Building a Great Gazebo
Whether custom designed or built from a kit, a backyard pavilion provides a perfect place to unwind.
Say “gazebo” and what springs to most people's mind is an octagonal white garden building at the end of a long sweep of lawn. Although many gazebos do fit this traditional gingerbread-trimmed image, today's versions are just as likely to be square, rectangular, or round; have sleek lines; and sit close to the house, to encourage outdoor dining. They can even be built right into a porch or onto a deck, patio, or pool surround.
For Kathryn Keele, a homeowner in Pasadena, California, the formal redwood gazebo in the rose garden just steps from her Tudor-style house is a welcoming retreat. “It's very peaceful and private, but because it has lights and stereo speakers built in it's also wonderful for entertaining. We can squeeze six chairs around the table, but it's comfortable with four,” she says of the 12-foot-wide pavilion painted deep hunter green.
Putting One Up
A gazebo is generally defined as a freestanding, open-sided structure with a solid roof and (usually) a floor, though designers are constantly reinterpreting the form. While traditionally made of wood, gazebos also can be built of metal, stone, or even reinforced concrete. Cedar and redwood are top wood choices for their stability and weather resistance, and both can be painted or left unfinished. Pressure-treated lumber is a less expensive option, but it should be covered with a semitransparent stain. Floors, which are often raised by one or two steps, may be wood, brick, concrete, or stone. Most often, the roof is clad in cedar shakes, though other materials, including copper and slate, may be used, particularly to echo that detail of the main house.
There are three basic approaches to putting up a gazebo: building one from a set of plans, putting together a kit, or commissioning an original design.
Building one from scratch requires excellent carpentry skills—and a good set of plans. Gazebos & Other Outdoor Structures (Creative Homeowner, $15; Amazon) is an excellent resource for those with the requisite experience. This Old House master carpenter Norm Abram built a screened 8-foot-wide gazebo suitable for a pair of benches or Adirondack chairs; plans ($15) are available from the New Yankee Workshop. A more manageable do-it-yourself approach is to assemble a gazebo from a kit. If you don't have the time or inclination to put it together yourself, hiring a contractor to do it for you can still be a good way to get a quality structure built quickly. Expect to pay $500 and up for labor, plus the cost of the foundation.
Victorian-era octagonal structures — and a narrow Seattle lot — inspired the gazebo bump-out on Rich and Cathy Gaspar's porch. It's turned columns complement their 1908 house, and the continuous roofline provides additional all-weather living space.
Commissioning a gazebo isn't necessarily more expensive than buying and assembling a high-quality kit (they start at $2,000 to $3,000 for a 6- to 8-footer), and it allows you to get a truly customized design. For example, Paul Blazek, a landscape designer in San Francisco, designed an 11-foot-square gazebo with a wooden potting bench and plumbed copper sink inside. The green-stained cedar structure serves both as a working area in a raised-bed garden and as a gathering place for a family with young children. Joan Honeyman, a landscape architect in Washington, D.C., recently built a 17-foot- square gazebo attached to her client's house by a matching arbor—and wired it for high-speed Internet access so it could serve as an alfresco home office.
“While a gazebo design needs to blend with the landscape and work with the style of the house, size is also a major consideration,” says Honeyman. “A lot of times a gazebo is too small, but it's not often that it's too big.” She finds that clients either want a gazebo as a focal point in the garden, in which case a smaller 8-foot structure can suffice, or they want a destination, somewhere to go other than the patio or deck. “Once a family realizes how useful it is, and how much they'll be living in it, they want to put more stuff in it. We often start out designing a 12- or 13-foot-wide gazebo to fit a table and four chairs, and then the clients find they want to add more seating, and the size grows.”
When choosing a site for a gazebo, avoid low-lying areas where water collects. Set it on a level or elevated spot in order to keep it—and you—dry, and to maximize the view. Before building, make sure you or your contractor consults the local building department about whether you need a permit. (In some towns, one is required only for structures larger than 10 feet across.) Local building codes also dictate what kind of foundation you'll need. Sometimes a smaller structure can be built on concrete blocks or pressure-treated timbers laid directly on the ground, then reinforced with shed anchors. Larger structures will require concrete piers or a continuous concrete footing dug down to the frost line. Where frost isn't an issue, the footings should be at least 18 inches deep; otherwise, a reinforced-concrete slab, 4 inches thick, can serve as both support and floor.
Kathryn Keele's gazebo in Pasadena, California, has a louvered roof and a raised brick floor for a good view of the rose garden. A pendant light fixture and built-in stereo speakers encourage entertaining.
Bells and Whistles
While not every gazebo needs to be wired, it's a popular option. Most homeowners don't want to limit the usefulness of a structure that can serve as a dining room, reading room, or space for entertaining.
When it comes to electrical wiring, consider not only the best way to illuminate the inside of the gazebo, but also what will make it most attractive when seen from a distance. Swimming pool lights installed in the floor can provide uplighting that bolsters the gazebo's role as a garden feature, as can exterior lighting. An outlet can power a reading lamp, a blender for mixing drinks, or a plug-in sound system. An overhead ceiling fan provides a cooling breeze.
Screening the sides will deter mosquitoes from joining your dinner parties, while adding removable windows can extend the gazebo's use in cooler weather. Sliding lattice-panel sides provide privacy screening as needed.
In warm climates, the gazebo is often built complete with a hot tub. “But from a design perspective, it's a poor choice,” says Ed Repak, director of construction and drafting for Archadeck, a custom deck and gazebo builder. “In my experience, the gazebo becomes a lawn ornament covering the hot tub. But I've been in one where the guy had run cable for an outdoor TV mounted on a post. He loved it. It was his own realm.” Further proof that a gazebo's uses are limited only by the owner's imagination.
Building From a Kit
Perhaps the most popular option for putting up a gazebo these days is buying a prefab kit. Pieces come precut, often with the largest components (roof, floor, sides) preassembled in sections, no sawing required. Less expensive kits are made from pressure-treated fir or pine, while higher-end models are made of weather- and rot-resistant cedar. All fasteners (stainless or galvanized steel) should be included. Thanks to precision cutting and fitting, kits can deliver extremely well-engineered structures. "Because they're milled and built in the controlled environment of a factory, the quality control is very good," says Christopher Peeples, owner of Vixen Hill, which makes cedar kits of all shapes and sizes.
At a home in Key Largo, Florida, a round gazebo with a bell-shaped copper roof provides poolside shelter from the sun — and a cool vantage point for viewing the ocean beyond.
Support columns are typically held by gusset plates bolted directly onto the foundation piers, deck, patio, or concrete floor. Sections bolt together through predrilled holes; smaller pieces screw together. Designs range from simple square latticework structures ($1,500 and up for a 6-footer) to octagons dripping in decorative millwork and capped by a two-tiered, cupola-topped roof ($3,500 to $10,000 for a 12-footer). Most company literature says that a couple of people can put together a small to midsize model in a day or two with just a cordless drill, a wrench and sockets, and, in some cases, a hammer and a nail set. That time frame may or may not include the groundwork. For most homeowners, the hardest part is the foundation. Typically that requires digging and pouring concrete piers around the perimeter and one in the center — for an octagonal structure, nine footings.
How much skill is required? Bruce Swallow, a homeowner who lives outside of Pittsburgh and who modestly describes himself as “pretty handy,” put together a Dalton Pavilions 13-foot gazebo kit with three friends in five hours after church one Sunday afternoon. “But that was after the footers had been poured and the floor joists bolted down,” he points out. The foundation work took two men eight to 10 hours (they were nice enough to do the job while he was out of town). Though he concedes that he and his pals have more skills than most people—one's a plumber, another a drywall contractor—“none of us had ever done it before. Even with only half as much skill, it wouldn't take twice as long.”
The gingerbread-trimmed octagon with a pagoda-style roof, curved balusters, and a ceiling-mount fan was a surprise for his wife's fiftieth birthday. It stands one step up from a corner of their backyard deck, where they use it for casual dinners, gatherings with friends, and reading the morning paper.
“Getting the floor sections completely level, which a lot of people might not even bother with, was probably the most painstaking part,” says Bruce. Now it's a perfect spot for many birthday celebrations to come.
A Bit of History
The gazebo's ancestry can be traced back to ancient Japanese teahouses, Chinese garden shelters, and small buildings the Dutch built beside their canals. Some historians believe that the term gazebo (ga-zay-bo), which came into use in the 1700s to describe garden viewing pavilions, may be the result of a linguistic joke, in which “gaze” was altered to make it sound more Latin. Designer and draftsman Peter Joel Harrison relates another version of the word's origin in his pattern book Gazebos and Trellises: Authentic Details for Design and Restoration (about $50; Amazon). The story goes that at a garden party in 18th-century England, where all things French were in vogue, a guest remarked of the hostess's small teahouse, “Ça, c'est beau!” The Englishwoman then whispered to her friends that the fashionable term for her new teahouse was “gazebo.”
Where to Find It
Gaspar's, Seattle, WA
Glen Hampton Garden Designs
Dalton Pavilions Inc.
Langley, BC, Canada
William Taylor, AIA
The Taylor & Taylor Partnership
Miami Beach, FL
Our thanks to:
Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture
San Francisco, CA
Gazebos and Trellises: Authentic Details for Design and Restoration
Peter Joel Harrison (John Wiley & Sons, 1999)
Bowl and tablecloth
Sur La Table