Building a P-Ar-GaDe-O-La
By Mark and Theresa Clement
The mission of this project is to battle the blandness of the all-too-often overlooked side-yard of so many houses. You know the place, the boring home of your HVAC unit, radon fan, the ladder you use twice a year, flower pots for that gardening project you’ll eventually start. You get the idea. The side-yard can often be described as a nicely landscaped gutter for all the stuff you don’t want in your front yard—except that it’s still in your yard.
Our side-yard project, which we call a P-Ar-GaDe-O-La, serves another master as well. Along with other fences and gates, it helps to keep the yard a safe place for our young children to play.
So, why the funny name?
What’s In a Name?
The P-Ar-GaDe-O-La is a strange beast. It is (and isn’t) lots of different things. It’s fairly basic but pretty nuanced, just as easy to get right as to get wrong. Equal parts pergola, arbor, gate and pagoda, its whole is greater than the sum of its parts—just like its name, which arose when we mixed up all those sounds into one new word (a “neologism” for any English majors keeping track). Editor’s Note: Merriam-Webster’s second definition for neologism is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.”
Your P-Ar-GaDe-O-La should be designed to fit your space and your taste, something we can’t map out with too much detail from here. However, we can share some concrete design rules. Plus, the construction details—everything from footing holes to girder connections to materials selection—are universally applicable, so let’s get into it.
In this case form follows function. We needed a gate and a fence. But a simple, flat-topped fence with a big ol’ gate would just look cobbled onto the side of the house. The idea is to play a visual trick; celebrating the thing we want to obscure. In carpenter-speak, by making the entrance to the side-yard and its pedestrian contents look awesome, we hide its lameness. This is where the vertical elements come into play.
The vertical elements are what draw the eyes upward and through a structure like this. Because of that magnetism, balance and proportion are the keys to success. If you make the thing too tall, it looks like a silly tower; too low and it looks like it’s built for Bilbo Baggins. Make the girders or rafters too skinny or too far apart, and the unit looks flimsy and accidental. If you make the fence too tall or short, then you mess up the balance of ballast to top sails (to use a nautical metaphor). Also, you need to think about all the other lines created by the house—window, porch, etc.—that’s all of one inch away. It’s easy to get too much happening all in the same place.
I realize this might sound too pie-in-the-sky, but it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of things. Architects and designers spend a lot of time studying how compatible the various components of a structure are with its surroundings, and call it “massing.” It is very important.
The good news is that, below, we’ll show you some tricks for making this work on your P-Ar-GaDe-O-La.
Converting all of the elements listed above into real measurements starts with the gate. In our case, we needed a gate that would enable us to pass through some large items, everything from the lawnmower and the snowthrower to the core aerator we rent annually for plugging the lawn. I also store the extension ladder in the backyard, and the last thing I want is to shimmy through a tiny gate with an 18-foot ladder.
All this boils down to a 4-foot wide gate opening. But since a 4-foot gate is basically huge, we split that into two 24-inch operable gate panels. You can scoot through one, or open both when needed.
The gate width determines where the 6×6 gate posts will be placed, while the house (on one side) and the property line (on the other) determined where the corner posts would be. Finally, the neighbor has an enormous HVAC unit on the side of his house about a millimeter from the property line (part of the reason for building the fence). So, in case it needs to be service or removed some day, we spaced our fence posts so the unit can be accessed by simply unscrewing and removing an entire fence panel.
The first step to making the reality match the vision is to set all the posts.
Corner Posts. This was a project where the only straight lines were the ones we made. The first was a string-line located 1-1/2 inches inward from the actual property line. The second was one we made with a giant site-made square to determine 90-ish degrees off the house to our corner post location. Upon doing that, we dug and set our end-posts, those right next to the house.
Gate Posts. With four posts set (two corners and two ends), we next dug and set the 6×6 gate posts. To keep their front faces flush with the corner posts’ front faces, we bridged from corner post to end post with a 2-by, laid it out like a story pole showing post locations, and then used it to brace the 6×6 gate posts while the concrete dried.
As for the gate-post height, we knew we needed a height under the girder of about 8 feet so we used nominal 14-foot posts. We set the posts a minimum of 40 inches below grade in 80 pounds of quick-setting concrete, lining the bottom of each hole with 4 inches of pea gravel to facilitate water drainage/movement around the pre-stained (“pre-slathered” is more accurate) end grains. We installed the posts full-length, leaving about 11 feet above grade to accommodate variances in grade height and adjustment of the girder assembly.
Temporary Bridging. To keep the posts straight we ran diagonal bracing between the gate posts and the corners, and temporary rails between the fence posts. The Western Red Cedar we used was incredibly stable. It stayed stock still during several rain delays and a hiatus from the project. No twists or warps—very nice. It’s recommended by the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association to stain the material with oil-based stain to extend its service life. We applied one coat before installation and one after to catch cut ends and screw holes, except for ground-contact areas which got a double dose.
Full Size Templating—Rafter Assembly
Rafter Tails. Rafter tail designs are almost limitless, but here there’s already a ton of visual chatter between the house and the structure so we felt simple was better. And, since there was a preexisting pergola in the backyard with a basic circle detail, we reflected it.
Girder Layout and Test Piece. As is often the case with working in cramped (and old) spaces, measuring things requires a lot of forethought and triple-checking.
To get the rafters, purlins and stays to “blossom” or project from the girder like a pagoda, we cut the girder 1-1/2 inches short of the fence width. And, because the house’s stucco undulates by inches, the left and right girder projections past the posts were different than each other. To make things easier—and so we could see if we made mistakes—we cut a “test” girder from 2×8 SPF lumber. We put it in place, registering it 1/2 inch off the house and double-checked its location 1-1/2 inches back from the fence edge with a 6-foot level. Once it fit left and right, we stepped back and inspected it to determine the best clearance height, which was 96 inches—fully 16 inches taller than an interior door (our original plan) to the bottom of the girder.
Rafters, Purlins and Stays. We repeated the test process by laying out and testing different length rafters, purlins and stays. Thirty-inch long 2×6 rafters cross the girder. Two-by-four purlins starting 1/2 inch off the house cross the rafters and project plumb with the exterior edge of the fence. This is just 1-1/2 inches farther than the girder projects, and it shows. Forty-inch long, 1-3/4-inch wide stays cross the purlins and carry the design skyward.
Patterns. Once we knew which pieces worked, we marked one item from each assembly as the pattern and set it aside.
Cutting the Posts. With all the height and sizing (“massing” to be official) determined, we marked the posts and cut them to height—2 inches lower than the topof the girder (more on this later) using an 8-1/4 inch worm-drive saw.
Installing the Finished Girder
Girder 1. The beauty of using test pieces, and marking them in place on the posts, is that we can lay the test piece and the finished piece side by side and transfer the marks—no measuring. We also mark the posts. Once the piece is in position we line up the pencil marks and secure with two deck screws, installing them top-left and bottom right (more on this later, too).
Girder 2. Ditto for girder No. 2. To be sure the clamp is properly positioned, we check the tops of the girders for level in both directions before fastening.
Layout and Installation: Rafters, Purlins, Stays
Each element builds on the next. How we achieve proportion where there are no actual rules is a blend of arbitrary placement and offsetting centers. It works like this.
Rafters. The two outside rafters are placed arbitrarily based on what “looks right.” In this case it was above the outside faces of the gate posts. Next, we measured the centerline between them and placed a rafter there. Left and right of the center rafter we split each space and placed rafters on those center lines, totaling five rafters.
Purlins. We projected the purlins just past the girder, as described above, and again, positioned them arbitrarily on the rafters based on what looked proportional. In this case, 3-1/2 inches in from the outside edge of the rafters looked right.
Stays. The stays were centered between the rafters. To get readable layout marks, we projected the rafter location to the top of the purlin simply using a layout square, then divided those areas in half and installed purlins. Note: This wasn’t perfect. You can’t tell in the photos, but there are up to 1/2-inch variances in the spacing because wood’s not perfect, and working off ladders isn’t conducive woodworking accuracy. If you’re expecting this to be furniture-grade, build it on the ground and install it as one piece.
Fastening. Once all the pieces are in place, it’s time for the final fastening. Through-bolts are a slippery slope (to me) on an assembly like this. You have to counter-bore for the bolt heads sometimes for a flush look. Other times, you have to cut the end of the bolt off with an angle grinder so it doesn’t protrude too far. To minimize all this, we used 6-inch, ceramic-coated washer-head “construction lags” we got at Lowes. About one buck a piece, we used four per post, and they locked the assembly together supremely tight. That may change in a year, but it might not with 4-1/2 inches of steel buried in a 6×6, four times per post. Instead of drilling pilot holes we simply removed the deck screws used to temporarily set the girders. We set them top-left, bottom-right so that the lags don’t hit each other when fastening from the opposite side.
Post Cap. To protect the posts’ end grain, we cut a cap-block. Installed on the end of the post, four deck screws through the girder lock it in place.
Fence and Gate Detail
A 4-foot fence panel height was the right size, which we determined by bridging a 2-by across the gate posts and checking from various angles how it looked. The four-foot height obscured the junkpile, let the eye pass to the backyard and delivered substance to the rafters.
We face-mounted rails and a top cap to the corner and gate posts, then hung the gate directly on the gate posts which were slightly inset. A cane bolt holds one gate fixed; hammering 12 inches of 3/4-inch gas pipe in the ground to receive the bolt makes for a dependably stationary gate panel. Typical gate hardware enables the working side to move and latch freely, while a 1-by “stop” (or astragal) ripped on the table saw enables the working gate to close over the fixed gate and hide the gap.
From Bland to Grand
The last step to the P-Ar-GaDe-O-La is to detail the end cuts and rips with stain and/or apply a second coat. After all, a project’s design—its culmination of elegance, proportion and functionality—are about getting the details right so you only notice how good it looks as a whole … no matter what’s it’s called.
Editors’ Note: Mark and Theresa Clement are deck builders in Ambler, PA, and hosts of MyFixitUpLife.
SIDE NOTE 1
Clamps on Site
Any woodworker will tell you it’s hard to have enough clamps. But deck builders? On this project we used clamps first as cleats to hold and position the girder assembly. Next, we used them in a similar fashion, holding fence rails while we plumbed them stepping up the site’s shallow grade. We also depended on clamps to fashion the gate frames. –T.C./M.C.
SIDE NOTE 2
I learned a handy trick for using a jigsaw when I had to make a million circle cut-outs for these rafter tails. I found that moving the saw toward the center of your body, rather than away, makes it much easier to both see the marked line and control the saw. When pushing the tool away, you essentially have to bend your wrist backwards and lean over the tool to see what you’re doing.
Second, moving the saw toward you enables a better vantage point from which to see the blade pass through the work and keep it consistent throughout the cut. Going the other way, your arm cuts off the line of sight and you have to readjust.
Third (I already knew this), the thinner the blade, the easier it is to cut tighter radii. –T.C./M.C.
SIDE NOTE 3
Backfill and Lawn Repair
Common to many fence and deck builds, refilling the hole with enough dirt to avoid extra piles or to keep a fence post from leaning remains a mystery. Then getting grass to grow on the dirt you do leave behind also remains befuddling. Two solutions:
When backfilling a post hole, firmly tamp down the fill dirt with the back of a digging bar or head of a sledgehammer. The air that was entrained in the dirt is largely displaced. What’s more, dirt packed around the post acts as it should—like an earthen clamp—holding the post fast from the first day.
When replanting grass around the disturbed soil, we used Scott’s new EZ-Seed. It’s a pre-blended seed and mulch that works better than any other product we’ve ever used. Basically the seed comes with its own eco-system; all you do is water. I’m pretty sure it’s magic.