Shelters & Shade Structures
By Dawn Klingensmith
Increased awareness has given rise to creativity. Seldom is a shade structure merely a source of shade. At the very least, they add a pop of color. At best, they bring in revenue. They can be as simple as an awning, or they can rise to the level of art or architecture.
In new construction, it's becoming the norm to incorporate shade structures and shelter as essential design elements, whereas they used to be an afterthought. Wise renovators make the addition of these items a priority. And where funds are lacking for a major overhaul, simple retrofits are being devised, often resulting in a "facility facelift" for not a lot of money.
When choosing shelters and shade structures and their components, a number of factors must be taken into account, starting with what you wish to achieve above and beyond providing shade.
"The first thing to consider is, 'What goal do I want to achieve?' Do you want it to be architectural, or are you more concerned with basic functionality?" said Gary Haymann, executive vice president of sales for a Dallas-based manufacturer of five leading brands of shade structures.
For example, as part of a shade structure's functionality, is waterproofing essential? In that case, materials like coated fabric, vinyl or solid-roof structures are contenders, but lighter-weight, porous fabrics are out of the running.
Are you looking for a permanent structure, or do you need something that can be disassembled and reassembled fairly easily? That was a primary consideration for the North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro, when it opted for fabric shade sails to transform an area that was seldom used because of the heat into a pleasant, shady place for educational programming, increasing attendance by 15 percent or more. "We wanted something we could remove easily for the three or four months when ice storms are a problem, to avoid buildup," said Tom Such, exhibit design supervisor.
The design wasn't at all "dumbed down" to achieve that purpose. "It looks like sails on a boat, but they're basically horizontal instead of vertical. They overlap and are different colors," Such said. "I think it looks pretty cool."
Consider what is required of the structure. Is it intended for shade or shelter? Will it be portable or stationary? Must it accommodate large groups or small?
Besides function, aesthetics, cost (including maintenance), operation, durability and quality come into play, said Susan Klug, marketing coordinator for Water Technology Inc., an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis.
"Aesthetic plays an important role as to how the feature complements or enhances the design of the facility," Klug said. "It may be a whimsical, branded aesthetic, or it may be complementary to or responsive to the surrounding natural environment."
For example, a fabric shade structure on a rooftop terrace at Mesa State College, Grand Junction, Colo., was designed to be reflective of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the background. It was also engineered to withstand heavy snow loads, proving fabric is a durable option.
Having bought several shade structures for various parks and recreation facilities in Mesquite, Texas, Lauren Miller recommends finding a manufacturer that's a reasonable distance from the site. Also, "Look into the warranty," added Miller, the city's manager of park planning. "Ask if there are any installations nearby that you can look at. Does the company have a construction crew or subcontractor to do the installation, or will you need to find and hire a crew on your own?"
For his money, Miller prefers turnkey solutions so he only has to deal with a single company that handles design, manufacture and installation. "It can all happen from A to Z with one company," he said.
Other questions to ask are how long the components are expected to last, what type of follow-up service a company offers and what wind rating is required, Klug said.
Timing is another factor that comes into play. For example, if you manage a seasonal facility and need to get shade structures in place before opening day, it's important to select structures that are relatively quick and easy to erect. Except for the simplest solutions, such as umbrellas, shade structures don't just pop up in no time flat, and some take a considerable amount of time to construct, Haymann explained. Within the fabric category, a lightweight mesh structure is easier to install than a membrane fabric structure, which is heavier and requires a larger foundation. Often, construction overlaps with the start of the season and is disruptive, all because people underestimate the amount of time needed.
One of the most common mistakes Haymann sees is in new construction or major renovations. "People don't do enough planning on the front end," he said. "They think, 'Oh, this is just steel and fabric. We'll just pop it up in the end.'"
But it takes time to install shade structures properly, and a lot of people don't build it into the timeline, he added.
Wayne Pickett, recreation manager for the parks and leisure department in Lewisville, Texas, also has some words of wisdom with regard to planning. "Don't think that you have enough shade," he warned.
People tend to underestimate the need and demand for shade. It's far better to err on the side of plenty. "Try to incorporate as many shade structures as your space and budget will permit," Pickett said.
An aerial view of Lewisville's aquatic center would show a mushroom-like abundance of colorful shade structures. Picnic tables, lifeguard stations and the splash pad area are all protected. The lazy river meanders by "islands" that patrons can swim out to, and each is covered with a bright, cheery shade structure.
Once your purpose and intended application are set, then your budget will drive the selection process.
Among the quickest and least expensive solutions are cantilevered shades and portable, collapsible umbrellas, some of which can be repositioned during the day depending on where the sun is. The umbrellas typically detach from a sturdy base if storage is necessary. They generally are used to shade poolside chaises and tables in the concessions area, said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based shade systems manufacturer.
Due to cost and function, steel-supported, fabric-covered umbrellas that range from 8- to 40-foot diameters are popular choices for municipal facilities, Klug said.
"These are relatively easy to install, are colorful and relatively cost-effective," she explained.
Another advantage is that, for a nominal cost, facilities can install the base components during initial development with an eye toward adding more shade as funds become available, Klug added.
In fact, fabric shade structures in general are a good choice for retrofitting because structural interference is minimal.
Umbrellas and cantilevered shade structures can be put in place with relative ease over "hot spots" such as information centers, concession areas, lifeguard stations and bleachers. Other high-priority shade areas may require a greater investment of time and money. These include picnic areas, waiting areas (i.e., wherever lines form—outside restrooms, at entrances, at attractions, etc.), animal enclosures, spraygrounds and playgrounds.
In any case, wherever outside activities occur from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., there should definitely be shade available. Positioning is critical—the location, orientation, height and size of a shade structure must take into account the sun's changing angles throughout the day.
It is always desirable to use a combination of trees and fabricated shade structures wherever possible. Among fabricated options, each has its pros and cons.
Structures with solid roofs last longest and offer the best protection against the sun and weather, and some can be accessorized with cupolas, weathervanes, clocks and columns. On the lower end, prefabricated steel is an option. But these types of structures are relatively expensive and probably require permits. In certain situations, though, only a gazebo, pergola, pavilion or custom-designed shelter fits in the context of its surroundings and serves the purposes required.
For example, when Solomon, Kan., started downtown redevelopment, two old commercial buildings were demolished, setting in motion historic mitigation requirements. In the buildings' place is a "pocket park" with a raised shelter as its focal point. At each of the four corners is a trio of 10-inch-diameter columns, mounted on a brick pedestal that matches the masonry used elsewhere downtown and in some of the original buildings. The relief on the columns is reminiscent of the columns on one of the demolished buildings.
Traditional building materials can be used where a classic look is desired, such as a wooden gazebo in a botanical garden. But they also lend themselves to architectural inventiveness. For a waterside picnic area at the Eldean Shipyard in Macatawa, Mich., the desired aesthetic was something open and airy, but with a solid, substantial look. Based on client input, a Holland, Mich.-based shelter systems company came up with a 20-foot-diameter octagonal shelter with a single column supporting the steel roof from the side and top as opposed to down the center. (The fabric version of this design is called an offset or side-post umbrella.) Perhaps it's going a little too far to say the roofing looks magically suspended, but the shelter's openness is uninterrupted all the way around, save for the one post, which withstands the high winds off Lake Michigan. The footing was custom-designed to carry the load in a soft, wet embedment. But what's truly magical as far as visitors are concerned is the surprise of hearing their voices echoed back at them from overhead when they stand at the center.
Another inventive—and somewhat controversial—structure is a sculptural, fiberglass design at a beachside park in La Pineda, Spain, intended to mimic the shape of real pine trees nearby. According to the Web-based publication Inhabitat, which tracks design and materials innovations, "The architects recognized the park's need for shade, but were presented with the dilemma that salt spray from the nearby water would make it difficult to grow the same pine trees that already existed on the site." So they came up with a network of abstracted trunks and canopies made of salt-resistant fiberglass "to complement the angled and varied effect of the pine tree's shape," the article continues. The interconnected structure sways slightly in the wind, as trees would.
Although the article concluded that the architects "definitely captured all the beautiful physical attributes of the pines," readers' responses were critical of the overall appearance ("hideous"), colors (not at all "treesy") and functionality (two readers questioned the structure's ability to cast any usable shade).
Fabric shade structures provide varying UV ray protection. "Breathable" knitted shade fabric, or mesh fabric, is lightweight and allows some light through as well as some air, and allows heat to escape through the mesh. This creates a considerable cooling effect for guest comfort. Coated fabric traps heat but offers greater UV protection and is water- and mildew-resistant.
The cost and complexity of fabric shade structures vary widely. They can be designed into a variety of shapes and sizes—some so large that the fabric essentially becomes a vented roof, as is the case with the layers of fabric sails covering the entire Rotary Amphitheatre in Fresno, Calif. And some essentially become works of art because they can be twisted, angled and otherwise manipulated into all sorts of geometric or organic forms.
A temporary pavilion commissioned for the 100th anniversary of architect Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago is co nstructed of huge fabric panels zippered over aluminum supports. Architect Zaha Hadid's creation, which Chicagoans call "the Pod," is "an arresting combination of naturalistic forms and alien shapes," writes the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, Blair Kamin, in his Aug. 5 review. The structure's shape puts him in mind of a conch, he writes.
The structure provides shade but also allows sunlight to enter through overhead slits in such a way that it interacts with an inner layer of white fabric. (Although pretty, this so-called "daisy effect" should be avoided when a structure's principal purpose is to provide shade, says one manufacturer. In the case of "the Pod," shade was certainly lower on the list of priorities for the famed architect.)
The pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park is intended to be temporary, but permanent fabric structures on a smaller scale have been shown to be cost-effective, attractive and durable. With colored fabrics, fading can be a concern, so find out how the fabric is expected to hold up in your particular environment, Klug advised.
Inferior finishes can be a problem in certain environments, too. Your support structure can be beautifully designed and sturdy, but if it's not properly protected against the elements, your structure's looks and longevity will suffer for it. Powder-coating over an epoxy primer is fairly standard. Leading manufacturers offer a variety of colors. In seaside areas where salt spray is present or in other highly corrosive environments, additional coatings may be required.
By now, it should be obvious that shade structures aren't just window dressing. But in addition to UV protection and aesthetic appeal, they offer a range of other benefits, not the least of which is the possibility of increasing or generating revenue.
Ample shade may increase visitation and stay time, and at sports venues, it may provide an edge over other facilities in drawing tournaments. It can extend the life of playground equipment by protecting it from the elements, and prevent equipment from getting too hot. There have been cases of children suffering serious burns from playground equipment and surfacing that is exposed to the sun, adding urgency to a national push for schools to cover outdoor play areas. (See sidebar, "Recess from the Sun," on page 22)
At aquatics facilities, cabanas can be rented out. And parks and recreation facilities of allrent ou t larger shelters and shade structures for picnics, parties and other private functions.
Shade structures absolutely are a means of generating more revenue for Lewisville's aquatics center, Pickett said, because people are eager to reserve them for special occasions. "This has been a very popular feature that we previously could not offer," he explained. "We have two structures dedicated for birthday party rentals, and they stay booked."
Where appropriate, facilities may consider corporate sponsorships for fabric shade structures, as the cloth shades can serve as ad space for logos and branding, and can be switched out if and when the sponsorship ends.
An underappreciated benefit of shade is relief from eye strain. Walking around the North Carolina Zoo grounds, "the surface concrete is almost white," Such said. "If you're there on a bright sunny day, after a while, your eyes are just dead tired because of the glare off the concrete. Shade structures help subdue that."
While sun worship might not be a thing of the past, facilities are finding that shelters and shade structures are the shrines to which patrons inevitably flock. "Wherever you have a shade structure," Such said, "people are sure to congregate."
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