How to Build an Outdoor Living Room

Unique sandwich construction achieves the massive look of solid beams with half the effort


There’s nothing quite like kicking back on your own Patio—until the sun starts cooking you or the rain begins to fall. But you can easily double your time in the great outdoors with this beautiful pavilion. Just think—no more rainouts during your next barbecue! And with a roof, you can relax on dry, clean, comfortable, padded furniture, which just can’t stand up to the elements on an open patio. All in all, you can give your patio the feel and function of an outdoor living room. But the best part is, this pavilion will add real beauty and value to your home by dressing up that lonely, underused space.

While this design may look complicated to the novice carpenter, don’t be intimidated. If you have the basic hand power tools, can handle a circular saw and have a bit of remodeling experience, you have the moxie to pull off this project. We’ll show you some scribe-it, nail-it-up and cut-it-in-place techniques that greatly simplify the tough spots and speed up the project. In fact, another carpenter and I built the basic structure in three leisurely days and spent a fourth day finishing the decorative column skirts. Give yourself and a helper about twice as long and you may finish faster than you think.

Besides a carpenter’s apron outfitted with the basic hand tools, all you need are a 4-ft. level, a circular saw, a jigsaw and posthole digging tools. But consider renting a power nailer for a day to save time and effort for the massive job of nailing down the roof decking.

Comparing the before and after photos, you can see that in addition to building the pavilion, we did some major stonework and planting. Those improvements aside, our total materials bill was roughly $4,000.

Note: A complete Materials List is available as a pdf in Additional Information below.

Figure A: Roof Assembly

This front view shows the basics of the patio roof.  Make a scale drawing of the structure adapted to your own house before applying for a building permit.

Figure A is also available as a pdf in Additional Information below.

Figure A: Roof Assembly

Sandwich framing and 2x6 tongue-and-groove decking construction

The design of this roof resembles traditional post-and-beam construction, but without the headaches of working with heavy, expensive timber and the tricky joinery that goes with it. The posts, beams, rafters and ceiling ties (see Figs. A and B) are built-in-place sandwiches of common 2x4, 2x6, 2x8 and 2x10 smooth cedar lumber. The center board of each sandwich is 2 in. narrower than the outer ones, which lends attractive shadow lines and architectural “heft” to the building.

This triple-thick assembly method makes the framing members very strong, which allows for longer spans and wider spacing between members. This technique allows you to overlap and lock all the pieces together for a very strong framework, easier nailing and tighter joints. And, by assembling beams in layers, they’re lighter to lift. Since the rafters are so beefy, you can space them 32 in. apart. But those wide spans call for a roof decking that can handle those spans. Tongue-and-groove 2x6 decking (Photo 18) fills the bill nicely because it’s very strong, reasonably priced and easy to install. It also looks great on the inside. You can let butt ends of the roof decking fall randomly throughout the roof; it’s not important that they splice over framing members. But the seams will look more polished if you use a block plane to carve a little chamfer on decking ends where two boards meet.

Figure B: Pilaster Assembly

The pilaster assembly is designed to float around the piers, allowing for movement due to freezing and thawing.

The cedar base trim will last longer and look better over time if you hold it an inch or so above patios to keep the wood dry.

Figure B is also available as a pdf in Additional Information below.

Figure B: Pilaster Assembly

This flexible design is easy to customize

We give the basic measurements for the structure in Fig. A, but don’t treat them as a cutting list, because you’ll most likely have to adjust them to fit your own home. Adjusting sizes is easy. First you get the beams and posts laid out and in position, then you simply measure or scribe the rest of the elements for exact lengths or angles before cutting them to length and installing the parts. On your site, you may need to widen or deepen the structure to miss windows or doors on the house or bridge over existing patios.

You can “grow” the length or width of the roof as much as 2 ft. without compromising structural integrity and shrink it as much as you want. The roof lines can also be altered to miss wall obstructions. We had to steepen the roof slope on one side to miss the bay window you see in Photo 2. Under that window, the roof has a 7/12 slope (7 in. of vertical drop for every 12 in. of horizontal distance), while the other side has a 6/12 slope. At a minimum, you should try to have a 4/12 slope if you live in a snowy area. Ask your building inspector for minimum slopes for your area when you pick up the building permit. But remember that steeper pitches may call for longer rafters and more decking. You can figure out required material lengths when you go through the layout exercise we show in Photos 1 and 2.

The easy way to determine the shape and slope of your roof is to first lay out the “footprint” of the posts and beams using the dimensions we give you (Photo 1). Then use a 4-ft. level and a straight board to draw the beam locations on the walls. The height of the bottom of the beams should be at least 6 ft. 8 in. for “headbanging” clearance (Photo 2). Tack 4-1/2 x 9-1/4 in. beam templates cut from plywood to the wall to simulate beams. Then lay out the roof lines with two 2x6s tacked through the siding to be sure:

  • The rafter tails have a minimum of 6 ft. 8 in. of head clearance.
  • The roof has at least a 4/12 slope.
  • The windows, bays or other wall projections are spaced at least 5 in. above the rafters to leave room for flashing.

This is the time to make final adjustments to the roof slope and the post-and-beam locations. If everything seems OK, you can start digging your footings (Photo 3).

Foundation-grade posts and floating base skirts

Use .60 foundation-grade treated 2x4s and 2x6s for the lower post sections and the footings (Fig. B). You may have to special-order them, but the added longevity is worth the money and trouble. For the above-ground base skirt framing and sheathing, standard .40 treated material will work just fine.

The base skirts are designed to “float,” that is, slide up and down the fixed posts that they encase. That’s especially important when they rest on a slab or stone surface in cold regions where frost can lift patios when the ground freezes. The skirts can move up and down during freeze/thaw cycles, but the posts, which extend below frost depth, stay put—without lifting the entire structure. So when you frame and trim the pilaster base skirts, make sure everything fits loosely.

If the posts have to penetrate a concrete or stone surface, cut a 20- in. square hole for digging the footings (Photo 3). Use a circular saw with a diamond blade and don’t worry about making it pretty; the skirt will cover the hole. To prevent settling, just be sure to pack the soil well as you backfill around the posts.

Bracing as you build

We show a fail-safe method of positioning your posts so they’re square and spaced perfectly from the house and each other. The trick is to use a jig made from the framing materials (called a “footprint template” in Photo 1). Initially tack the posts to the jig (Photo 3, inset) and then later to each other (Photo 9). Constantly check the posts throughout the construction to keep everything square and plumb and you’ll make your life easier as you assemble the upper parts.

The ridge assembly is especially tricky to center and support before the rafters are in place. Use the rafter mockup (Photo 2) to determine the height of the bottom of the ridge and tack a temporary 2x6 support against the house to support that end of the ridge (Photo 9). The temporary brace that supports the yard end of the ridge will most likely be taller to accommodate any drainage slope on the patio. Cut that support a few inches longer, tack it in place and use a long, straight board and level from the top of the house-mounted support to mark the length. Then cut it to length and use existing and additional supports to hold it in place before you set the ridge. A couple of 2x4s nailed to the outside and a couple of braces will keep the ridge from slipping off the support while you’re installing the rafters. We assembled the ridge sandwich on the ground and lifted it into place, but it was a struggle for the two of us! It’d be much easier to lift the boards separately and nail them together once they’re up.

After the ridge is assembled, measure from the ridge edges to the beams on each wall. To center the ridge perfectly, adjust the ridge until the right and left measurements are the same. Note that if you have to build an offset roof as we did, the ridge will no longer be exactly centered, but you still have to make it parallel to the beams.


Whichever wood types you decide on, think ahead and prefinish the wood whenever possible—especially if the roof decking sports a different finish than the framing. We put two coats of exterior latex stain on the decking before installing it. That saved tons of time over painstakingly cutting in cleanly around the framing. For the same reason, it pays to apply an exterior sealer on the cedar after the structure is up and before installing the decking. If you’re staining or painting standard framing lumber, we suggest applying the finish before erecting the structure and then touching up nail holes and end cuts after construction. You’ll get a better, faster paint job and the wood surfaces that are buried inside sandwiches will be better protected from moisture.

Selecting the Wood

We used smooth dimensional cedar for all of the exposed framing for this pavilion. However, we decided on stained spruce tongue-and-groove 2x6s for the roof decking because cedar decking cost nearly twice as much. You can save about even more by using standard framing material for the entire structure—a smart move if you intend to paint or stain everything to match the house.

Even though the structural elements are exposed, you don’t need flawless lumber for your pavilion for a clean, handsome look. Simply select the lumber with the best faces for the edges and sides that will show. We had all the lumber delivered (in other words, we just got random picks from the lumberyard) and had no problem finding enough good-looking sides and edges. If you’re dissatisfied with the look of any of the lumber, you can always exchange it.

Additional Information

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