Add a Little Shade

Shelters, Shade Structures Mix Function & Style


Whether you are spending the day swimming at an aquatic facility or picnicking at a local park, chances are that you'll find plenty of shelters or shade structures to protect you against the day's weather conditions—whether that's the sun, heat or rain.

With what seems like unlimited options, today's designs of shelters and shade structures are more stylish and colorful than ever before, adding character and charm to any area. What's more, the choices available often can be customized, enabling them to be incorporated into any environment and become a place to bring people together.

"Shade and shelters can now be planned and worked into public spaces to provide both form and function," said Scott Curtis, director of sales for a Red Bud, Ill.-based company that manufactures shelters, shades, commercial picnic tables, dog parks and outdoor fitness products.


A key step in deciding how you want to incorporate shelters or shade structures is to work with an experienced designer. "The best way to incorporate shade structures into outdoor spaces is to develop a master plan with a licensed landscape architect," said Richard Lubbers, vice president of marketing for a Holland, Mich.-based company that designs, engineers and fabricates shelters, gazebos, pavilions and more.

"That design process," Lubbers said, "is indispensable, not only in determining the needs of the community, but also in developing sustainable infrastructure that can meet those needs."

His company often collaborates with design professionals who are in the design phase of a project in order to provide engineering services on shade structures.

Previous architecture was used to direct the design of a shelter at Blackhawk Park, in Aurora, Ill., owned by the Fox Valley Park District. The old school, Lubbers said, was torn down, and his company's shelter represents some of the architecture from the school. The stone column bases will be brick from the old school. The shelter type is a custom barrel vault. The designer was Design Perspectives, based in Naperville, Ill.


Meanwhile, other experts concur that incorporating shelters and shade structures into a location is pretty simple, and that they can easily be added to accent or define a space.

"With many available color combinations, as well as imaginative shapes and configurations, fabric shade structures can blend well with any outdoor space and provide a lighter and airier skyline than solid shelters," noted Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based company that designs and manufactures pre-engineered outdoor fabric shade structures, canopies, umbrellas and awning covers.

In addition to pavilions and gazebos over picnic areas, Jennifer Graves, marketing coordinator for a Holland, Mich.-based company that specializes in the design, engineering and manufacturing of open-air steel shade structures, pointed out some other ways to use shade and shelters:

  • Walkway covers and entrance canopies direct visitors where to go through stylish wayfinding, provide shelter from the elements, connect spaces and enhance surrounding architecture.
  • Trellises accent a walkway or seating area, and will easily fit into rooftop gathering spaces.
  • Structures can be added over amusement rides, lines, splash pads and swimming areas.
  • Athletic fields can feature coordinating structures for dugouts, bleacher covers and concession areas.
  • Amphitheaters can be added to create a central gathering space for community events.
  • Canopy structures can be placed over parking areas or transit facilities
  • Fabric shade offers limitless possibilities in shape for unique shade spaces in water parks, animal exhibits and theme parks.

"As the shade and shelter industry has evolved and grown," Curtis said, "there are a number of designs and styles that can be incorporated into a specific look or feel of an outdoor space, in addition to a multitude of colors that can be selected, from the initial design of a playground, an outdoor pavilion, a courtyard of a multi-family housing complex, a waterpark, and the list goes on.

"A shade or shelter can be created that works with the space to add comfort to the individuals that utilize that environment," he added.



Shelters and shade structures do exactly what they are intended to do: "They create an area of outdoor space for people to use that creates shade and helps protect people from the direct exposure to the sun," Curtis said.

Additional benefit of shelters is the way they create a space that provides both shade and a roof system that will protect occupants from rain. "Many times the shelters will also incorporate lighting and fans for additional comfort," he added.

Clearly, the ability of shelters and shade structures to protect against the sun is a key benefit. While wearing sunscreen and protective clothing can help reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer, seeking shade under an umbrella or other types of shelters is just as important.

"Benefits of fabric shade structures include protection from the sun's dangerous UV rays for people and property at an economical cost, since fabric generally costs less than the equivalent-sized solid shelter," said Bayman, whose company's products can provide shade and sun protection over playground equipment, bleachers, concession areas, pool decks, parking lots, waterparks, vehicle parking areas, and other outdoor gathering places.

For example, Bayman's company provided Eagle Creek Elementary in Orlando, Fla., with a cooling shade structure to protect kids from potentially dangerous playground conditions during the hot summer months. The structure features a cooling shade fabric for maximum air cooling and protection from up to 99 percent of the sun's dangerous UV rays. Also, the canopy can be removed and reattached easily.

Together, the school's PTA and the community raised funds and were able to have a sunshade constructed over playgrounds at Eagle Creek Elementary, allowing 100 minutes of shade per week to a play area that was directly exposed to the sun.

Besides the sun, Bayman noted that additional benefits of shade structures "include the opportunity to use an almost endless combination of colors and shapes to design a unique look that will enhance the visual attraction of any site."

Lubbers said that the benefits of providing shelters and shade structures to a community are as varied as their uses.


"Improvements to recreational infrastructure can transform previously unused outdoor spaces into vibrant public activity centers," he said. "I am a big fan of reusing former industrial and commercial lands for public recreation, like Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake, Ill., developed on the lands of a former gravel quarry."

Lubbers' company's shelters were used throughout the park to provide shade along hiking trails, picnic spots on the lakes, and a large group shelter with fireplace for gatherings of family and friends.

Similarly, Graves said that open-air structures provide protection to people and animals from the harsh outdoor elements, including heat, rain, snow and, most importantly, the sun. But, she added, they also can bring a community together and provide a connection with nature.

"Our process allows our structures to assemble quickly onsite and eliminates welding inspections, painting and other on-site disruptions," Graves said. "Our precision-cut steel components and reliable engineered construction eliminates exposed bolts and allows us to remove the typical nesting locations of birds, preventing unsightly messes."


Uses for shelters and shade structures are almost endless, with family get-togethers or reunions, concerts, parties, etc., being just some of the ways you can use the structures.

For example, some of Bayman's company's most popular fabric shade applications right now include playgrounds, pools, spectator seating, sport courts, outdoor stages, concession and dining areas, vehicle parking and more.


Early on, Lubbers' company provided the superstructure for a 100-foot, 12-sided carousel house that was built at Brookfield Zoo, which is located just west of Chicago.

"A few years later I visited the zoo, and found out from zoo personnel that the cost of the carousel and the carousel house were paid off in two years of selling $1 and $2 rides," he said.

In another example, in 2006, 2008 and 2016, Lubbers' company provided a few dozen shade structures for the ballfields at Old Settler's Park in Round Rock, Texas.

"When I first visited the site in 2005, there were a few tired-looking ballfields in that park of several hundred acres. Now, Old Settler's Park is the home of a busy complex of softball, baseball and soccer fields that operates almost year round," he said.

"Shade structures, as part of recreational infrastructure improvements, provide not only services to the citizens of a community, but also revenue to the community," Lubbers added.

Graves noted that amphitheaters can make a site the hub of entertainment, and the go-to place for hosting public events.

"They also can provide a return on investment through concerts, performances and fundraisers in your park," she said. "Signage can also be added to a structure, created with our high-performance laser, to identify sponsors and enhance site recognition."


Structures even can be used for farmers markets and other outdoor venues, such as a fitness zone promoting a healthy community.

Shades and shelters create spaces that invite people to spend more time outdoors.

"A park may utilize a number of shelters that they allow people from the community to rent for a space to host a family reunion, a birthday party or even an outdoor wedding," Curtis said.

This, in turn, creates revenue for the park and enables local residents to host an event on a larger scale outside their home.

"Some communities have utilized shelters to host a weekend farmers market or craft fair," he said. "Playgrounds utilize shade structures to create a space that children and families can spend more time outdoors by shading the playground equipment from being directly exposed to the sunlight, creating a space that is cooler and more comfortable to extend play time," he said. "A waterpark will use shade to create areas around the park that people can get out of the sun for periods of time and extend the time that they can enjoy the waterpark," he added.


In terms of deciding what type of shelter or shade structure to choose for your location, you have to consider the overall setting.


"Each shelter is designed to complement the surrounding environment," Graves said. "Our in-house design team will create drawings and budget pricing by partnering with the client to realize their vision. Our engineers will determine the appropriate loads (snow, wind, seismic), calculations and foundations and stamp the drawings for your specific area."

Shelters provide protection in a practical and artistic way, too.

"This is why it's important to choose a fabric shade structure vendor with an excellent design team," Bayman said. "Our designers consider location for optimal sun blocking, surrounding amenities and obstacles for safety, and visual impact."

Lubbers said that typically these questions are addressed during the design phase of a project. And, any number of influences to a shelter design can exist, such as:

  • Architecture of surrounding structures
  • Intended use of the shelter
  • Desired "look" of the shelter
  • Other elements in the site design
  • Types of materials desired
  • Building codes
  • Local design ordinances
  • Budget
  • Sometimes it's nothing more than "I want one of those!"

Curtis said the best suggestion is to work with a local shade or shelter factory dealer representative.

"The local sales rep can make onsite visits to work with the property owner or parks manager. The rep should gather information about the build site, the need that is going to be filled and how the proposed shade or shelter will be utilized," he said.

"They can then start to take measurements, take on-site photos and gather additional information that they can then work with the manufacturer to start working toward a design that will fulfill the requirements," he said.

"The dealer reps and the manufacturers will have suggestions to what potential solutions are available," he added, "and will work toward designs that meet local building codes and safety guidelines."

Visual Appeal

Creating a visual appeal with shelters and shade structures depends on the actual project that they will be a part of. Today, shade manufacturers offer a wide variety of shapes and types to choose from—including hexagons, octagons, rectangles, bandshells and much more.

"In the situation that a shelter is being utilized as a dugout shelter at a softball or baseball park the intention is for that unit to blend in and just be part of the facility," Curtis said. "At that same ballpark, they may utilize shade structures to cover portions of the bleachers. These would also want to blend into the surrounding environment.


"You can then look at a site like a city park that has a large shelter next to the lake. This shelter was designed and intended to stand out and call attention within the park and the beautiful lakeside setting," he said. "It is intended to draw people to a space or destination to enjoy time with family and friends outdoors."

A wide variety of designs are available to enhance an outdoor space. For example, Graves' company offers an array of flexible walkway cover designs.

"Or perhaps you'd like to get creative and utilize our design and engineering teams to work with you for something more challenging and inspiring," she said. "Your vision, along with our experience and premium quality, will develop a structure that creates a visual harmony and balance with surrounding architectural elements, or stand out as an eye-catching first impression."

What's more, wiring needed for lighting and security can be concealed within the structure, instead of having exposed unsightly conduit. Steel gutters and downspouts can be color matched to frame and integrated into the design.

Structures also can be enhanced by adding handrails, column covers, custom ornamentation, integrated benches, lightning protection, electrical cutouts, windscreens or additional clearance height.

Bayman said originality is a plus because everyone wants their site to look different.

"We design using different shapes for the fabric panels, and appealing colors for both the fabrics and the metals," he said. "Some customers want the fabric shade structure to blend in, so for those we select sizes and colors that will match the surroundings harmoniously. Others want to make a stunning statement, which explains the popularity of our brighter fabric colors, such as the lime green."

The design of a shelter or shade structure must incorporate both visual and technical elements.

"The visual elements of design are necessary to create a structure that appears balanced. The technical elements of engineering ensure that the building is safe (meets the building code)," Lubbers said.

"Without both, the shelter could either be safe and ugly, or beautiful and dangerous," he added. "Blending design and engineering creates shelters with structural integrity that are easy on the eye."