A Shady Place

Shelters to Suit Your Facility

By Kelli Anderson


ith concerns about skin cancer firmly fixed on America's collective radar, it is no surprise that shade structures are becoming the norm wherever people congregate from waterparks to parking lots to playgrounds.

"As people get more educated about skin cancer there's a much greater demand for shade structures," said Kent Oakly, director of parks for the city of El Dorado Hills, Calif. "People really want to see shade in all our new playgrounds. I think it's become very prevalent in the last five years."

And while a better educated population now looks to shelters and shade structures as the best way to protect themselves and their children from harmful UV rays, it is also true that these structures do so much more than protect us from nature's Public Enemy Number One. Thanks to the myriad options in materials and designs, a well-chosen structure can become the iconic focal point of a space or community, be a key player in today's emphasis on sustainable design and even be a multitasking generator of revenue without costing a fortune.

Pick and Choose

Choosing the right structure for your needs, however, is key. While cost is always the number-one consideration, not accurately factoring in the furnishing needs, capacity or probable uses can mean effort and dollars needlessly thrown to the wind.

Making sure your design actually provides shade is first and foremost.

"Orientation is the biggest factor," said Matt McComb, landscape architect for the parks and recreation department of Allen, Texas. "A lot of structures are cool to look at like neat pitches and roof lines, but if it's too high it's not functional."

Similarly, if structures are poorly angled and don't take into account the sun's movement during the day, patrons will find their structure of little use for blocking UV rays and staying cool in the shade.

"It's important to position them for the hottest part of the day, which for us is about 3 and 4 p.m.," said Jack Mathison, assistant director of parks and recreation for Hollywood, Fla. "And don't get them too high. One proposed design for our site was 30-feet in the air, but while that's really pretty, 30 feet is a lot of nothing under a noon sky. There's no shade." Identifying who will use the structure will also decide many of its characteristics.

"The most important aspect of the selection process is to identify potential users," said Jay DeFelicis, registered landscape architect with engineering firm CMX of Lansdale, Pa. "What will be the expected capacity, and will the structure be used by groups? Once identified, the design needs to fit within the context of its location."

And that location, DeFelicis said, can impact the structure's building materials. Structures located in more remote and less supervised areas are more apt to require sturdy metal, wood or stone to withstand abuse. Conversely, structures located in more monitored areas like an aquatic space, can be virtually any material you choose.

Environmental conditions are another factor of the material-choice equation. Salt air, for example, can more easily corrode metal (without special coatings), while snow loads and high winds may determine whether a fabric or solid-material structure is more practical for your needs. It all depends.

Then there are aesthetic considerations. Barring designs that will prove ineffective for shade, aesthetics can make or break a space—and even impact programming. Poorly chosen structures run the gamut of ho-hum boring to jarring eyesore, but when aesthetics are done right they can enhance an area to the level of an iconic destination.

Material Gains

So what are some of the most popular options and their attributes? Fabric shade structures known for their eye-catching shapes and colors are among the most affordable in the shade lineup. And while these lightweights may seem too frail when compared to their heavier-weight solid-structure counterparts of steel, wood or synthetics, the fact is that they offer much more than a pretty face.

Boasting design properties ideal for large-expanse coverage, fabric shade structures are a great solution for retrofitting existing spaces where minimal structural interference is required. They are also perfectly suited for covering large play areas, areas where cantilevered designs are a must or where coverage needs to be portable, changed out or flexible.

In 2005 when a hurricane destroyed many of the trees intended to provide shade for the newly built Arts Park in Hollywood, Fla., the city took the opportunity to use fabric structures to cover the large open space and to create a dramatic focal point at the same time.

"It's been very positively received," Mathison said. "You can put so much color into the project and add lots of character—it really multiplies the 'wow' factor."

Some fabric shade structures not only provide a visual wow-factor but offer an additional comfort-factor as well. Unlike many solid-material roofing materials or waterproofed covering like canvas, coated fabrics or vinyl, breathable fabric such as knitted polyethylene can reduce temperatures by as much as 20 degrees. By design, breathable fabrics allow hot air, normally trapped beneath a solid-roofed structure, to pass through the porous weave, leaving only shade and comfy temperatures behind.

But what about fabric's durability and ease of use? Usually designed to be dismantled during off-season or inclement weather, fabric shade structures can enjoy a long and productive life. However, for areas like south Florida's Hollywood, where sudden high winds and storms require swift action multiple times in a season, hiring contractors to dismantle the many shade tops around the city's parks is impractical and costly.

"What we've looked for after the first hurricane I was involved in in 2003 are two things," Mathison explained. "One is that we're able to be self-sufficient to put up and take down the sails ourselves, and two is the material warranty." Thankfully, they were able to find a solution to address both their needs.

For those regions where fabric structures can remain year-round, it is also good to note that they've come a long way from the days when UV rays were more destructive to the materials.

"They didn't used to hold up well under sun or high winds," noted Mark Hatchel, vice president and senior park planner for Kimley-Horn & Associates, of earlier versions. "Typically now these breathable fabrics provide solar protection and are UV resistant to the sun."

But no product can be all things for all needs. A porous makeup like polyethylene fabric—while great for lowering temperatures—is not the go-to solution for a picnic in a sudden downpour. When waterproofing ranks high, coated fabrics, vinyl or solid-material roofing are the best choices.

Neither are fabric structures as vandal-proof as their solid-material counterparts. However, what tends to be most problematic has less to do with their construction and more to do with poor planning—a problem which can be avoided.

As already noted, heights and angles need to be carefully assessed to ensure shade is the result, but proper heights can also reduce vandalism. Hatchel recommends posting the lower end of shade tops no higher than 10 feet for structures in a recreational landscape to discourage tampering, but says low-end heights in aquatic spaces where supervision is more available can be 8 or 7 feet to maximize shade.

A plus factor in fabric structure design noted by Hatchel, who designs with both solid and fabric building materials, is fabric's ability to more easily and cost-effectively change with the times.

"After 10 to 15 years municipalities need to re-theme and revamp so if a structure is more permanent it can look dated," he said. "Fabric structures are a more flexible investment you can change out."

Turning to the Dark Side

It is no secret that in the past five to 10 years shade structures have come into their own. Whereas landscape architects once created their designs for a tanning-crazed public, today's designer is thinking about shade wherever people line up, sit down, swim or stand.

"Shade is being incorporated more and more in every facet," said Mark Hatchel, vice president and senior park planner with Kimley-Horn & Associates of Irving, Texas. "Before it was about creating sunning berms—we never created shade except for picnic areas. But there has been a big shift from virtually no shade to lots of shade."

With a public now very aware of the dangers of UV radiation, shade structures have become the first weapon in the line of defense against skin cancer. According to a recent study by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), one out of every five children in the U.S. will grow up to have some kind of skin cancer. Meanwhile skin cancer in young adults and adolescents is experiencing a dramatic increase, as are related UV-caused instances of cataracts, eye damage and weakening of the immune system.

As a result of such alarming statistics, an educated public now expects and appreciates shade provided wherever possible. Gone are the days when sitting for hours to watch children play soccer games, baseball or tennis under the glare of a hot summer sun was considered acceptable.

"A theme we are seeing is recreation facilities wanting shade for dugouts and bleachers," said Billie Wood, a member of the shade structure industry. "Many companies in the industry have responded to this by making a cantilever type of structure with poles on one side so it does not take away from the players' and fans' viewing area."

Providing shade over play and gathering areas is also just good business. With sunscreens and hats unable to offer adequate protection, children and their parents who currently avoid outdoor activity during the hottest (read: most harmful) times of the day will be more likely to participate at those locations they know will offer a more comfortable and safe environment. Aquatic spaces, seating areas, concessions, eating areas or areas where people must wait in line are prime locations and opportunities to ingratiate a shade-seeking public.

Forward-thinking Sarasota County, Fla., discovered that in fact no shady deed goes unrewarded. Taking the plunge, the city installed innovated shade structure prototypes in play areas that attracted the attention of the AAD and ultimately garnered the Academy's prestigious Gold Triangle Award.

States such as Nevada, with one of the highest rates of melanoma in the nation, are also thinking ahead. Throughout the state's recreational areas including swimming pools, beaches, golf courses, stadiums and schools, a unique UV Warning Signal is being installed to alert the public to periods of dangerous UV exposure. This system's UV sensors use a series of colored lights mounted on a pole or wall that correlate to the UV Index as defined by the World Health Organization. Originally developed by the Skin Cancer Awareness Foundation (SCAF) to respond to the increasing dangers of UV radiation, proceeds from each sale of the system help to support SCAF's award-winning children's programs like Sun Smart Kids Cool School Program.

For more information on the system or children's programs, visit www.kidscoolschoolprogram.org and www.skincaf.org.

Solid Performance

Not to be outdone, however, solid-roof structures certainly have their strong points, not least of which include durability, dramatic and soaring designs and even recent innovations in some steel-roof designs that can further reduce shade temperatures thanks to heat-reflecting properties of specialty paints such as those enjoyed at the recently completed Tumbleweed Park in Chandler, Ariz.

Aside from providing the primary function of shade, however, building materials and designs should fit within their context. The traditional beauty of wood-based structures, for example, can be ideal for sites wanting to evoke warmth, romance or to hearken back to another era.

For some, like the replicated 1911 pavilion recently completed in St. Charles Ill., wood construction is the only option.

"To bring back that historical icon to the community is a wonderful opportunity," said Erika Young, marketing manager with the St. Charles Park District. "Back in the day it was the gem of St. Charles."

The historic structure—a soaring decorative tower attached to an equally ornate rectangular pavilion—is already booked throughout the summer, fall and spring of next year, proving without doubt that its Douglas Fir and post-and-beam construction were well worth the effort—and price tag—to bring the past back to the present.

But history can also be in the making as in the case of the Riverside Park Grand Pavilion constructed in 2002. This large wooden classic gazebo structure with its two adjoining smaller pavilions connected by bridges has been an instant hit for its scenic Vero Beach, Fla., location and is well-suited to the salt-water climate.

"It's definitely been great for the community and is heavily utilized," said Rob Slezak, recreation director for the city. "Of the 52 weekends this year, we have already booked 48 of them. It's our busiest rental and is used for weddings, community activities like concerts and has even had masquerade parties and the Boston Pops there. It raises between 7 and 10 percent of our total revenue."

Furthermore, as more municipalities and recreational sites realize the potential of these multitasking structures, creative uses and partnerships abound.

In Albuquerque, N.M., planners partnered with local corporate offices located near Haynes Park to build a large steel and stone pavilion dominated by an 11-foot fireplace. The company not only helped pay for the structure but arranged to rent it several times each year for employee parties.

"A lot of clients want to have various uses to rent structures out and create a revenue sources," said John Martin, president of one manufacturing company. "There's mixing and matching—people adding lots of customizing to create interest to be not so run-of-the-mill."

Sustained Effort

From bold clock towers to fantastical multi-tiered carousel houses, shade structures are covering the landscape at a time when Americans care more about their health and the environment. "Sustainable design is one of the biggest issues in commercial and recreational applications today. It has come to the forefront and affected the whole of the architectural industry from skyscrapers to shade structures," said Samuel Armijos, AIA and author of a newly published book, Fabric Architecture. "It's become the big buzzword in the industry."

Citing examples of photovoltaic panels on shade tops to collect the sun's energy to power lights or nearby electrical outlets and inverted shade umbrellas to collect rain water to irrigate garden beds, Armijos describes some of the environmentally-friendly and financially frugal changes impacting the humble shade structure.

And whether building materials are recycled or locally purchased to reduce carbon emissions in transportation, the good news about sustainable design is not only great PR for a green-conscious community, but cost-effective for those who support it. It's a win-win.

Strike a Pose

Shelters are not only going green but are making their plain predecessors green with envy. People want them to make a statement.

"You can be so much more imaginative," said Kirk Danielson, principal landscape architect with T & M Associates of Middletown, N.J. "It can be a focal point and not just a functional apparatus. People overlook the details of structures that can incorporate into the rest of a design like seating and play areas. They don't pick out the other elements that can go with it like stone veneer to enhance it."

Breaking free from the status quo, manufacturers of gazebos, pergolas, umbrellas and many other shade structures and shelter types are offering more design options and custom features to allow their clients to better match existing buildings by using similar materials or to create a new look or theme for a new space.

In March 2007, Promontory Community Park of El Dorado Hill, Calif., opened its sports fields and play areas to the public. "We tied into a theme drawn from a natural open space area nearby," Oakly said of the whimsical butterfly and flower shade structures designed to provide protection for children and their caregivers throughout the play space.

When asked whether the park has been well-received, the response is decisive. "Absolutely," Oakly said. "In fact, more playground area will soon have more butterflies. They have wings that can adjust to compensate for the sun's movement—it's kind of neat."

Theming and attention to aesthetics creates an identity that draws the eye and the crowds. At The Falls Aquatic Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, custom vinyl shade tops reflect the three different activity area color schemes and themes.

"Many of us in the municipalities don't give enough credit to the impact of the visual on the user and how much longer they stay," said Ward Stubbs, director of human and leisure services of aquatic facility. "The shade structure does a number of things beyond providing shade. I believe strongly in the aesthetics of an aquatic center—the colors have a huge impact on the visual impact of a facility. It makes it look bigger, more fun, more exciting."

Striking a more subtle pose—but no less unique—Drum Point Playground in Middletown, N.J., ensured its gazebo echoed the geometric architectural elements unifying the space. "We use shade all the time, but in this play area we wanted something different," Danielson said of his project. "In this park all the theme is based on an arc or curve. It's a subtle element throughout in the park's amphitheater, tot lot, reading garden and gazebo."

Whether simply wrapping columns of an off-the-shelf structure in stone to match nearby buildings or, selecting a southwestern-style-trellis to make a grand entrance such as that chosen for Allenwood Park in Allen, Texas, shade structures can be anything but boring.

"Allenwood Park is unique, and we used multiple companies for shade structures," McComb said. "We used a trellis structure with southwestern latilla as a gateway feature because we wanted a focal entry point. We're trying to introduce new shelters and change it up. There's tons of shelters now that are unique and even save money but still provide the basics—shade."

Shades of Wisdom

A recent survey of municipalities around the country reveals that shade structure construction is enjoying its largest-ever slice of the expenditures pie, crowding out playgrounds to place in the top three. But this hardly comes as surprise. With shade structures being retrofitted over existing gathering spaces at such a rapid pace and becoming a must-do element in new construction, municipalities are simply responding to what the public wants and needs.

More than just protection from UV rays, however, people want their recreational environment to complement the scenery and provide attractive focal points. So whether a humble utilitarian structure simply provides shade for a portable toilet or becomes the stunning backdrop for weddings and celebrations, asking the right questions and following a few tried-and-true tips can help you get your structure right:

1. If choosing fabric structures, which is more suited to the intended function: waterproofed, coated fabric and vinyl or breathable temperature-reducing fabric?

2. Have trees been considered as part of the total shade equation? Not only are trees great for the environment but combined with man-made elements can provide the best of all design worlds.

3. Will the structure be more effective as a portable or permanent piece? Will it need to be taken down or transported to different locations?

4. Does the structure need to have adjustable components to maximize shade?

5. Have colors, materials or shapes been considered that will fit best within the context of the entire space?

6. If intended to be a focal point, will the structure be built in an easily viewed location or set against a photogenic backdrop?

7. Has the function of the structure been thoroughly communicated to the manufacturer to avoid needless oversights or miscalculations?

8. Have playground equipment interference, potential vandalism or natural challenges like high winds been considered before choosing final building materials and designs?

9. Is the space being designed for multipurpose venues to maximize the potential for renting out and raising revenue?

10. Will structure placement obscure important views for caregivers of their children or obstruct pathways?

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