Feature Article - September 2020
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Out of the Sun

Shelters & Shade Structures Create Well-Rounded Public Spaces

By Joe Bush


As long as the sun shines, people will want shade from its rays.

And what people want, their local governments try to provide, so that the people will use local parks and playgrounds, athletic fields and outdoor concert venues. Amenities help keep residents, and recruit new ones.

This basic fact, coupled with Americans' desire to ease their coronavirus stress with outdoor activity, means the shade structure industry is as healthy as it's ever been, with the main worry being future municipal budget crises brought on by the cost of the health emergency.

"In the midst of this COVID, we're having our best year," said Richard Lubbers, co-owner of a Holland, Mich.-based manufacturer of shelters. "As long as the bond issues keep passing and there's money for development for parks and rec, it seems to be a pretty bright outlook."

Shelter providers say the bulk of their business comes from cities and park districts. They both build and run the parks and playgrounds and athletic complexes that need to provide relief from the heat and harmful effects of the sun for the many people who use them. Some structures also provide revenue in the form of tournament fees and reservations for gatherings.

Structures can be simple—four posts and a roof—or complex, like pavilions for entertainment that can take weeks and a crane to install. Materials used include tubular steel, wood, stone and fabric. Some companies use them all, and some specialize in fabric or non-fabric projects. Prices range from four figures to half a million dollars and up.

Jennifer Graves, of another Holland, Mich.-based shelter and shade structure manufacturer, said today's structures have evolved along with community needs.

"Pavilions today go beyond basic and traditional—structures are designed and engineered for each specific site, starting with the ideas and needs of the park," said Graves. "Pavilions are no longer limited by 'standard designs.' 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. Perfect for hosting reunions, birthday parties or just a picnic during a family outing, pavilions are one of the most essential pieces of any park area."

Amphitheaters can be an eye-catching first impression and central hub within a park for hosting public events, concerts and performances. They also provide a return on investment through ticket admission and fundraisers. They serve as a focal point within a park and can make it a destination.

"With the ability to personalize a structure and increase site recognition with laser-cut medallions and signage, or by adding attachment points for temporary banners to identify sponsors and local events, the amphitheater can serve a dual purpose as an advertisement for the park and its event," Graves said.

Graves added that outdoor facilities are gaining in popularity as people are wanting to create a greater connection with nature, even before COVID: Farmer's markets can be developed as a permanent venue so merchants no longer have to transport tents; parks are adding fitness areas with equipment and interactive games that need protection from the elements; playgrounds and splash pads are incorporating shade to allow children to play longer without the fear of over exposure to direct sunlight and also prevent equipment from getting too hot.

"Even dog parks need a place for pets and owners alike to stop and take a break," Graves said.

Lubbers has been in the shelter industry since 1988. He said the structural evolution has been stark as well. Shelters were more simplistic in the early days, he said. Until about 1990 all steel shelters were just a single roof with columns. He says he was one of the first to design a structure with a two-tiered roof with an opening in between.

"They started selling like crazy" he said.

Lubbers said before tubular steel began to dominate, wooden shelters were the norm, with glue laminate, tongue and groove or steel roofing.

"Tubular steel began to dominate because it was a cleaner look," he said. "You can hide all the connections inside the tube so there's no place for vandals to get at it, no ledges to land on. A very clean package that was easy to assemble. We added ornamentation, cupolas, weather vanes, handrails. They became more complex."