Front Porch Pergola Project

The front porch is back in style, and its architectural prominence makes it a superstar in curb appeal.

Unfortunately, many homes--like the 1980s suburban split used for this project--sport skinny, superficial porches that look fine but lack function. These narrow spaces (often little more than generous roof overhangs) are not practical as outdoor living areas, especially if you want room for a table and chairs.

To transform the front of this home, we expanded the concrete walkway to create a large patio and then applied a decorative finish to unite the old and new surfaces. (When you're adding onto a porch it is usually most efficient to continue with the existing flooring — wood, stone, concrete, pavers or tile — but don't rule out the idea of switching to a different material for the entire area.) We also added a pergola that nests under the eave so it appears to be a natural extension of the structure.

Besides gaining outdoor living space, we wanted to take attention away from the standout garage façade (another architectural feature common to modern houses). The new porch puts the focus on a friendly entryway for visitors, not vehicles, and gives the house a distinctive charm.

Front yard pergola planning
Before embarking on any building addition, check with your municipality about zoning restrictions and to see whether permits are required. In our case, the 25-ft. minimum setback requirement would have been a problem if the house were a few feet closer to the curb or if we had planned for a larger extension. No two properties are the same, but some general principles apply to all scenarios.

To be sure that our plan would not compromise the structure, we looked at original blueprints, examined the roof structure from inside the attic and consulted the city's building official. Although the two 4x4 porch posts were on footings, they were not load-bearing or structural, so it was safe to remove them. Of course, if additional footings are required (two were in our case), it's essential to check for underground utilities.

Before settling on a design, we measured the space, marked potential footprints with a garden hose and drew sketches of ideas. We looked at the eaves to see where we needed to design around downspouts, gutters or soffit vents. We also researched pergola styles online and at the library.

A day before we started the project, we carefully dug out the surrounding plants and "banked" them in a shady spot, keeping their roots covered and moist. We also removed the groundcover material (river rock) and stored it elsewhere in the yard to reuse after construction was finished.

Building the concrete slab
Although most of the existing slab was in good condition, there was a large crack in one section of the concrete walkway. This project offered the opportunity to fix that eyesore (and potential hazard) by replacing the section while enlarging the overall surface. Forming a concrete slab and pouring footings can be DIY projects, but we opted to bring in a professional to do the work.

Once the old 4x4 posts were removed, the concrete's square cutouts needed to be expanded to receive the new 6x6 posts. Our contractor used a concrete-cutting saw to enlarge the holes so the new posts could rest directly on the existing footings. To protect the wood's end grain from rotting, we needed to preserve the ends of the new posts and to seal around them once they were in position. An alternative approach is to pour new footings and set metal post supports into the tops of the footings.

Building the pergola
Although our design and dimensions are specific to this house, the approach and concepts we used can apply to similar projects. We chose cedar, but pressure-treated or other weather-resistant wood can be used. The basic components of the pergola are posts, beams, rafters and a header beam.

Begin by trimming the four 2x10 beams to length. Then cut a decorative curve or taper at the ends. (To replicate a design element from the home's exterior, we formed a simple 45-degree dog-ear cut.) With all four beams clamped together, cut and form the first and last (end) notches. Set aside one of the boards to use later. Clamp together the other three beams; then mark and cut the remaining eight notches.

Posts and beams: Adjust the heights of two posts to fit under the porch ceiling, allowing space for a 2x8 to fit on top of the post. After trimming the posts to length, secure them to their footings (adding temporary braces if needed).

To help support the first beam while you're installing it, clamp a 2x4 to the front face of each porch post, approximately 13 in. from the ceiling. Rest the beam on top of the 2x4 supports and adjust its position up or down by moving the clamped 2x4s until the beam is level at 3-1/2-in. from the ceiling. Be sure that the posts are plumb as you drive 5-in. lag screws (two at each end) to attach the beam to the posts.

Set the two outer posts on their footings and use a long level and a 2x4 (or a laser level) to verify that the tops are level with each other and that they are even with the top edge of the installed beam. (You're going to need a helper.) Trim the posts as needed. Secure a beam to the outer posts.

Rafters: Our design calls for 10 rafters; the two end rafters are longer than the others. Cut the rafters to size and form the notches and the end profiles. Insert rafters 2 through 9 in the notched locations between the posts. Then install rafters 1 and 10, which span the sides of the porch posts. Drive 3-in. deck screws to attach them to the post sides. Fasten the third beam to the outer posts. Then attach the back ends of the rafters to the porch beam.

Header beam: Mark the rafter locations on the porch ceiling; then set a 2x8 across the tops of the porch posts and fasten it to the end of each rafter. Next, attach a 1-1/2-in. x 3-in. board to the ceiling right behind the 2x8 header. Add two more 3-in.-wide boards, one at a time, with 3-in. deck screws. Securely fasten all three boards to the truss framing with 8-in. lag screws. Then add the back 2x8 header board on top of the posts. Attach the last beam (which was set aside earlier) to the back sides of the porch posts, using two 5-in. lag screws at each end.

Embellishments: The four corner brackets and the top slats are optional additions, not structural elements. The 1x2 slats provide a sense of enclosure and offer a bit of protection from direct sunlight. After calculating the desired gap between the slats, we cut a spacer block to ensure consistent spacing. The brackets are about 28 in. on the longest side with 45-degree angle cuts. We attached them to the posts using four lag screws.

Finishing details for a front yard pergola
The curb-appeal aspect of our project was a key factor right from the start and all the way through to the end. Here are some of the finishing details that helped to insure a first-rate, lasting impression:

  • A decorative coating makes the old and new concrete surfaces look like one large stone surface. Colors complement the brick siding. (We abandoned our original idea to install a paver floor, as it would have been too blocky.)
  • New, larger light fixtures replace the '80s brass models for an updated look.
  • An expanded landscape design is shaped for ease of maintenance. By combining the established (repurposed) shrubs with new sculptural plants, we dressed up the scenery around the new porch and added a low privacy screen.
  • With more room for furniture, the homeowner swapped the swing for a table and chairs, which boosted the space's functionality and appeal.

Things we learned
Here are some general principles that can guide you during the planning of your pergola project.

  • There are differences between load-bearing, structural and supportive elements, any of which demand careful design. If you attach a deck, porch, pergola or other structure to the house, you'll likely need a permit. Following through with inspections helps to ensure that your addition doesn't compromise the house structure. (The city's building officials can provide valuable advice and information regarding spans, structure and standards – especially if you involve them in the planning.)
  • Your design should complement the style of the primary structure. We mirrored the 45-degree angle of the garage door and bay window (and the original brackets on the porch posts) in the new bracket design and on the lines of the new rafters.
  • It's OK to recruit a professional. If you consider your time and physical well-being, doing all aspects of the job yourself isn't always worth the cash savings. We hired a contractor to create the concrete slab and footings, and we are glad we did.