Feature Article - October 2008
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A Shady Place

Shelters to Suit Your Facility

By Kelli Anderson


ith concerns about skin cancer firmly fixed on America's collective radar, it is no surprise that shade structures are becoming the norm wherever people congregate from waterparks to parking lots to playgrounds.

"As people get more educated about skin cancer there's a much greater demand for shade structures," said Kent Oakly, director of parks for the city of El Dorado Hills, Calif. "People really want to see shade in all our new playgrounds. I think it's become very prevalent in the last five years."

And while a better educated population now looks to shelters and shade structures as the best way to protect themselves and their children from harmful UV rays, it is also true that these structures do so much more than protect us from nature's Public Enemy Number One. Thanks to the myriad options in materials and designs, a well-chosen structure can become the iconic focal point of a space or community, be a key player in today's emphasis on sustainable design and even be a multitasking generator of revenue without costing a fortune.

Pick and Choose

Choosing the right structure for your needs, however, is key. While cost is always the number-one consideration, not accurately factoring in the furnishing needs, capacity or probable uses can mean effort and dollars needlessly thrown to the wind.

Making sure your design actually provides shade is first and foremost.

"Orientation is the biggest factor," said Matt McComb, landscape architect for the parks and recreation department of Allen, Texas. "A lot of structures are cool to look at like neat pitches and roof lines, but if it's too high it's not functional."

Similarly, if structures are poorly angled and don't take into account the sun's movement during the day, patrons will find their structure of little use for blocking UV rays and staying cool in the shade.

"It's important to position them for the hottest part of the day, which for us is about 3 and 4 p.m.," said Jack Mathison, assistant director of parks and recreation for Hollywood, Fla. "And don't get them too high. One proposed design for our site was 30-feet in the air, but while that's really pretty, 30 feet is a lot of nothing under a noon sky. There's no shade." Identifying who will use the structure will also decide many of its characteristics.

"The most important aspect of the selection process is to identify potential users," said Jay DeFelicis, registered landscape architect with engineering firm CMX of Lansdale, Pa. "What will be the expected capacity, and will the structure be used by groups? Once identified, the design needs to fit within the context of its location."

And that location, DeFelicis said, can impact the structure's building materials. Structures located in more remote and less supervised areas are more apt to require sturdy metal, wood or stone to withstand abuse. Conversely, structures located in more monitored areas like an aquatic space, can be virtually any material you choose.

Environmental conditions are another factor of the material-choice equation. Salt air, for example, can more easily corrode metal (without special coatings), while snow loads and high winds may determine whether a fabric or solid-material structure is more practical for your needs. It all depends.

Then there are aesthetic considerations. Barring designs that will prove ineffective for shade, aesthetics can make or break a spaceā€”and even impact programming. Poorly chosen structures run the gamut of ho-hum boring to jarring eyesore, but when aesthetics are done right they can enhance an area to the level of an iconic destination.