Supplement Feature - April 2021
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If You Build It

Welcome the Community Outside with Site Furnishings

By Dave Ramont


One good thing that came out of 2020 was the fact that so many more people got outside to visit parks, campgrounds and other greenspaces since entertainment and exercise options were so limited. At the North Carolina Art Museum in Raleigh, landscape supervisor Lauren Barry shared that they had twice the number of visitors to their Museum Park in the spring of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, though the museum was closed.

"What we learned is that parks and rec services are essential to our communities, because they were actually overwhelmed with people going out and using parks and trails after restrictions were lifted," said Mick Massey, a senior associate at architecture firm Barker Rinker Seacat.

As these spaces experienced more visitors, the importance of site furnishings became even more evident. Tables, benches and other seating can create places to sit and reflect, socialize, spectate or enjoy a meal. They can be strategically placed to encourage gathering in certain areas, or quiet time in others. Trash and recycling receptacles, as well as ash urns and pet waste collection centers, encourage visitors to keep environments clean. Bike amenities promote sustainability and make spaces accessible for more visitors. Bollards can define perimeters and keep people safe. Planters add beauty, while grills and fire rings encourage gatherings. Signs can inform, and drinking fountains and shade amenities can provide comfort and increase lengths of stay.

Site furnishings bring functionality and offer opportunities for social interaction, as well as shaping the identity of a space and creating orientation. There are many considerations when choosing site products and how they'll be situated: Who do you hope to draw to the site, and how will these amenities help attract visitors? Is it a neighborhood park, a destination park or a streetscape where people will eat lunch or wait for a bus? Is the space appropriate for quiet reflection or fitness, sports and recreation activities? Will public gatherings like art shows or farmers markets take place there, and what might pedestrian foot traffic look like? And it's important to consider things like views, privacy and sun patterns when deciding on seating layouts.

Oftentimes, planners will consider nearby building designs or aspects of the area's natural setting when selecting furnishings. Shape, color, texture and material can help furnishings complement the surroundings. "Color choices have become very important to customers, and it seems we add new colors frequently," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for a Cherokee, Iowa-based manufacturer of park, street and campsite products. "Colorful recycled plastic and thermoplastic-coated steel products are popular."

George Blevins, sales manager for a Dunkirk, Md.-based manufacturer of site furnishings, said that aesthetics can certainly play a role in material selection. "For example, an all steel bench may work well for a streetscape, but a wooden bench—which may appear a little warmer—may be preferred for a park."

Furnishings should be considered early in project designs, as with other architectural design elements. Therefore it's important for designers, planners and suppliers to work together at the outset. "We often work with specifiers during the planning stages of a project to help them with plans for their clients and give them all the product information they may need, as well as custom renderings when requested," said Blevins, explaining how they maintain relationships with designers and landscape architects, participating in various organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The ASLA website lists several continuing education sessions focused on site furnishings, including "Site Furniture Selection & Placement" and "Site Furnishings: Connecting People to the Landscape."

Climate and geography should be considered when selecting materials, and Blevins said they strive to design for all types of environments and weather. He explained how they use an extra-thick powder coating on their products to help protect against rusting, as well as act as an insulator to keep benches from getting too hot. "However, we recommend that coastal areas have the products hot dip galvanized for extra protection from the salt water and sand." In this process, a layer of molten zinc is added to the steel, preventing rust for up to 70 years, according to Blevins. "We can offer powder coating on top of the galvanizing to finish the product." Additionally, he said that places with dry, arid climates typically stay away from wood, and may decide to go with steel or recycled plastic instead.

Simonsen agreed that locations near lakes or oceans are better served with galvanized steel frames, or recycled plastic or coated steel components. "Stainless steel charcoal grills and campfire rings are good choices for beach areas where the humidity and salt air can accelerate the corrosion of steel."

He also pointed out that cost is a factor. "Recycled plastic and coated steel products are more expensive to buy initially, but require less maintenance so may be less costly to own. Wood products are the lowest cost to buy, but may require more maintenance such as water sealing or painting over time. The cost/benefit analysis is something each customer must consider."

Simonsen said wood is still a popular material choice. "We sell many bench and picnic table frame kits only—no seat/back/top materials. These benches and tables are then built with lumber purchased from a local source. Since wood is so available, it's easy to get a replacement board when one is damaged."