Feature Article - September 2022
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A Shady Place

Shade Structures & Shelters for Parks & Other Recreational Spaces

By Joe Bush


Shelters and shade structures may or may not be the highlight of the recreation areas and parks they occupy, but like restrooms, they are essential to ensuring that people will stay a while and enjoy their experience.

As long as the sun shines, lovers of outside pastimes will need protection from its rays. Sunscreen is the top choice, but shade offers the same protection in addition to providing relief from the heat. Trees are nature's shade structures, but it's not always possible or practical to build play areas and athletic fields under their canopies.

Older playgrounds either had no shade or featured wooden or plastic roofs over their slides, climbing bars and other adventurous elements. Today, playgrounds are often covered by shade structures using fabric of all colors and shapes supported by and stretched among steel bars anchored with cement footings.

Prices on these structures vary according to size, of course, but budgets also are affected by style, how much concrete is used—also a function of style, column size and height—and customization options. The latest in shade structures can integrate lighting into the columns, and many manufacturers and end users are building play structures with integrated shade structures.

"We are seeing a lot of people making 'quality' and 'maintenance friendly' more of the first requirement on projects rather than 'budget conscious' or 'budget friendly' being the primary goal," said Brian Fritz, a business development manager with a designer and manufacturer of open-air steel structures.

Sail Away

Shade sails—the geometric fabric pieces under tension among steel columns—are seemingly everywhere in the recreation world.

Brian Cipriano, a landscape architect with Gordon, a landscape architecture firm headquartered in Chantilly, Va., explained the appeal to his clients: "They're looking for something that isn't just a gable roof or hip roof pavilion," Cipriano said. "They want something that has some pizzazz to it, to enhance the aesthetic of the park with sort of an artsy look."

Indeed, Troy Stubbs, assistant director of parks and recreation for the Clayton County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners, said that's exactly the reason he chose the shade structures used in his jurisdiction's new waterpark, Spivey Splash. The park has several shade sail structures, but some of them have canopies that change color based on the viewer's angle. Stubbs initially saw them at a tradeshow.

"The look—it doesn't look like a building, a pavilion," he said. "It was more about being innovative and being a 2022 waterpark instead of from 40 years ago, all boxy. With it being a new waterpark, I wanted to have some things out there not too many people knew about or even were able to get yet.

"We wanted something different, to stand out."

Aesthetics aside, the main reason for installing shade sail structures is to make a play area or athletic field attractive and relaxing, said Brent Derbecker, a sales executive with a recreation product manufacturer that started a shade structure division 15 years ago. "You're creating comfortable outdoor spaces," said Derbecker. "We do a lot of shade coverings for playgrounds. Oftentimes we'll sell a playground or install a playground and the end users will note that parents and kids aren't using them in the hottest parts of the day, for obvious reasons. Time and time again you'll find the heart of the thing is designing a comfortable outdoor space for increased usage."

Derbecker said some other common reasons for installing shade structures include for protection of vehicles in parking lots, especially in the southern and western states; preserving the color of rubber playground surfaces and structural plastics, which can fade due to sun exposure; flexibility of design and size; and adhering to jurisdictions that mandate shade for recreation areas.

Three common types of shade structures, Derbecker said, include single-center-post canopies, like umbrellas; hip shade structures that use multiple columns and can feature either a flat or slanted roof; and cantilevered structures using columns to one side—thereby freeing the space underneath—with shade canopies supported by a framework.

He said around half of his company's shade business is in what he calls "standard" shade structures—for example, a 30-foot-square hip shade structure with an eight-foot entry height. Another quarter of the business is modifications on that standard—like making the entry 13 feet high instead of eight. The remaining quarter of the business is custom work, he said. "Your most common custom shade structure is going to be shade sails because they allow for asymmetrical designs, site-specific designs, and oddball shapes, sizes, lengths, widths and height," said Derbecker.