Out of the Sun

Shelters & Shade Structures Create Well-Rounded Public Spaces


As long as the sun shines, people will want shade from its rays.

And what people want, their local governments try to provide, so that the people will use local parks and playgrounds, athletic fields and outdoor concert venues. Amenities help keep residents, and recruit new ones.

This basic fact, coupled with Americans' desire to ease their coronavirus stress with outdoor activity, means the shade structure industry is as healthy as it's ever been, with the main worry being future municipal budget crises brought on by the cost of the health emergency.

"In the midst of this COVID, we're having our best year," said Richard Lubbers, co-owner of a Holland, Mich.-based manufacturer of shelters. "As long as the bond issues keep passing and there's money for development for parks and rec, it seems to be a pretty bright outlook."

Shelter providers say the bulk of their business comes from cities and park districts. They both build and run the parks and playgrounds and athletic complexes that need to provide relief from the heat and harmful effects of the sun for the many people who use them. Some structures also provide revenue in the form of tournament fees and reservations for gatherings.

Structures can be simple—four posts and a roof—or complex, like pavilions for entertainment that can take weeks and a crane to install. Materials used include tubular steel, wood, stone and fabric. Some companies use them all, and some specialize in fabric or non-fabric projects. Prices range from four figures to half a million dollars and up.


Jennifer Graves, of another Holland, Mich.-based shelter and shade structure manufacturer, said today's structures have evolved along with community needs.

"Pavilions today go beyond basic and traditional—structures are designed and engineered for each specific site, starting with the ideas and needs of the park," said Graves. "Pavilions are no longer limited by 'standard designs.' 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. Perfect for hosting reunions, birthday parties or just a picnic during a family outing, pavilions are one of the most essential pieces of any park area."


Amphitheaters can be an eye-catching first impression and central hub within a park for hosting public events, concerts and performances. They also provide a return on investment through ticket admission and fundraisers. They serve as a focal point within a park and can make it a destination.

"With the ability to personalize a structure and increase site recognition with laser-cut medallions and signage, or by adding attachment points for temporary banners to identify sponsors and local events, the amphitheater can serve a dual purpose as an advertisement for the park and its event," Graves said.

Graves added that outdoor facilities are gaining in popularity as people are wanting to create a greater connection with nature, even before COVID: Farmer's markets can be developed as a permanent venue so merchants no longer have to transport tents; parks are adding fitness areas with equipment and interactive games that need protection from the elements; playgrounds and splash pads are incorporating shade to allow children to play longer without the fear of over exposure to direct sunlight and also prevent equipment from getting too hot.

"Even dog parks need a place for pets and owners alike to stop and take a break," Graves said.

Lubbers has been in the shelter industry since 1988. He said the structural evolution has been stark as well. Shelters were more simplistic in the early days, he said. Until about 1990 all steel shelters were just a single roof with columns. He says he was one of the first to design a structure with a two-tiered roof with an opening in between.

"They started selling like crazy" he said.

Lubbers said before tubular steel began to dominate, wooden shelters were the norm, with glue laminate, tongue and groove or steel roofing.

"Tubular steel began to dominate because it was a cleaner look," he said. "You can hide all the connections inside the tube so there's no place for vandals to get at it, no ledges to land on. A very clean package that was easy to assemble. We added ornamentation, cupolas, weather vanes, handrails. They became more complex."

Shade structures have evolved mainly to meet engineering standards, said Brent Derbecker, of a Carrollton, Ga.-based manufacturer of shade structures, shelters and other park products.

"In the early years of shade structures we rarely needed to get engineered, permitted drawings for standard structures, and today over 50% of them require this," he said. "Beyond that, the designs have become more architectural and less simple."

The popularity of fabric shade structures as we know them now in the United States can be traced back to the 1990s, said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based manufacturer of fabric shade structures.


Prior to that time, similar structures had been used extensively in Australia and South Africa as shade protection for residential applications such as carports. But in the United States, concurrent with the rising concern over the dangers of unprotected exposure to the sun's dangerous UV rays leading to the rise in skin cancer, it was discovered that fabric shade structures help protect people in public venues such as parks and schools.

"As more manufacturers began offering shade, technological advances improved the durability of the fabric coverings, added more color options for both fabric and metals, and introduced essential built-in features such as easy removability and re-attachment systems so that customers could easily take down their canopies for the winter season or in the event of hurricane," he said.

Getting Started

Prospective clients who haven't overseen a shade structure project need to know a few things before they call a provider, said Bayman.

"It's most helpful if clients have at least a site plan or Google Earth image of the proposed location for their shade project, as well as a conceptual idea of the design they would like," Bayman said. "It also helps our design team a great deal to know the application or purpose for the shade—for example, is it a concession area, playground, sports field?"

Mike Jones, who's been involved in shade structure projects as parks and rec director for Margate, Fla., said novice operations folks should learn about the product, and the industry in general.

"Ask questions so you understand from A to Z how the installation will happen and what the finished product will look like," he said. "I believe it is most important to listen to the designers and make sure you are both on the same page so there are no surprises after it is built."

Understanding the community you serve is essential, said Ken Pelham, a landscape architect with the Orlando (Fla.) Families, Parks, & Recreation Department.


"You need to know the neighbors and try to give them what they want," said Pelham. "I find that a range of sizes in picnic pavilions helps. Some people just want a small shelter for a small picnic. Others want something big enough for a birthday party for 12 kids. Others are looking for a huge pavilion for the family reunion. Community involvement results in community ownership, and that's what we aim for."

Pelham said clients should also consider more than their initial budget because of the different climate and conditions in each region.

"Here in Florida, we have pretty stringent building codes for wind loading, and even though Orlando is inland a ways, we can and do get hurricane-force winds on occasion," Pelham said. "So the structure must be engineered for that, and there are no shortcuts. Also, being between coasts, Florida gets some explosive cumulonimbus situations that make us the lightning capital of America, and the Tampa-to-Titusville corridor we're in is the epicenter. We have to take that into account."

Pelham added that areas with many days of sun need to consider quicker color fading, and if it's humid and rainy, rust has to be accounted for. He suggested that in such climates, clients should focus on steel thickness and finishes.


Mike Moore, national sales manager for a Dewey, Ariz.-based shelter and shade manufacturer, said that other than structure function and dimensions, budget is the most important variable.

"They'll get dimensions and the organization will look at the website and say, 'We really like this design,' and we'll shoot them a quote, and they'll say, 'Whoa, we didn't know it would cost that much,'" Moore said. "We say, 'Give us a budget, and we can find something that's going to work for you.' It might not be your ultimate design but we're going to find something that's going to be functional for what you need done."

When the client begins one of the largest projects that shade structure providers are involved in, amphitheaters, it must do additional work to help the provider. The structure is not only a shield from the sun, it reflects and amplifies sound produced on the stage.

"Typically, the acoustical part is done by the designer," said Lubbers. "They know what they want to achieve and will specify materials for the roof or backdrop or side walls. We also engineer the structure for collateral loads, so not only the loads for the building materials themselves but for lights and speakers."

Lubbers said his company asks for information regarding locations for collateral such as outlets and switches so the structure can be designed to be ready to accommodate add-ons.

More Than the Obvious

Derbecker said the simplest thing that most customers are trying to accomplish with shade structures is simply to cool a designated space.

"That's typically the first priority, followed by the look of the structure," he said. "Normally a client will define the area and application they're looking to shade, and then it's up to us to guide them to the solution they like best. Most end-users don't have a high level of familiarity with shade structures so they should be presented with multiple options based on different styles and price points."

Jones said of all the shade structure projects he's been involved with, the most unique was Margate's Sports Complex, where the provider made a custom design frame with shade canopies that wrap around three baseball field spectator areas.

So, yes, all shade structures protect those under them from the heat and rays of the sun, but those structures can be installed in places with many different purposes. They take many shapes and sizes based on the purposes, and when necessary, the structures have built-in signage for navigation and identification.


Graves said clients want a structure that is both practical and eye-catching. Her list of uses for the structures include:

>> Walkway covers and entrance canopies to direct visitors where to go through stylish wayfinding, provide shelter from the elements, connect spaces and enhance surrounding architecture.

>> Trellises to accent a walkway or seating area. They also fit easily into rooftop gathering spaces.

>> Cover for amusement rides, lines, splash pads and swimming areas.

>> Coordinating structures for athletic fields, such as dugouts, bleacher covers and concession areas.

>> Amphitheaters to create a central gathering space for community events.

>> Canopy structures over parking areas or transit facilities.

>> Structures over a playground to allow more time outdoors protected from too much direct sunlight.

>> Structures can be used for farmer's markets and other outdoor venues such as a fitness zone promoting a healthy community.

>> Fabric shade offers limitless possibilities in shape for unique shade spaces in waterparks, animal exhibits and theme parks.

"The features requested most often by customers include imaginative shapes and designs, color options and removability systems so that the canopy can be taken down easily by customer staff for the winter season or in the event of hurricane," said Bayman.

Moore said that new park designs need a focal point structure, and a shade structure provides that. A custom-made structure serves multiple purposes by beautifying as well as protecting and providing a place to gather.

"There needs to be that congregation place," Moore said.

Moore said he is seeing that with today's desire to be outdoors mixed with the need to social distance, sales reps are guiding clients toward larger and connected shade structures. The desire for multipurpose spaces leads to larger shade structures, said Moore, not just a two- or three-picnic table structure.

He said clients want to put more people in the shade in some locations but because of the social distancing required by the coronavirus, spaces that were sufficient for many people need to be larger.

"I've gotten some calls from (sales reps) that are trying to lead schools and parks down that direction," said Moore. "'Hey, why don't you think of something bigger, something you can use as an outdoor classroom, something you can use as a connecting area, an area where people can get together but still socially distance and in a park situation they can rent it and create some revenue?' I like that direction."

Bells & Whistles

Pelham's years of experience with shade structure projects for Orlando have instilled an appreciation.

"A number of companies provide so much choice in design," said Pelham. "We don't always have the budget to custom-design shelters, so it's nice to know that we can browse through vendors' information and find something that accomplishes what we want, not only in area, but in style. We can go woodsy or we can go urban, traditional or 21st century. Bright and flashy or muted and unobtrusive."


Graves' company has an in-house design team and engineers to create custom shelters that include aesthetic needs such as steel gutters and downspouts color-matched to the frame and integrated into the design.

Lubbers said making shade structures attractive begins with design. For example, his company started a line of structures modeled after the Craftsman style of architecture, and it's also standard now for there to be no place for birds to build unsightly and unsanitary nests. Materials and methods have evolved as well, said Lubbers, to add accents.

"Laminates, translucent, semi-transparent," he said. "A center layer with an image. Colored polycarbonate on roof. Sheet steel or aluminum with patterns laser cut into them to create interesting shadows. Precast concrete bar counters. Spaces that looked like stacked rock but cast in glass fiber reinforced concrete that come in two halves that mechanically attach to the steel column so it looks like you had stone masons on site to build stone columns.

"We take into account the principles of design—repetition, balance, proportion. I like them to look good."

The structures don't need much to remain functional and attractive. Warranties cover the soundness of the materials while cleaning with mild detergent and water keep surfaces bright.

"They hang in there pretty good," said Moore of steel structures. "That's what these structures are all about. There's no sealing the wood every year, no cracks or peeling that you might get with vinyl or wood. They're kind of a put 'em up and forget 'em." RM