Feature Article - October 2008
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A Shady Place

Shelters to Suit Your Facility

By Kelli Anderson


Material Gains

So what are some of the most popular options and their attributes? Fabric shade structures known for their eye-catching shapes and colors are among the most affordable in the shade lineup. And while these lightweights may seem too frail when compared to their heavier-weight solid-structure counterparts of steel, wood or synthetics, the fact is that they offer much more than a pretty face.

Boasting design properties ideal for large-expanse coverage, fabric shade structures are a great solution for retrofitting existing spaces where minimal structural interference is required. They are also perfectly suited for covering large play areas, areas where cantilevered designs are a must or where coverage needs to be portable, changed out or flexible.

In 2005 when a hurricane destroyed many of the trees intended to provide shade for the newly built Arts Park in Hollywood, Fla., the city took the opportunity to use fabric structures to cover the large open space and to create a dramatic focal point at the same time.

"It's been very positively received," Mathison said. "You can put so much color into the project and add lots of character—it really multiplies the 'wow' factor."

Some fabric shade structures not only provide a visual wow-factor but offer an additional comfort-factor as well. Unlike many solid-material roofing materials or waterproofed covering like canvas, coated fabrics or vinyl, breathable fabric such as knitted polyethylene can reduce temperatures by as much as 20 degrees. By design, breathable fabrics allow hot air, normally trapped beneath a solid-roofed structure, to pass through the porous weave, leaving only shade and comfy temperatures behind.

But what about fabric's durability and ease of use? Usually designed to be dismantled during off-season or inclement weather, fabric shade structures can enjoy a long and productive life. However, for areas like south Florida's Hollywood, where sudden high winds and storms require swift action multiple times in a season, hiring contractors to dismantle the many shade tops around the city's parks is impractical and costly.

"What we've looked for after the first hurricane I was involved in in 2003 are two things," Mathison explained. "One is that we're able to be self-sufficient to put up and take down the sails ourselves, and two is the material warranty." Thankfully, they were able to find a solution to address both their needs.

For those regions where fabric structures can remain year-round, it is also good to note that they've come a long way from the days when UV rays were more destructive to the materials.

"They didn't used to hold up well under sun or high winds," noted Mark Hatchel, vice president and senior park planner for Kimley-Horn & Associates, of earlier versions. "Typically now these breathable fabrics provide solar protection and are UV resistant to the sun."

But no product can be all things for all needs. A porous makeup like polyethylene fabric—while great for lowering temperatures—is not the go-to solution for a picnic in a sudden downpour. When waterproofing ranks high, coated fabrics, vinyl or solid-material roofing are the best choices.

Neither are fabric structures as vandal-proof as their solid-material counterparts. However, what tends to be most problematic has less to do with their construction and more to do with poor planning—a problem which can be avoided.

As already noted, heights and angles need to be carefully assessed to ensure shade is the result, but proper heights can also reduce vandalism. Hatchel recommends posting the lower end of shade tops no higher than 10 feet for structures in a recreational landscape to discourage tampering, but says low-end heights in aquatic spaces where supervision is more available can be 8 or 7 feet to maximize shade.

A plus factor in fabric structure design noted by Hatchel, who designs with both solid and fabric building materials, is fabric's ability to more easily and cost-effectively change with the times.

"After 10 to 15 years municipalities need to re-theme and revamp so if a structure is more permanent it can look dated," he said. "Fabric structures are a more flexible investment you can change out."