Feature Article - October 2018
Find a printable version here

Gimme Shelter

Keys for Creating Great Covered Spaces

By Brian Summerfield

The sweltering sun on a cloudless summer day. Torrential downpours in the middle of spring. Lightning storms. Blustering winds. Snow. Sleet. Hail.

There are any number of weather incidents that can complicate people's outdoor fun. And that's an issue for parks and other recreational facilities, which are in that line of work, so to speak. How can you create a space that allows people to be outdoors for long periods of time without excessive exposure to the harsh conditions—dangers, even—of the elements?

Obviously, this isn't a new problem. In fact, public servants have spent centuries coming up with creative ways to deal with it. One notable example from the past is the Roman Colosseum, which was built during the first century. Rome is fairly hot for several months out of the year, so how did the ancient Romans keep the 75,000 or so spectators from overheating? With a massive velarium, a contraption that spread a gigantic canvas cover over much of the top of Colosseum, which shielded the people watching the spectacles inside while still letting in sunlight. (It also included a retractable net made of metal between the seating area and the pit, which protected people from the environmental hazards inside, like wild lions and bears.)

The past few years have seen a substantial uptick in demand for covered spaces among parks, recreation centers and outdoor venues.

The science and engineering associated with constructing these shelters might have changed since those days, but the basic reasons behind them have not. In this often-perilous world of ours, people will always need shelter for safety and comfort. The challenge for decision-makers involved with any kind of outdoor recreation is not just to provide that shelter, but also to ensure that it's developed in a compelling way that will make people want to come back again and again.

Rising Demand for Covered Spaces

The past few years have seen a substantial uptick in demand for covered spaces among parks, recreation centers and outdoor venues, according to the people who design and build these structures.

"We are experiencing more demand, which has been steadily rising since the end of the recession," said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based company that provides shade structures, and added that 2017 and 2018 were "particularly strong" for this space. "We attribute it to more money coming back into parks and recreation department budgets, combined with the continuing awareness of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure."

While other kinds of weather necessitate these structures, the most important factor is the sun. Rising awareness of the relationship between extended time in the sun and skin cancer is the biggest single issue driving the uptick in construction of shaded spaces. However, it's hardly the only one: Heat stroke, exhaustion and dehydration are other health risks posed by prolonged exposure to the sun.

And there are still more reasons. There's the effect of extended sunlight on playground equipment. Have you ever touched a slide on a July afternoon? In the majority of the country, it could be hot enough to fry an egg. No kids will want to go on it, particularly if they're wearing shorts.

"Shade structures for playgrounds and outdoor spaces for children have been a large focus for the shade industry for years," said Laura Chumah, product manager of a full-service shade solutions provider based in Dallas. "Playground surfaces, as well as any metal or plastic surface like seating areas or cars, can reach dangerously hot temperatures that can cause burns in warmer weather. As the industry grows, so does the visibility of the product and the demand."

These all speak to the practical reasons for shade structures. But what do you need in order to build shelters that are affordable, enduring and appealing to patrons? There are a few key things, but it all starts with creativity.


In this context, the notion of creativity is applied fairly broadly. It can start with design, and thinking beyond "traditional" solutions such as gazebos or standard picnic pavilions, said Jennifer Graves, a marketing coordinator for a Holland, Mich.-based company that provides open-air structures to parks.

"Pavilions are no longer limited by 'standard designs,'" she explained. "Whether it's a large picnic pavilion or a small seating area along a walkway, parks are able to create a design as unique as their facility and community."

"We have seen more specifiers and buyers emphasizing originality in product design," Bayman said. "Buyers have also become more sophisticated in terms of differentiating quality materials and product design/engineering from cheaper 'quickie' solutions that don't provide return on investment over the longer haul."

The use of new materials in construction of these solutions has really opened up design options. Today, large sheets of fabric held up by poles cover playgrounds, picnic areas and more. Because they're lightweight, flexible and colorful, they can be arranged to look like a sailboat, a dragon or a kite. And even more permanent structures like pavilions and gazebos are getting more elaborate, thanks to cheaper materials and creative thinking.