Supplement Feature - April 2017
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A Place for Everything, Everything in Its Place

Furnishing Your Site Effectively

By Dave Ramont

If you find yourself sitting serenely on a park bench, taking in the surroundings, the last thing on your mind is probably the park bench. But there are people who have given a lot of thought to that bench: Is it plastic or concrete, wooden or steel? Does it have arm rests? Is it backless or slatted, flat or contoured? These days, manufacturers offer a myriad of options when it comes to public-space furnishings, and they're more focused than ever on having these amenities blend in seamlessly with their surroundings.

Austin Bell, product data manager for a North Aurora, Ill.-based manufacturer of site furnishings, said he has noticed a growth in design aesthetics over the years, with innovations in materials and manufacturing allowing contemporary design elements to be incorporated into traditionally utilitarian items. "Durability no longer requires tons of steel or concrete. Outdoor spaces can be more curated, and site amenities can be formed to fit the different themes without loss of function."

Geoffrey Munro, creative director for the same company, agrees. "Innovations have widened the breadth of designs and capabilities of site amenities to meet a greater demand of modern architecture and contemporary landscapes," he said.

Site furnishings can greatly enhance the park experience, said Susan Ross, director of marketing, and Jack Ogden, product development manager for a Batavia, Ill.-based site furnishings manufacturer. Waste receptacles and benches, they said, are a must. "What's a park without a bench? They provide people the opportunity to rest their weary feet, sit and watch the world go by. Benches encourage everyone to linger longer."

Other amenities also encourage longer park visits, they say, including shade structures, bike racks, pet waste stations and dog play equipment. And, "Outdoor message centers effectively publicize—and increase participation in—recreation programs and activities."

A Range of Styles & Materials

When choosing furniture for your home, the styles and choices can seem endless. And over the years, the number of options when choosing outdoor site furnishings has exploded as well. "Twenty years ago, our catalog was 48 pages; today it's 124," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for a Cherokee, Iowa-based manufacturer of site furnishings. He reports that all their product lines have expanded to meet the demand for more styles, materials and colors.

Victoria McCallum, marketing coordinator for a Mifflintown, Pa.-based site furnishing manufacturer, said that over the past 20 years they've noticed a transition from wood products to recycled plastic products. "Another change is the use of lighter, more contemporary design features—especially with chairs and especially in urban parks. With the advent of programmed parks, they afford a lot of flexibility."

With so many choices, are there favorites when it comes to materials? McCallum states that each material has its own benefits. "If you want a bench with a soft, natural feel, then you'll probably choose wood. If you value a bench that feels sturdy and can be repaired easily, then you'll probably choose steel. If you want a bench that's durable, colorful and uniform, then plastic might be your best bet."

Simonsen said that while recycled plastic products are still popular, they've seen a big increase in the demand for thermoplastic-coated steel in the bench, table and trash receptacle lines. "We think customers are trending toward product designs and materials that require less maintenance over time."

Of course, geographic location and weather conditions also play a role in selecting materials. For instance, high-humidity and salt-air environments can wreak havoc on steel products. "For these locations we recommend stainless steel with a thermoplastic-coated finish," Munro said. Most agreed that recycled plastic is also good for these coastal regions, though Munro cautions that prolonged exposure to hot sun can soften the material, causing it to warp and bow. He also says that concrete is fairly durable, and making sure the form is sealed prevents moisture from seeping in, which can be problematic in areas where it can freeze. "The water then expands and can cause cracks and chipping."

Munro added that steel products have the potential for solar gain, getting hot to the touch when left in direct sun. "Reducing the solid steel surface area and allowing more air to pass through, such as expanded or punched steel, tends to alleviate any issues related to temperature and allows the furniture to retain its structural integrity." Simonsen added that snow load-rated tables are available that withstand high-elevation snow loads of as much as 1,420 pounds per square foot.

New product innovations like this are always on the drawing table. Ross and Ogden are excited about a new line that's designed around the growing trend of mixed elements and materials. It includes benches and receptacles designed with contemporary steel frames, mixed with their premium recycled plastic lumber, which "have the look of high-end site furnishings that landscape architects look for, but at an affordable price."

They also offer a new wood-grain collection, with each product being constructed with long-lasting recycled plastic displaying the look and feel of natural wood. "These products showcase beautiful finishes with materials that are very new to the industry. The wood grain plastic lumber is extremely durable, and requires far less maintenance than wood."

Munro said that modern manufacturing techniques are yielding exciting design possibilities, with products featuring a more robust focus on aesthetics. He mentions a new line of products made from 100 percent recyclable aluminum that are contemporary and lightweight, but very durable. And soon they're going to unveil a new finishing process for these products. "It's a very cool textured finish that's similar to aged or crinkled paint. In gray tones, it has the look of aged stone or concrete."