Select the Right Furnishings for Your Site
By Deborah L. Vence
Whether it's a picnic table, a park bench or a trash receptacle, site furnishings can enhance and add appeal to any park site.
The key, however, is in knowing how to select the right type of product, material and color to ensure good design and comfort. How you design your space and the furnishings you choose should be in line with how the area will be used.
"The best design is one that will be used where people gather regularly," said Philip Clemons, sales manager for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that manufactures commercial recreation products, including site furnishings, picnic tables, park benches and grills.
"It can be an extension of a school cafeteria or under a picnic shelter at the local park. When project planning, it is important to keep in mind how the patrons will be using the area, and walk through several scenarios," he said.
Types of Spaces
When deciding on how to use site furnishings in the context of your spaces, you have to consider a few things.
"Will there be a lot of bike riders? If so, make sure you have adequate bike parking," Clemons said. "Next to the bike parking, it would be great to have a bench, in case someone needs to change their shoes, or take a break after a long ride. While they are sitting on the bench, they may need a snack. To help keep your park clean, you will want to make sure they have a trash receptacle nearby."
"We see it all—from large concert venues to the simplest of park renovations, no matter how big or how small of a project, make sure you speak with an expert to help you plan," he added.
Meanwhile, Sandra Anson, director of sales and marketing for a company in Mulliken, Mich., that manufactures park benches, picnic tables and site furnishings, said that while she is not a designer, she suggests to her clients to always follow ADA guidelines.
Also, "The decisions start with how the area will be used, so choose products that are appropriate for that purpose. Natural settings lend themselves to more contemplative opportunities, to sit quietly and ponder the beauty that is nature," she said.
"A bench here, a picnic table there, provides some privacy and convenience to help patrons enjoy the area. Conversation areas with face-to-face seating are great in a park as meeting areas that bring a sense of community, as is appropriately spaced benches accessible from both sides as a rest stop or to subtly direct the flow of pedestrian traffic.
"Products composed of 100 percent recycled plastic are the most efficient, as they are available in designs from utility to elegant and have the greatest durability, sustainability and life span for continuous use in all climates," she said.
And, "Being non-porous and non-leaching also make them perfect for aquatic use, marinas, natural settings and food service. Safety and versatility are priorities for facility managers, who are trying to do more with the ever-stretching budget," Anson said, adding that her company helps them reduce expenditures formerly spent on labor to maintain furnishings and replacements.
What's more, Adam Steen, director of business development for a Northwood, Iowa-based manufacturer of plastic-coated outdoor furniture, noted that his company relies on its "dedicated partners to design the ideal space when they utilize our furnishings.
"Often, we are involved to custom create logos, colors and design to help create the experience our partners are looking for," he said. "Our site furnishings are created in collaboration with our partners and always with quality and customer experience in the forefront of our minds."
When it comes to ensuring patron comfort, a broad range of features and environmental factors need to be considered.
"First, product selection is based on the intended purpose: short-term use, such as a pick-up/drop-off area or shoe changing space or extended stay, such as a nature viewing or conversation area, dining or activity space," Anson said.
"Also, consider the characteristics of the environment and choose appropriate materials: Will the space be temperate or be subject to climate extremes? Who hasn't scorched their backside on a hot seat? The density of [our company's] solid HDPE [high-density polyethylene] boards result in low conductivity of temperatures compared to some other materials," she said.
What's more, placement contributes to patron satisfaction in an experience, and can vary with the audience.
"Inclusive products and accessible placement, along with availability, should be taken into account to provide rest and people-watching stops along the way for the young, elderly and those with limited mobility," Anson explained, adding that ADA-compliance can be found in benches, tables and receptacles that provide accessibility while maintaining design continuity.
"The space should offer sufficient quantities of furnishings, well-spaced, and varied to serve all walks of life," she said.
Additionally, "Clear wayfinding signage and well-displayed information reduces anxiety and contributes to a pleasant experience. Above all, cleanliness is paramount. Nobody wants to sit on the bird poop bench or eat on a moldy table with gunk in grooves. Choose products that are hygienic, easy to clean and disinfect, and safe for food, kids and pets," she added. "The most elegant furnishings are wasted if your patron isn't comfortable using them."
Clemons said that "When we think of furniture, whether for indoor or outdoor use, we want to have a product that feels good when used on a regular basis.
"The contour of the seat back and bottom needs to be such that it is relaxing to the user," he said.
"The location is also a key factor, whether it's a nice shady spot, a location with a nice view, or just a practical seating area, location always needs to be well thought out to ensure your patrons comfort," he said.
Site furnishings also tie together the brand of any park, trail, facility or recreation location.
"High quality, durable, and attractive furnishings will showcase a high-quality brand. In most cases, the brand of a park, trail, facility or recreation location should be centered [on] the experience and comfort of its patrons," Steen said. "Carefully selected furnishings are the glue that ties together the brand, the experience and comfort for patrons."
Common, Resilient Materials
Outdoor furniture can be manufactured using various raw materials. "The most common and durable is steel, which can be formed and welded in a wide variety of designs," Clemons said.
"We have simple park benches all the way to a nice premium line for all different budgets and destinations. In addition to steel, we also offer recycled plastic, 100 percent recycled plastic and wood," he said.
Anson noted that "Wood was traditional, and metal and concrete came into play to extend longevity, but now composites and plastics have taken over a huge portion of the market share."
She said recycled plastics, in particular, continue to evolve because they are so incredibly efficient, because they are sustainable, durable and don't deplete limited natural resources to manufacture.
And, when it comes to resilient materials, Anson believes, wholeheartedly, that recycled plastic, particularly #2 HDPE because of its inherent strength, far exceeds any other material currently in use, including composites.
"Composites utilizing sawdust or other organic matter can truly state they're made with reclaimed materials, but organic matter can absorb water and is subject to rot and insect infestation," she said. "Metal products coated with epoxy, paint or plastic are still just coated. Metal dents and rusts, and once metal is exposed through wear and tear or being scraped or vandalized, you can start planning for necessary maintenance or replacement."
Concrete is very strong and theft-resistant, but also is porous, making it a potential victim of spalling/cracking from water penetration during freeze/thaw cycles, and tough to clean if graffiti comes into play.
"Many household containers are #2 HDPE," Anson said. "A milk jug has an average thickness of .019 inch and scientific studies estimate it lasts around 450 years in the environment. Our boards are 1.5-inch thick, which is almost 79 times thicker than a milk jug. By using this same material to create outdoor furnishings, it stands to reason that they are the longest-lasting furniture option."
Clemons said he has no doubt what the best and most resilient finish is for outdoor furniture.
"Our process of thermoplastic coating application over steel is second to none. The coating bonds to steel that has been heated to nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit, then allowed to cool for a nice gloss or textured finish depending on the desired look," he said. "The seal tight bond of the thermoplastic coating is more resistant to cutting and vandalism and it does not fade due to harsh UV rays."
For Steen's business, he said that the most common materials are steel, plastisol and powder coating.
"We use steel and coat every area of the steel in a UV stabilized plastisol. We choose these materials because they allow us to provide an industry best 20-year warranty, and they are easily customizable to the experience our partners are trying to create," he said.
And, as far as resiliency, "We have found that properly dipping steel into plastisol creates the most resilient product we have seen. Plastisol coated steel will not rust, will not allow hornet/bee nests, and will not be affected by salt," he said. "The plastisol is also anti-microbial, so mold will not grow on the product."
With any furniture purchase, whether indoor or outdoor, some maintenance is required.
"Thermoplastic-coated products have a five-year warranty, but have a much longer useful life expectancy," Clemons said. "Recycled plastic requires almost no maintenance and the wood products are ACQ pressure treated for longer life, too. Checking hardware is the most important maintenance detail."
In addition, equipment should be checked for wear, loose hardware or vandalism at least every six months.
"Depending on the location of the equipment (i.e., high-use areas), it may need to be inspected more frequently," Clemons said. "Damage caused by wear or vandalism can be major factors in injury-causing situations. If a part is broken or worn, it should be replaced immediately."
Steen said choosing site furnishings that are easy to maintain seems to be a top priority for most of his company's partners.
"Many furnishings are not anti-microbial, and many furnishings tend to rust if the steel is exposed to the elements, he said. He added that choosing a product that has a 100 percent plastisol coating that can easily be cleaned and will not rust, "tends to save facility or city management time and money by preventing unnecessary maintenance."
Dealing With Vandalism
It's difficult, if not impossible, to prevent vandalism.
"What a beautiful idea if we could prevent graffiti, but that's not possible," Anson said. "The good news is that, again, because [our products are] dense and non-porous, cleanup is much less labor-intensive than with many other materials.
"Most paints and markers will wash off with detergent, a scrub brush and elbow grease. We test it ourselves at our facility and have used everything from dish soap to mineral spirits and haven't hurt our products, yet," she said.
The fact is that all products that are used in public are subject to misuse.
"The beauty of the thermoplastic-coated products is the relative ease of removing unwanted graffiti from the surface," Clemons said.
For instance, the affected area can be sprayed with various penetrating fluids, such as WD-40, to dissolve the ink or paint without damaging the original finish.
"In general, these types of fixes can be done on site, but that may not be the case depending on the severity as well as the material of the product," he said.
In turn, Clemons suggested, "be sure to contact your supplier and they will be happy to walk you through the best solution for your circumstance."
Steen said that "as a manufacturer, we know that vandalism will happen and sometimes it is often impossible to prevent. For us, we know that most graffiti will easily wash off our products. Some graffiti will not, however, but we try to work alongside our partners to create a plan that works … to prevent damage to our product.
"It's unfortunate we have to deal with these issues," he added, "but we like to think that difficult situations afford us the opportunity to showcase our value."
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