Gazebos: Small structures with big impact

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Chances are, the term “gazebo,” conjures an image of a quaint, classical structure set amid a picturesque garden. These age-old structures are typically wooden and octagonal, but there are as many variations on the gazebo as there are species of insects in a garden. The term “gazebo” originates from the root word “gaze,” indicating the basic purpose of these structures is to provide a place where users can take in a view. The ultimate appearance of a gazebo – style, materials, amenities and where you site it – depends greatly on how your client intends to use it.

Sizing it up

“Gazebos are something I love to design because they have impact way beyond their size,” says landscape architect Gene Kunit, Gene Kunit and Associates, Sebastopol, California. “They influence the whole feel and style of a garden. Gazebos are not big, complicated structures, so you can have way more fun with them. You can get whimsical and give them a character that really says something about the garden.”

Kunit points out gazebos are not just for people to seek shelter and take in a view of a landscape; since they are also part of the view, they need to jibe with their surroundings. “They usually provide a visual focus for a garden,” Kunit says. “They may be small, but they’re mighty. Right now I’m working on a tropical garden, so naturally the gazebo will be in a tropical style. It will set the tone for the plantings and everything else that goes with it. If I’m designing an Italian-style gazebo, I might plant Italian cypress and boxwoods and so forth. You want to tell one story. Good design is when things are unified in some way and reinforce each other.”

Michael Madarash, president and chief designer at KokoBo Plantscapes, Hempstead, New York, stresses a designer should consider other structures that will share the site with the gazebo. “The type and style of the gazebo is important, because you want it to complement the other elements in the garden, the space it’s in, as well as other structures such as a house, boathouse or garage,” Madarash says. “The proportions of a gazebo are important. You want to make sure the gazebo fits within the space so it doesn’t overpower other elements in the garden.”

Amenities make the gazebo

Madarash says he always asks the client what activities they want their gazebo to accommodate. He says some clients simply want an intimate, quiet, dry place to sit and soak in the garden view, while others want a space where they can entertain. He says the more elaborate modern gazebos may include outdoor kitchens, flat-screen televisions, lighting, ceiling fans and plumbing. Naturally, these amenities will require the added expenses of hook-ups for plumbing, electricity, cable and gas.

“It’s important to be realistic,” Madarash says. “When it seems a client is looking for too much out of a gazebo or wants to make it too elaborate, it can overpower the space and ruin the design. The contrast will come from the color and the texture of the structure. You don’t want it to stand out because it’s too big or too elaborate for the space.”

Custom or kit?

New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization that converts unused urban spaces into community greenspaces, called on Madarash to construct a custom gazebo in their Garden of Hope in Brooklyn. KokoBo Plantscapes’ carpenters built a 16-foot square gazebo made of clear cedar and sited it at the back of the garden to serve as a visual anchor, draw visitors in, and provide a place to host neighborhood gatherings. Madarash employs a full-time master carpenter and one apprentice who receive frequent assistance from a mechanic. KokoBo specs enough custom gazebos, pool houses, decks, fences, pergolas and other wooden structures in their designs to keep this crew busy year-round.

“Sometimes the structure doesn’t go in right away due to budget restraints or whatever,” Madarash says. “But it’s always on that plan and two or three years later it might get built, because it’s so crucial to the design of the garden.”

Kunit prefers custom gazebos because they are specific to the site. He says clients’ expectations are much higher now. “It forces me to keep innovating constantly,” Kunit says. “I have to keep current. Some structures these days have a green ethic to them. They’re made of recycled materials.” Kunit has designed gazebos made out of staking poles recycled from vineyards in his area. From modern aluminum, PVC, plastic resin and galvanized steel to old-fashioned wrought iron, there are numerous options for prefabricated gazebos, but cedar is the most popular choice, whether it’s a kit or custom.

To contain costs on custom gazebos, Madarash says he will sometimes use pressure-treated pine for structural members that aren’t highly visible. About 80 percent of Madarash’s gazebos are made of cedar, which his carpenters prefer because lumber is readily available, it tools well, resists decay and insects without chemical treatment, and can either be stained or left to weather naturally. He occasionally selects ipe, a Brazilian hardwood known for its beautiful, dark finish and durability; however, he says cutting ipe requires diamond tip saw blades and all fastener holes must be predrilled with special drill bits, so labor costs are higher.

“We almost always use Western red cedar,” says Chris Peeples, owner of Vixen Hill in Elverson, Pennsylvania. Vixen Hill has been constructing landscape structures, including modular gazebos, since 1980. “We can use cypress if someone requests it, but cedar has nice long fibers and has a high strength-to-weight ratio – it exceeds oak,” he says. Peeples says ipe and teak are beautiful woods that weather well, but these woods are hard and therefore difficult to router, sand, etc., so carpenters forgo intricate details.

Peeples says his modular gazebos and other structures are shipped all over the world. “What we did is similar to what Sears and Roebuck did in the 1920s selling pre-engineered houses,” Peeples says. “We send a bundle of modules that are ready for one-day assembly. I think landscape architects were very hungry for a product that could be the center of their design, but also had utility, unlike a fountain or a statue.”

Peeples notes a Vixen Hill 15-foot elongated pavilion may cost as little as $12,000 or as much as $18,000, depending on the options selected. A more typical 12-foot octagonal gazebo will range from $5,000 to $12,000. Shipping the modules from east coast to west coast runs between $400 and $800.

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