New gazebos are easier than ever to build

Scott Webb Headshot

6 E 608 AqWith the coming of June's warmth and late evening sunsets, many a homeowner's thoughts turn to the romance of a backyard gazebo.

And many a dealer stands ready to turn that romantic idea into a reality, with a stand-alone structure that can provide an outdoor venue for traditionally indoor activities like cooking or entertainment.

One reason many dealers add gazebos to their backyard lineups is that, with modern modular designs, they are relatively easy to build. Easy, that is, as long as the design/build team takes time and care around the trouble spots.

That's the approach at Budding Branch Landscape and Design, Glenelg, Md. Heath Skelton and Rob Boswell work there building customized gazebos, among other backyard structures, that turn ordinary backyards into inviting new spaces.

Boswell is the president and owner; he tends toward the construction side of things, while Skelton is better at design and sales.

Budding Branch is a full-service, comprehensive backyard company, where the customer is often looking to transform the entire space. But perhaps greater than the challenge of a comprehensive makeover, says Skelton, is the task of discovering what the customer really wants in a gazebo.

"That's really the most important thing," he says, "What do they want it for? Some people just want to be able to dine in it, while others want it to be a full-scale family room with an outdoor television, speakers and all. People just need to figure out how they want to use the gazebo, and that will determine everything else."

It's a sad sight, but if the project vision is skewed in the beginning, the gazebo becomes a lonely, somewhat embarrassing monument to insufficient planning.

"A lot of times I run into a customer after they've bought the wrong gazebo," Skelton says, "and I'll look at it and say, 'It doesn't look like you ever use that thing.' And they'll say, 'Well, it's just too small. We couldn't get a table and chairs into it.'

"I see that all the time," he adds. "You'd be amazed at how much money people spend on construction and then find they can't use it."

Actually, Skelton understands it's often money that forces customers into buying the wrong gazebo to begin with. So if the reasonable compromise between resources and desires turns into a violent conflict, he suggests the customer take a timeout. "If it's a matter of money, and they don't have enough to do the size they need," he says, "I advise them to wait another year and do the right size."

For that reason and others, Skelton and Boswell try to get the customer to come up with a spending limit before the company has invested too much in the project.

"We want to know," Boswell says, "before we come up with a master plan, what they're thinking about spending. A lot of people I know don't worry about that part of it. Some of them simply don't do a budget. But what happens is you bring the customer back a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar landscape design, all of a sudden they say, 'Oh no, I only wanted to spend fifty.' And now everybody has wasted their time."

"On the whole," Skelton adds, "we're simply looking to determine cost and generate a budget and find a design that makes sense for them."

Unless, of course, they don't really want to use the gazebo at all. Some customers just like the idea of a gazebo. They like the way it looks.

That's OK, too, Skelton says. "If they're just using it for aesthetics, or a place just to go sit, then it doesn't really matter, they can get away with a smaller gazebo."

A Grand Plan

With a clear mandate from the customer and a budget in mind, the next step is a master design plan, which sends Boswell and Skelton to the job site for photographs and measurements. They'll take these back to the office, where recorded distances between trees, the driveway, fences and existing backyard structures all go into a two-dimensional, scale model of the site.

Everything goes into this backyard blueprint, including the report from local utilities on locations of underground pipes and cables. The details are crucial.

"We're looking for things like elevations, that's very important," says Boswell, "and septic fields, because different counties have different regulations on what you can do in a septic field, and also minimum distances to permanent structures. You've also got to watch out for your building restriction lines, and check with your homeowners' association to make sure you're within their rules. Sometimes you need their approval, as well."

These strictures are an unavoidable burden, but a knowledge of local ordinances comes in handy when figuring out how to meet regulations in the most efficient manner.

"We need a permit to put a gazebo on a deck," says Boswell, "but if it's out in a field without permanent footers, we usually do not. If you put a gazebo on a patio, that's not necessarily a permanent footer because you didn't go down below the frost line. So there's different ways to get around things."

Raising The Dome

With a blessing from all quarters, construction can proceed. A firm base is the main objective initially, and this often means pouring footers. The forms must be precise in shape and orientation to keep the work in good trim when the gazebo goes up. "Especially with an octagon gazebo," says Boswell. "If your octagon-shaped slab is not exactly right, well, it's just too late. It doesn't look good if it's sticking out on one side, but unfortunately, you really do see a lot of stuff done like that."

Budding Branch usually builds Vixen Hill gazebos, which arrive on the site as a set of panels with instructions about which panels to start with. Boswell lays out the pattern on the floor, and starts working his way around, fitting together panels according to the plan.

The panels bolt together with camber pins very similar to the ones used in modular furniture. The crew puts the gazebo together loosely, and then once the structure is more or less assembled, they go back and tighten the pins.

A typical gazebo takes the crew of three about a day, with perhaps an extra person chipping in to lift the roof in place.

Depending on what the customer has ordered, there may be cable or gas lines running to the structure, and these will have to be trenched into the yard. Code in the area for GFCI-protected electric cable is just 18 inches, however, which leads to the question: Is it time to rent a mini-digger?

That's the difference between an outdoor-oriented company and, say, an electrician. Boswell and his team don't mind the spadework.

"We usually just hand dig that," Boswell says. "We find that if it's a short run, by the time you rent and load and transport the machine, if you'd just hand dig the trench, you'd be done.

"And hand digging makes less of a mess than a machine. So your job's already cleaned up, and you've actually saved time over the machine."

With the gazebo finished and perhaps powered up, it needs the context of green and growing plants to round out the effect.

"We turn it into a complete project," says Skelton. "It just depends on what they want next to it - plants, water gardens - but in the end we want to leave it as a full outdoor living area."

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