, are a phone call away.

Q. While size, style and materials used widely affect the cost of covered pergolas, is there an approximate estimated cost range homeowners should expect to pay?

A. I think your question outlines exactly what affects the cost of most projects. You can purchase a 10 x 10 pergola for $1,000 or $40,000 depending on the pergola style, design and materials used. For a quality 10 x 10 pergola with shade canopy a homeowner can expect to pay $7,000-$15,000.

Co-founder, Steve Ostrowski is the force behind Shade Pergolas, which were introduced by the outdoor living innovators at Walpole Woodworkers and ShadeFX Canopies. Shade Pergolas combine standard wooden or cellular vinyl pergolas with retractable and integrated canopy systems.