Gimme Shelter

Keys for Creating Great Covered Spaces


The sweltering sun on a cloudless summer day. Torrential downpours in the middle of spring. Lightning storms. Blustering winds. Snow. Sleet. Hail.

There are any number of weather incidents that can complicate people's outdoor fun. And that's an issue for parks and other recreational facilities, which are in that line of work, so to speak. How can you create a space that allows people to be outdoors for long periods of time without excessive exposure to the harsh conditions—dangers, even—of the elements?

Obviously, this isn't a new problem. In fact, public servants have spent centuries coming up with creative ways to deal with it. One notable example from the past is the Roman Colosseum, which was built during the first century. Rome is fairly hot for several months out of the year, so how did the ancient Romans keep the 75,000 or so spectators from overheating? With a massive velarium, a contraption that spread a gigantic canvas cover over much of the top of Colosseum, which shielded the people watching the spectacles inside while still letting in sunlight. (It also included a retractable net made of metal between the seating area and the pit, which protected people from the environmental hazards inside, like wild lions and bears.)

The past few years have seen a substantial uptick in demand for covered spaces among parks, recreation centers and outdoor venues.

The science and engineering associated with constructing these shelters might have changed since those days, but the basic reasons behind them have not. In this often-perilous world of ours, people will always need shelter for safety and comfort. The challenge for decision-makers involved with any kind of outdoor recreation is not just to provide that shelter, but also to ensure that it's developed in a compelling way that will make people want to come back again and again.

Rising Demand for Covered Spaces

The past few years have seen a substantial uptick in demand for covered spaces among parks, recreation centers and outdoor venues, according to the people who design and build these structures.

"We are experiencing more demand, which has been steadily rising since the end of the recession," said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based company that provides shade structures, and added that 2017 and 2018 were "particularly strong" for this space. "We attribute it to more money coming back into parks and recreation department budgets, combined with the continuing awareness of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure."


While other kinds of weather necessitate these structures, the most important factor is the sun. Rising awareness of the relationship between extended time in the sun and skin cancer is the biggest single issue driving the uptick in construction of shaded spaces. However, it's hardly the only one: Heat stroke, exhaustion and dehydration are other health risks posed by prolonged exposure to the sun.

And there are still more reasons. There's the effect of extended sunlight on playground equipment. Have you ever touched a slide on a July afternoon? In the majority of the country, it could be hot enough to fry an egg. No kids will want to go on it, particularly if they're wearing shorts.

"Shade structures for playgrounds and outdoor spaces for children have been a large focus for the shade industry for years," said Laura Chumah, product manager of a full-service shade solutions provider based in Dallas. "Playground surfaces, as well as any metal or plastic surface like seating areas or cars, can reach dangerously hot temperatures that can cause burns in warmer weather. As the industry grows, so does the visibility of the product and the demand."

These all speak to the practical reasons for shade structures. But what do you need in order to build shelters that are affordable, enduring and appealing to patrons? There are a few key things, but it all starts with creativity.


In this context, the notion of creativity is applied fairly broadly. It can start with design, and thinking beyond "traditional" solutions such as gazebos or standard picnic pavilions, said Jennifer Graves, a marketing coordinator for a Holland, Mich.-based company that provides open-air structures to parks.

"Pavilions are no longer limited by 'standard designs,'" she explained. "Whether it's a large picnic pavilion or a small seating area along a walkway, parks are able to create a design as unique as their facility and community."


"We have seen more specifiers and buyers emphasizing originality in product design," Bayman said. "Buyers have also become more sophisticated in terms of differentiating quality materials and product design/engineering from cheaper 'quickie' solutions that don't provide return on investment over the longer haul."

The use of new materials in construction of these solutions has really opened up design options. Today, large sheets of fabric held up by poles cover playgrounds, picnic areas and more. Because they're lightweight, flexible and colorful, they can be arranged to look like a sailboat, a dragon or a kite. And even more permanent structures like pavilions and gazebos are getting more elaborate, thanks to cheaper materials and creative thinking.

Whatever design you settle on, just be sure that it aligns to the purpose of the space. Here's a long (but not comprehensive) list of imaginative ways in which these shelters and shade structures are being used today:

  • Pools and splash pads
  • Community amphitheaters
  • Venues for weddings, family reunions and other life events
  • Outdoor fitness areas (often with exercise equipment and games)
  • Farmer's markets
  • Theme park character meet & greets
  • Entrance or walkway covers
  • Lines for amusement park rides and line queues
  • Rooftop gardens
  • Concert venues
  • Dog parks
  • Coverings under railways (to protect walkways from falling debris)
  • Train stations
  • Bus and light-rail stops


Sometimes these structures aren't even used for recreational purposes. For instance, Bayman said canopies supplied by his company have been used to cover water treatment tanks by the city of Margate, Fla.

"These are large polyethylene tanks that get so hot in the sun that they can seriously burn technicians who are responsible for reading meters located on them," he said. "Also, exposure to the sun causes faster deterioration of the tanks, which can cost over $25,000 each to replace. According to city staff, their tanks now last much longer, effectively paying for the shade structure investment after about five years."

"Our product offering has grown to meet a number of segments outside of parks and recreation as well as accommodating various applications," Chumah said. "Shade creates a more comfortable outdoor environment for any purpose. Design is driven by understanding the need, what the intended use for the structure is going to be, maximizing the shade footprint, and working to provide cost-effective solutions while considering design and aesthetics."

Shade creates a more comfortable outdoor environment for any purpose.


Another area in which to think creatively is in managing the finances associated with these spaces. The first category is in how the design and construction of the shelters are funded.

As Bayman indicated earlier, many parks and recreation departments are operating with bigger overall budgets these days. However, even in the best of times, there are still a number of priorities competing for financial resources. And that calls for finding ways to make these projects more cost-effective. One potential cost-saving option Graves suggested is a cooperative purchasing contract.


"That saves a government entity of having to put out a bid, since the cooperative purchasing contract has already been bid," she explained. "Sourcewell (, formerly the National Joint Powers Alliance, is a government co-op that can be used and meets bidding requirements."

Fortunately, shade shelters don't have to be completely constrained by the limitations of a departmental budget. Additional money can be raised in a variety of ways, including grants, bonds, donations from the community and business sponsorships. Naming rights can be sold, as can plaques and signage.

Once the shelter has been built, there could be other ways to make it into a revenue-generating space if it meets certain criteria, such as overall size, seating, food service and protection from a variety of weather elements.

"Pavilions can be rented out for gatherings such as reunions, parties and so forth," Graves said. "Also, amphitheaters can be rented out for events, performances and concerts to fund-raise for community projects and charities."



If you're currently considering building a shelter of some kind, chances are you've already got at least one place in mind for it. And if your shade structure has certain kinds of utility—covering a playground, for example—then the site more or less selects itself. Yet if your shelter is more generalized in purpose, try to build it in an area that's easily accessible by foot traffic and where people would naturally congregate. The more isolated and out-of-the way the structure, the less likely people will use it.

Even if you've got ideas for a spot, you should consult with representatives from firms that design and build these shelters before you settle on a particular site. Many of them will have expertise that can help you understand what designs might be able to work with your particular location, and also let you know if there are any red flags with the area you've selected, such as potential for flooding, ground that's too soft or rocky, probability of high winds and other hazards to your shelter. They can also help you with any local safety regulations and building codes.



Are you planning a decorative, aesthetically pleasing spot where people can sit in relaxation and contemplation? A large covered area for sizeable gatherings and parties? Perhaps a venue for intimate performances? The type of shelter you're trying to build will determine what kinds of materials you use and how much.

Here too, experts from shelter design and construction firms will help. They can provide insight into the different options available to you, and the pros and cons of each.

According to Chumah, here's a list of some of the questions that will drive decisions around which materials to use:

  • How detailed do you want the design to be? You might just want a simple, functional design. Nothing wrong with that. But it's getting easier—and less expensive—to add stylistic flourishes like laser-cut ornamentation and railings. Usually, the more of these details you add, the more materials you'll need to make your vision a reality.
  • Do you want your structure to do anything else? If you want it to perform any functions besides providing shade and shelter from all kinds of weather, you'll have to take that into account. Do you want it to be a model of alternative energy? You might consider incorporating solar panels or a small windmill. Do you want it to have an illuminated interior? You'll have to add a lighting system and set up wiring (concealed, ideally) for that.


Even after a shelter is planned, funded and built, the job's not done. These structures still need to be maintained over time. The good news is that modern materials and design techniques mean that it should be a while before you have to think about it—and even then, it shouldn't be that often (barring acts of God or major vandalism).

The more permanent shelters can vary in the frequency of maintenance. Wood, for instance, can see significant damage from sunlight and termites. Also, if any structures are painted, they might have to be repainted after just a few years. For newer fabric-and-steel designs, the first maintenance tasks required might not come for 10 years.


"Higher-quality shade products should not require much maintenance and should be designed for long-term durability in public environments," Bayman said. "For example, our fabric canopies carry a 10-year non-prorated warranty, and do not require any maintenance such as cable tensioning or cleaning for their durability. We have seen the vast majority of our fabrics last well past the warranty term."

Most fabric covers are good for a decade, and the steel posts that hold them aloft can last more than 30 years, Chumah said. However, Graves explained that fabric does require some basic upkeep. It may have to be cleaned from time to time, and must be taken down during times of excessively powerful winds and heavy snowfall.

On both permanent and fabric-based shelters, metal components endure thanks to finish. Galvanizing and powder coating help protect the metal, Graves said, and added that there are a variety of options here depending on local climates.

Additionally, there are certain techniques that can help shield your structure from other kinds of damage. For example, Graves mentioned "same plane design," which essentially removes those nooks and crannies where birds can nest. Also, gutters and downspouts can help detour drainage away from your shelter.

Go ahead and start planning that shade shelter. Your patrons will be glad you did—especially around summertime.


When you thoughtfully factor all of these elements into your design, you end up with a useful, appealing, cost-effective and lasting solution. It's not that difficult or expensive, and again, if you're working with providers who know what they're doing. It will be that much easier. So go ahead and start planning that shade shelter. Your patrons will be glad you did—especially around summertime.

Brian Summerfield