Safe Havens

Provide Sun Protection & Boost Aesthetics With Shelters & Shade Canopies


Early this summer I was walking through a large park near my home in the Chicago suburbs. And while we'd been experiencing a period of drought, this day was damp and drizzly. As I walked by the park's pavilion I saw there was a wedding reception taking place, complete with food, music, dancing and laughter. Fortunately for this happy group, there was a large and stylish shelter next to the river to protect their celebration from the rain; had the day been cloudless it would have protected them from the sun. In fact, within that same park there are two other shelters: another reservable pavilion adjacent to the inclusive playground and a smaller picnic shelter near the concession stand.

Shelters and shade structures can bring tremendous value to parks and other public sites, allowing children and adults to spend time outdoors for longer periods. "Parks are designed to invite people in and relax," said Sean Schmeiser, sales supervisor for a Michigan-based manufacturer of shelter systems. "Shelters can be a place to gather for outdoor performances, picnics, community meetings or simply to get out of the sun. We help to create shelters that can be the focal point of a park or function for shade and to protect equipment underneath. Our engineers make sure that our shelters meet the building code requirements, while our design team helps to design shelters with the park setting in mind."

Schmeiser explained how they work with landscape architects, park directors, engineers and more to come up with the perfect design for the setting, meeting the needs of the park and the community. "We do standard and custom products and in any size, turning your imagination from an idea or a sketch into a reality."


Schmeiser explained how they work with landscape

Examining the band shells offered by Schmeiser's company, we see that variations include square, rectangular, octagonal and hexagonal shelters with multi-rib roof panels. Tongue and groove or structural wood panel roofing materials are options, as well as asphalt or cedar shingles. You can also incorporate a custom laser-cut arched banner or gable-end ornamentation, or choose a tapered barrel vault design with curved roof panels and ornamental beams extending through the roof. You can change the overall size in one-foot increments, raise or lower the roof pitch, raise the eave height, extend the eave overhang and add a roof tier or two. Accessorize the shelter with optional features including cupolas, weathervanes, handrails, clocks, premium columns, enclosure panels and display cases, as well as a variety of colors and finishes. "Band shells are a popular product for us," said Schmeiser. "They can be used in many different ways from outdoor theatrical performances to concerts to community meetings."


"Open structures give protection from direct sunlight, inclement weather and the occasional stray ball at athletic fields," said Jennifer Graves, marketing supervisor for another Michigan-based company specializing in the design, engineering and manufacturing of open-air steel structures. "When visitors have more comfortable areas to gather, they stay longer and are more likely to use your facility again." She added that adding an open-air structure to an already established facility is a great way to showcase a renewed, professional look, as well as create a better use of space.

The pandemic has also shifted the way people think about space, according to Graves, resulting in new trends. "Open-air structures are becoming even more popular as architects, designers and business owners look for ways to better utilize their outdoor space and create an area where people have a greater connection with nature," she said, citing examples of structures being used for outdoor classrooms as well as community gathering spaces. "Being outside promotes better learning by students and collaboration for businesses and communities. Rooftop gathering spaces, outdoor dining and entertainment all give a place for people to gather, in an open environment without walls, where they feel more comfortable and excited to be back together."

Farmers markets continue to gain popularity in communities of all sizes, and Graves mentioned these events as another ideal opportunity to add permanent shelters. "Farmers markets bring community together, provide entertainment and encourage a healthy lifestyle. Markets also promote local shopping and support small businesses. When a permanent structure is installed, vendors can move their shops outdoors to a more open environment without the hassle of individual tents while increasing attendance and revenue potential. Electrical access and cutout can also be provided within the columns, allowing wires to travel inside the columns, eliminating any exposed conduit. (Our) structures create a defined space that becomes an identifiable part of the community."

When asked what's popular lately, "Larger, multipurpose and even classroom-use shelters are trending," said Mike Moore, national sales manager for an Arizona-based company that designs and manufactures fabricated metal buildings for the recreation industry. "More space and the need to social distance has driven this interest in bigger structures."

Moore said that most customers utilize basic shelter designs, but almost all of them are custom sizes. "Most landscape architects create a theme or style in their designs for the whole park. We try to help fit our shelters to their creation," he added, when asked if aesthetics were important.

In fact, looking at style as well as function is typically a big consideration, as is fitting in with other existing structures. "Structures can be created to match existing elements of your facility, highlight team colors and contain custom ornamentation to provide site identification," said Graves. "(We) offer several different material types, textures and colors to fit the aesthetic of the building to which it is near."

It's also increasingly common for parks and other sites to add shade structures to existing amenities, from benches and kiosks to playgrounds and parking spaces. Moore said these applications have become their "bread and butter." He added, "Most new neighborhoods include a park with amenities and a shade structure."


Graves described a variety of structures to complete athletic fields, including dugout structures integrated with chain link fencing to offer protection from the elements. "(These) dugouts provide round columns for easy fence attachment and are engineered in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Bleacher covers are designed to fit around your space with minimal column interference. Pavilions can be added over concession buildings to create an extension for dining," she said.

Schmeiser agreed that additions to existing amenities were on the uptick. "Steel dugouts and bleacher covers are replacing site-built options because they are pre-engineered, come ready to assemble and can be added seamlessly into existing sports facilities. The need for outdoor dining options is also becoming popular as people looking for ways to increase capacity are looking outside for options."

In addition to steel structures, Graves' company offers wood shelters. These can be custom-designed, while standard offerings include square, rectangular, octagonal and hexagonal structures. Their high-pitch, half-hexagon wood band shell offers optimal acoustics. "Wood structures are popular when needed for a more natural environment and come factory-stained to provide longer-lasting protection. Overall we see much stronger interest in an all-steel application, which provides better security from vandals and requires less maintenance."

Fabric shade structures are another option that continues to gain in popularity. Graves pointed out that these are very versatile and great for areas where additional shade is needed without a full-coverage structure. "Outdoor dining areas are finding 'sails' are an easy way to extend off a patio or alley to not only provide sun coverage but protect patrons from light rain or the occasional bird accident overhead."

Sails are tensioned shade canopies often used for covering odd-shaped areas where possible post locations are limited or where a unique aesthetic appearance is desired. "Because of its flexibility to take many shapes and a large assortment of bright colors," continued Graves, "shade fabric also adds a playful element of fun to playground areas and waterparks. We're seeing stronger interest in fabric amphitheaters, giving customers a light, airy look with a nautical design."


Alan Bayman is president of a Florida-based manufacturer of outdoor fabric shade covers and shelters, canopies, tents, awnings and commercial umbrellas. The fabric screens up to 99% of the sun's ultraviolet rays, allowing kids and adults to linger outdoors for extended periods. The shade structures feature a sturdy hurricane-rated metal frame and code-compliant commercial strength fabrics, manufactured from high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

"Playgrounds, bleachers and pools have always been the most popular shade applications historically," said Bayman. "In the past they have been existing facilities that shade was added to after the fact, but increasingly we're seeing new projects where the shade structures are specified together with the new playground or other park equipment being installed." He added that they've received substantial demand for shade for outdoor classrooms as a result of the pandemic.

"One of the most popular amenities in public parks right now is exercise courts, and we're seeing many of them being shaded right from the start when being installed," said Bayman. He explained that while they do offer many standard sizes, custom designs have always been part of their palette and increasingly so. Additionally, he pointed out that aesthetics are definitely a greater consideration than in the past. "Rather than just a utilitarian-looking shade structure, customers want something designed that not only protects visitors from the sun's harmful UV rays, but also visually differentiates the site in an attractive way."


"Sails are a category of product for us where our designers can get creative by combining canopies of varying shapes, colors and unusual angles," continued Bayman. "They add mostly aesthetic value over their less imaginative and less expensive standard-framed siblings, but also offer practical advantages such as angling canopies in the direction that will provide the most advantageous shading vis-à-vis the sun's position at a particular site."

As more ballfields are adding netting for protection against fly balls, oftentimes shading will be incorporated into this strategy as well. "Fly-ball protection is a concern for customers where the area to be shaded is near a ballfield," said Bayman. "Bleachers are certainly an obvious beneficiary of fly-ball protection, as the canopy overhead will protect spectators as stray balls will bounce off it. But sometimes playgrounds are built very close to ballfields, and a shade structure over the play equipment will offer overhead protection for children against fly balls."

As with steel or wood shade structures and shelters, the fabric offerings are also available with electrical accommodations and night lighting. The fabric won't rot or mildew like canvas, and it's naturally resistant to dirt and does not retain moisture. When regular cleaning is necessary, there are various fabric cleaning solutions available. When the shade fabric needs to be removed for cleaning or for the winter season, Bayman's company's products feature a patented removal system that make this easy. And he points out that geography and climate are not an issue. "We are able to engineer our structures for a variety of wind and snow load requirements."

Schmeiser said they also factor location and climate into their designs. "With a pre-engineered system, we can make shelters that are aesthetically pleasing and have structural integrity. Our engineering team works to make sure geographic location does not limit the shelter styles. Every shelter is engineered to the site-specific loads and local building codes so that geography does not hinder the design or aesthetics that are wanted."


Eric Hornig is a landscape architect and principal with the Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape planning firm working in various sectors. He works in the recreation studio, where they've done numerous projects for parks and other open spaces. When asked what he's noticed trending lately with regard to shelters and shade structures, he listed perforated metal/laser-cut panels/screens with custom artwork designs, unique fabric structures, and shade over spectator seating and dugouts.

Hornig agreed that aesthetics are a big consideration, and said that roof, color and ornamentation choices are all made with context in mind. "Masonry column bases are frequently used to help blend adjacent architectural vocabulary."

He said they collaborate with clients on what types of structures make sense for a particular site, taking into consideration budget, general style and program use. "We typically review three to four options that might be appropriate and offer to the owner/public for review and consideration. We often make tweaks to standard designs to best fit the needs of the project." These adjustments include roof pitch, ornamentation and dimensions.

He reported seeing more call for shade over certain amenities, especially bleachers, dugouts and seating areas, and he added that materials need to be considered. "Longevity, durability and resistance to vandalism is key to the decision process. We tend to see steel as a favorite with wood and fabric being used where staff is present or strong neighborhood ownership exists."

As far as advice for those looking to add shelters to their site, Hornig offered the following thoughts:

  • Take care to site it where it's acceptable for people to gather.
  • Consider masonry column wraps or decorative columns to blend into adjacent context.
  • Consider a primary and secondary roof (tongue and groove primary shingle, shake or ribbed roof secondary).
  • Consider receptacles for phone charging.
  • Rectangular shapes are the most efficient.
  • Account for ADA passage between tables when planning.
  • Go 10% larger than you think you need.

Parks and other sites also realize when planning for new structures that these shelters can often be utilized as rentals to generate revenue and offset costs, though some sites merely ask for them to be reserved at no cost. "Pavilions at parks can be rented for events such as birthday parties, receptions and reunions," said Graves. "Farmers market structures also generate revenue by bringing in rental fees from vendors, which in turn also generates money for small local businesses."


Schmeiser agreed and added another potential opportunity: "Bleacher covers can generate revenue from sporting events."

Graves also pointed out that amphitheaters can be a central hub within a park for hosting public events, concerts and performances. "Through ticket admission and fundraisers, the amphitheater can be a great resource to bring money back to a community and local charities. Amphitheaters become 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."

Schmeiser recognized that people are now looking for safe ways to spend more time outdoors, and shelters give them a place to gather. "We have options that can provide shade for individuals to a group of people that are social distancing. With the wide range of options and customer service, we can work with parks departments to produce an inviting space while accommodating unique and functional shelters."

Bayman shared that while business was impacted due to the pandemic, the market has bounced back forcefully, and they're experiencing a record year of sales growth. Moore concurred. "Shelter sales are booming. I believe architects, park managers and decision-makers have renewed their interest in the need for outdoor 'safe spaces' that create activities and opportunities for all ages and abilities to enjoy the outdoors. And who doesn't want shade and protection?" RM