Got it Covered

Adding the right outdoor elements, including shelters, gazebos and building structures

By Kelli Anderson

They began as the consolation prize with a strange name: yurts.

When Crystal Lake Family Campground in Lodi, Wis., installed its first yurt structures three years ago, its most popular rental unit was the A-frame, booked solid from January to Labor Day. Yurts—round, tent-like structures with fabric stretched over sturdy wooden-latticed frames—were introduced as the campground's alternative to A-frame overflow.

"We'd offer yurts," says Bud Stier, operations manager of the campground, "and they'd say, 'never heard of it.' Then they'd try it—yurts that sleep as many as 12 with air-conditioning, futons, carpeting and fans—and they couldn't believe it, and they'd ask, 'How do we sign up for next year?' Now they're our most popular rental. It's very affordable. It's unique, and if properly done, people will seek you out. It just mushrooms."

The yurt, which is a rapidly rising star in the landscape of outdoor structures, is a poster child for all things popular in outdoor shelters. Patrons are seeking the unique, the convenient and the high-end, while managers seek the affordable, maintainable and distinctive.

Thanks to constantly improving materials and structural designs, yurts are among those structures that are catering to the public's desire for a distinctive outdoor experience with the comforts of luxury. The yurt's Mongolian ancestor would hardly recognize it's newfangled American cousin. High-end kitchens, hot tubs, polished hardwood floors, cooling and heating systems, and lofted bedrooms reflect the western desire for modern luxury, while the structure's basic design still retains an airiness and freshness reminiscent of its ancient roots.

Camping structures aside, if it's shade structures you're investigating, you're not alone. The myriad of UV-related dangers to our health—such as the 1,800 percent increase in malignant melanoma since 1930—has transformed our sun-loving culture into a more health-conscious one. Understandably, the shade structure industry is booming.

So, whether the structure you want is as small as a kiosk or as large as a pavilion, knowing how to add today's outdoor elements to cater to both your patron's needs and your own, means knowing the trends, the options and the do's and don't's.

Not to worry—we've got it covered.


Like yurts, fabric architecture also has struck a chord with the American public over the last 10 years. Fabric architecture comes in two basic forms: a frame structure and a post-and-sail structure. The frame structure typically has four posts with cross pieces forming the top over which the fabric is stretched. Post and sail is more of a free-form style in which multiple triangular "sails" are attached to the metal framed structure. Think Sydney Opera House meets canvas.

In either case, the airiness, the soft, diffused light and the eye-popping designs—not to mention the affordability of being 35 percent to 45 percent less than their solid-roofed counterparts—are catching on. Whether for cabanas, pool-side coverings, or shade structures for bleachers and golf courses, fabric architecture is made for the shade.

Once thought a lightweight for durability, synthetic materials like polyethylene are used in most fabric structures today, making them fade- and tatter-resistant, strong beyond belief and able to block out 90 percent of the sun's UV rays. Latest materials also boast a waterproof feature, while creative engineering has designed them to bear significant wind loads with quick-release mechanisms for hurricane conditions so covers can be easily removed and then replaced when better weather returns.

And they do something solid-roofed structures cannot: They breathe. Fabric is permeable so as hot air rises through it, it creates a movement of air that reduces the temperatures beneath the structures by as much as 15 degrees. Fabric architecture, pioneered in Australia and South Africa as much as 40 years ago, are a natural air-conditioning system for brutal climates.

As Americans are now discovering, with precedent-setting structures like the Millennial Dome in London or the Denver International Airport, fabric architecture is able to hold its own. The recreation industry now is applying the innovative strengths of these structures to everything from fanning the fans on bleachers at a ball game to providing UV protection at playgrounds, waterparks and band shells.

For Weston Regional Community Park in Weston, Fla., deciding on what kind of structure would be best for the stage area wasn't too difficult. After getting estimates for the cost of building a solid-roof structure and a fabric one, and after considering the success of other fabric structures throughout its park system, the municipality decided to go with the fabric roof.

"The cost of the metal roof was approximately twice as much as the fabric roof," says Jeff Skidmore, director of parks and recreation for the city of Weston. "I also felt that metal would not provide very good acoustics for musical performances on stage."

So far, the new structure has been well received.

"Our July 4th celebration was the first event that actually made use of the stage and cover," Skidmore says. "The response was very positive by the performers who were on stage during the heat, and the people in attendance were also impressed with the appearance of the entire structure. I think each user has to evaluate their own situation in terms of cost, appearance, type of use, etc., but in our case, the fabric cover was definitely the way to go."


Nobody wants a project to go wrong. But oversights happen, as Rod Emick, site foreman of Thunder Falls Waterpark in Mackinaw City, Mich., discovered when the 25-foot-square umbrella with a 1,500-pound column intended to go atop a slide complex turned out to be too heavy for the foundation.

"Unfortunately, we didn't realize how heavy it was," Emick explains," You have to do your homework."

Creative thinking saved the day—and money—when the umbrella was moved to shade a food-and-beverage area in the middle of the lazy river instead.

When it comes to pulling off a successful project—matching the right outdoor structure to the right needs and in the right place—these tips and reminders from experts in the field might just help:

  • Commit to operating within your budget.

  • Know what you want to do with the space; know its purpose.

  • Know what building materials are right for your application—wood, metal, fabric.

  • Calculate occupancy numbers for the structure carefully to determine correct size.

  • Have your structure fit a theme or complement other structural styles on the property.

  • Make sure the land is properly developed and prepped.

  • Find a company that is service-oriented, easy to work with, with a good track record.

  • If installing yourself, be sure to choose designs that are easy to install or, in case of an installation error, easy to get replacement parts.

  • Buy durable. Patrons are hard on everything.


The introduction of such avant-garde designs that are now possible because of fabric architecture has increased the style options from which to choose. And buyers are getting choosier. Structures—especially those that become a focal point for a community or facility, like gazebos, pavilions or band shells—are expected to become more and more distinctive as municipalities ask themselves who they are or what image they want to project. It's about setting your facility apart.

Customizing designs of outdoor structures is one way communities can create and identity or theme around something that they can connect to and be proud of.

"More and more are doing custom work," agrees Jason Amber, vice president and landscape architect with Brauer and Associates, Ltd. in Hopkins, Minn. "They want to come up with something that's not the same old thing."

Structures, large and small, are being customized to either try to echo the existing building styles for the sake of continuity or to establish the new look they are trying to achieve. Either way, custom designs are the solution for the collective identity crisis.

When assessing the look your facility or community desires, consider both the style and the materials that will go into your outdoor structure. Typically, structures made of wood or hard-topped structures like gazebos, pergolas and pavilions tend to be selected for the more classical designs. Neoclassical for these forms is all the rage.

Those who crave a more organic, free-form feel tend to be drawn to soft-topped structures, which are ideal for entertainment venues where it's all about sizzle and pop. But metal can go either way. Metal—steel or aluminum depending on the application—is being used for the traditional look as well as the modern, where eye-catching new designs beckon a retreat from the summer heat and double as sculptural art.


Then there is the appeal of steel. By far the most widely used material is steel, popular for its strength, durability, design versatility, lure of easier maintenance thanks to special processing like powder coating or corrosion-resistant paints, and—until recent changes in the international climate with NAFTA—its affordability. For many outdoor structures, tubular steel, with a durability ranging from 10 to 15 years, is the material of choice and can be seen in designs ranging from the most traditional, like gazebos, to the most modern.

However, because of recent changes in the price of steel, other materials that were once considered too pricey are now more affordable by comparison. Laminated wood, for example, still one of the most expensive choices, can be the most long-lasting—40 to 50 years—and requires very little maintenance. Many projects for which steel might have been the only consideration in the past are now using laminated wood in their designs with very happy results. Its beauty and strength make it hard to beat.


Many types of outdoor structures can serve the same function, with the primary one being shade or protection from the rain. What may set one apart from another may end up being something as simple as cost or achieving a particular look.

But depending on the kind of structure, from kiosk to pergola to yurt, these structures also perform specialized functions as well. Some of the most common shade functions and spaces to consider for your facility are:

  • spectator and player seating—dugouts, bleachers

  • information centers—message centers, outdoor trail maps

  • concessions—food service for waterparks, mini golf, public parks, ball fields

  • convenience areas—litter receptacles, picnic tables, benches, BBQ grills

  • waiting areas—outside restrooms, near entrance and exit areas, ticket areas

  • trails—dog parks or trails for biking, walking, jogging and hiking

  • water areas—pool decks, pool enclosures, beach fronts, marinas

  • entertainment—band/concert shells, press boxes, playgrounds, picnic or social gathering sites, sports covers, range shelters (golf)

  • booths—ticket, entrance and guard booths

  • transitional spaces—covered walkways, parking areas

  • security or privacy—walled shade structures or structures fitted with lights

  • camping—overnight structures for rent

  • art—focal points, creating community identity or icon


But whether made of metal or wood, certain designs are taking today's center stage: open-air and curvilinear designs like crescent pergolas and trellises and a return to classics like Greek columns are among the designer darlings being showcased in many outdoor spaces.

But regardless of the design, many of today's outdoor structures have one thing in common: They are getting bigger. It's about community and safety.

In the area of recreational rentals—cabins, yurts and tents—the trend is also toward accommodating larger groups of people.

"The biggest demand in the recreation industry" Stier says, "is will it sleep 10? 12? Pack them in, and it's one big party."

The experience has been similar with yurts.

"We've used yurts for about four years," says Brenda Hewitt, vice president of marketing at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska. "We have several small ones and one 30-foot one, and the people love them. The large one is popular, and in the winter, we use it to take groups to see the Aurora Borealis."

Structures for entertainment and social gathering are getting larger, too. Not surprisingly, one of the most common mistakes is underestimating the actual space required for a structure's purpose. Managers often find out too late that structures simply aren't big enough—the band they'd envisioned on the platform just doesn't quite fit.

Well-meaning architects or planners often determine stage space based on the number of seats or performers that will fit on a stage but forget to account for the space required for the musical instruments and equipment.

But accommodating our love of gatherings isn't the only motivation to build bigger—it's also about our health.

"Umbrellas with a 20-foot diameter have been the norm," says Pete Downs, vice president of operations of a tent and structures manufacturer, as well as a park and recreation commissioner of 18 years. "But now the need for larger shade structures have come into play. Recreation facilities have a need for increased shade areas, and the dimensions of these areas has increased to 30 foot by 50 foot, as an example."


Applications of traditional structures are changing, too. Log-cabin structures, for example, typically used for, well, cabins, are getting wider use as bathhouses, concession stands or even conference centers. When a rustic look is what you want, log structures can become just about anything. With the advent of the laminated log, which is kiln-dried to resist shrinkage and warping, log structures are even more durable than ever and are being used in bigger and bigger buildings.

Likewise, with the lower price tag that accompanies most fabric structures and the appeal of their temperature-cooling properties, fabric shade structures are appearing on walking, biking and dog trails where their solid-roof counterparts may have been considered too cost-prohibitive.

Tennis courts, too, are seeing a marked increase in shade structures for spectator seating such as at the tennis facility at The Florida Center of Daytona Beach, Fla.

"We are an event facility," says Dave Brown, director of tennis for the city of Daytona Beach. "We have lots of players and spectators with some of our large events—we host a vast majority of sectional championships for amateur players—so it just makes sense. Let's hope the trend is catching on."


The camping industry is undergoing a change. With Americans experiencing a continuing healthy economy and a preoccupation with luxury, it comes as no surprise that the demand for convenience has gone from the remote control to remote camping. With a 16 percent to 17 percent increase in growth, the camping industry is happy to accommodate the current crop of nature lovers who want to experience the beauty of the outdoors—comfortably.

"In recent years, convenience camping has become popular," says Pete Dolan, customer service representative with a yurt manufacturing company. "People don't want to set up camp. We're seeing more deluxe rentals."

Brenda Hewitt, vice president of marketing for the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska, agrees, saying that people are seeking ease and simplicity on their vacations.

But what makes one group comfortable may make another group cringe. Families want camp sites where they can have fun and be noisy, while seniors and empty-nesters, as a general rule, want a quieter getaway. Today's young and not-so-young campers, however, want a convenient, unique experience.

"Tricked-out is in," says Bud Stier, operations manager of Crystal Lake Family Campground in Lodi, Wis. "High-end is a trend. The big hurrah is to have deluxe campsites in a private area that's screened, with a Jacuzzi and satellite TV."

However, what Stier has observed from his 24 years' experience in the industry is what really makes the grade is doing a job right, not necessarily high-end.

"Kids control the destination, but Mommy controls where you're sleeping," he says. With that philosophy in mind, clean bathrooms—the closer to the sleeping areas the better—dry, carpeted floors and pleasant surroundings with a dash of "wow" will go a long way to earning a repeat customer.

"Whatever you do," Stier advises, "it needs to be first-class, not necessarily high-end. It's common sense."


Spectators of all kinds appreciate shade whether for watching sports, watching kids or watching waves. The splash of color and festive shapes of sun umbrellas and cabanas, for example, are just as synonymous with beaches and water play as beach balls and bikinis. But with the added concerns of health, shade structures are appearing in greater and greater numbers.

"Where we once went to the pool for sun," Downs says, "we now seek shade."

Aesthetically, umbrellas are a architect's dream with the many dramatic colors, shapes and fabrics with which they can create spectacular attractions. And as a temporary or semi-permanent feature, changing out the colors, logos and styles of these structures is an easy way to add new splash to a tired look.

"The advantages of umbrellas are two-fold," says Steve Pastusak, assistant general manager of Bayshore Development, which manages Splash Mountain Waterpark in Ocean City, Md. "First, for looks—the color and the height—and second, for functionality. People don't want to bake in the sun while eating or lounging, especially for caregivers or grandma and grandpa who'd rather be in the shade. It gives them somewhere to go."

It's about aesthetics and, in today's UV-conscious society, safety.

Cabanas, tent-like structures with one or multiple side walls, have special appeal for those who like a little privacy with their shade. At Splash Mountain, 10 cabanas were installed this summer as a shade solution for a play structure space, although Pastusak was initially skeptical about their appeal.

"We never thought we'd have a need for them, but now they're the first thing that go," Pastusak says. "A family will claim one and stay for the whole day. We really didn't think anyone would go sit in one, but as we're now learning—they will."

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