How to Create Rustic Community Areas with an Old-School Amenity

How to Create Rustic Community Areas with an Old-School Amenity


The months leading up to spring and summer when the landscape hibernates afford time to employ an old-school amenity with rustic elegance that promotes outdoor gatherings around the fire pit, pool or grill area.

Pergolas, also known as arbors, are time-tested wooden open-air structures that offer apartment residents a comfortable, outdoorsy place to congregate nearly year-round.

Ideal for covering decks, patios and walkways, pergolas have made a comeback in recent years with a variety of uses and sizes. They may stretch far enough to partially or fully cover expansive patios and pools or provide a small respite in the middle of the property. They also dress up building entrances and can connect one structure to the other via a covered walkway.

A cost-efficient option to other types of artificial cover

The structures may seem to be an ultra-modern amenity but they’ve been around for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years. Some of the earliest examples date to ancient Egypt and Italy where they were built to provide outdoor shaded areas by covering them with creeping vine.

Pergolas are built from vertical posts supporting a network of cross beams and a durable open lattice which can be covered or left open to the elements. Typically, they are built from rugged stained cedar that withstands weather and provides structural integrity for 15-20 years if maintained properly.

The wood is pre-treated and stained before installation. The only real maintenance is applying a fresh coat of stain about every three or four years.

Pergolas are most commonly made from cedar, which provides a durable, long-lasting support system. While it may be expensive (average cost is about $15,000) it’s a much more cost efficient option than building a steel canopy or covered area.

Pergolas are usually free-standing but can be designed to butt up to buildings. It’s important to provide drainage near the posts so that water doesn’t stand and cause deterioration. Typically, the floors can be made from grass, stone or rock to facilitate drainage.

Pergolas provide a welcome retreat just about anywhere on the property

Because of their lightweight and simplistic design, pergolas can be installed just about anywhere to provide a welcome retreat. The structures are common on suburban properties that have plenty of outdoor space but they can be adopted at urban mid-rises just as well. A 12’ x 12’ area is about all that’s needed for the most basic pergola.

Retrofits to pool and outdoor areas are common. Around the pool, posts can be cut into existing decks to provide the foundation for shade. Natural greenery or lightweight screen, breathable polyethylene or canopy-type materials can provide cover.

A Dallas mid-rise recently installed a pergola that partially covers the pool on the building’s third floor. At another apartment community, a pergola was positioned at the end of the pool deck to offer families a place to gather and escape the heat.

For a more personal touch, pergolas can be outfitted with curtains to give people a semi-private cabana kind of feel.

For a green look, wisteria or trumpet vines can be planted at the base of posts to grow over the structure. The greenery, which will latch onto the wood, provides natural protection from the sun and rain. Within about two years of planting, the pergola may be fully covered.

However, there is a downside. The vine will actually hold moisture to the wood, which increased the rate at which the structure will break down and fail. Also, staining requires removing or peeling back the plant growth to get to the wood. If the growth is too dense, it may need to be removed all together and require starting over.

As an alternative, hanging baskets offer natural color and dress up the area. The structure can be outfitted with drip irrigation to keep plants moist and green rather than watering by hand.

A soft amenity that transitions the landscape

A big advantage of pergolas is that the natural wood blends with the landscape and provides relief from the stone and brick, concrete and steel already in the apartments. It’s a soft amenity that transitions the landscape.

Pergolas are a great opportunity for apartments to re-introduce a viable outdoor amenity to the property that gives residents a reason to gather and enjoy what the community has to offer. The comfort and welcoming feel of pergola is attractive and prospects and gives residents yet another reason to stick around.


President, Earthworks

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Chris Lee is President of Dallas, Texas-based Earthworks, which specializes in multifamily housing landscaping. He is a contributing author to Landscape Management magazine, licensed irrigation specialist and a Toro Intellisense certified technician. Chris studied business at the University of Arkansas from 1990-94 and horticulture and landscape design at Tarrant County College from 1999-01. He has been employed at Earthworks since 1998.

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