Under Cover

Shelters & Shade Structures

By Dawn Klingensmith

he need for shelters and shade structures anyplace people congregate outdoors is well understood. So, too, are the reasons—the risk of skin cancer, heat stroke and dehydration, not to mention simple discomfort.

Increased awareness has given rise to creativity. Seldom is a shade structure merely a source of shade. At the very least, they add a pop of color. At best, they bring in revenue. They can be as simple as an awning, or they can rise to the level of art or architecture.

In new construction, it's becoming the norm to incorporate shade structures and shelter as essential design elements, whereas they used to be an afterthought. Wise renovators make the addition of these items a priority. And where funds are lacking for a major overhaul, simple retrofits are being devised, often resulting in a "facility facelift" for not a lot of money.

Getting Started

When choosing shelters and shade structures and their components, a number of factors must be taken into account, starting with what you wish to achieve above and beyond providing shade.

"The first thing to consider is, 'What goal do I want to achieve?' Do you want it to be architectural, or are you more concerned with basic functionality?" said Gary Haymann, executive vice president of sales for a Dallas-based manufacturer of five leading brands of shade structures.

For example, as part of a shade structure's functionality, is waterproofing essential? In that case, materials like coated fabric, vinyl or solid-roof structures are contenders, but lighter-weight, porous fabrics are out of the running.

Are you looking for a permanent structure, or do you need something that can be disassembled and reassembled fairly easily? That was a primary consideration for the North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro, when it opted for fabric shade sails to transform an area that was seldom used because of the heat into a pleasant, shady place for educational programming, increasing attendance by 15 percent or more. "We wanted something we could remove easily for the three or four months when ice storms are a problem, to avoid buildup," said Tom Such, exhibit design supervisor.

The design wasn't at all "dumbed down" to achieve that purpose. "It looks like sails on a boat, but they're basically horizontal instead of vertical. They overlap and are different colors," Such said. "I think it looks pretty cool."

Consider what is required of the structure. Is it intended for shade or shelter? Will it be portable or stationary? Must it accommodate large groups or small?

Besides function, aesthetics, cost (including maintenance), operation, durability and quality come into play, said Susan Klug, marketing coordinator for Water Technology Inc., an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis.

"Aesthetic plays an important role as to how the feature complements or enhances the design of the facility," Klug said. "It may be a whimsical, branded aesthetic, or it may be complementary to or responsive to the surrounding natural environment."

For example, a fabric shade structure on a rooftop terrace at Mesa State College, Grand Junction, Colo., was designed to be reflective of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the background. It was also engineered to withstand heavy snow loads, proving fabric is a durable option.

Lack of Shade a Liability?

It was a hot day on June 12, 2007, when Hailey Kuhn was waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster at Fiesta Texas, an amusement park in San Antonio. Hailey felt ill due to the heat and fainted. According to a lawsuit filed by her family, she fell 10 feet through a gap and landed on concrete. She is now a paraplegic, the lawsuit says.

At issue in the pending litigation is the lack of safety netting beneath the platform. In June 2009, the San Antonio Express-News reported that there is still no safety net, but that's not all. Reporter John Tedesco went on to write, "The hot South Texas sun still beats down on riders standing in line—there is little shade and no fans or water misters to keep them cool."

And as though put on the defensive, the park's president is quoted as saying, "Our park has a great deal of shade" and that it was unclear whether the ride's lack of shade caused Hailey to faint.

The sun is known to cause health consequences other than sunburn. And though an unsecured platform is being blamed in the lawsuit, in today's litigious society, it's plausible that lack of shade might one day trigger a lawsuit, if it hasn't already.

Having bought several shade structures for various parks and recreation facilities in Mesquite, Texas, Lauren Miller recommends finding a manufacturer that's a reasonable distance from the site. Also, "Look into the warranty," added Miller, the city's manager of park planning. "Ask if there are any installations nearby that you can look at. Does the company have a construction crew or subcontractor to do the installation, or will you need to find and hire a crew on your own?"

For his money, Miller prefers turnkey solutions so he only has to deal with a single company that handles design, manufacture and installation. "It can all happen from A to Z with one company," he said.

Other questions to ask are how long the components are expected to last, what type of follow-up service a company offers and what wind rating is required, Klug said.

Timing is another factor that comes into play. For example, if you manage a seasonal facility and need to get shade structures in place before opening day, it's important to select structures that are relatively quick and easy to erect. Except for the simplest solutions, such as umbrellas, shade structures don't just pop up in no time flat, and some take a considerable amount of time to construct, Haymann explained. Within the fabric category, a lightweight mesh structure is easier to install than a membrane fabric structure, which is heavier and requires a larger foundation. Often, construction overlaps with the start of the season and is disruptive, all because people underestimate the amount of time needed.

One of the most common mistakes Haymann sees is in new construction or major renovations. "People don't do enough planning on the front end," he said. "They think, 'Oh, this is just steel and fabric. We'll just pop it up in the end.'"

But it takes time to install shade structures properly, and a lot of people don't build it into the timeline, he added.

Wayne Pickett, recreation manager for the parks and leisure department in Lewisville, Texas, also has some words of wisdom with regard to planning. "Don't think that you have enough shade," he warned.

People tend to underestimate the need and demand for shade. It's far better to err on the side of plenty. "Try to incorporate as many shade structures as your space and budget will permit," Pickett said.

An aerial view of Lewisville's aquatic center would show a mushroom-like abundance of colorful shade structures. Picnic tables, lifeguard stations and the splash pad area are all protected. The lazy river meanders by "islands" that patrons can swim out to, and each is covered with a bright, cheery shade structure.

Recess from the Sun

In spring, the Skin Cancer Awareness Foundation kicked off a program called "Shade Across America" to help schools, along with other recreational areas where children play outdoors, attain funding for shade structures. The Minden, Nev.-based foundation's objective is ambitious—to build shade structures over every playground and sports park in America, said William Barth, founder and president.

The occurrence of sunburns during childhood is linked to skin cancer later in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And many advocates fear that sunscreen alone offers inadequate protection because parents and kids often neglect to reapply, with a sizable number of them not putting on enough in the first place.

The foundation's goal is not to bring kids indoors, since exercise and play are essential to their health and development. Instead, it aims to step up UV protection by stressing the importance of shade structures, versus relying solely on sunscreen. The foundation partnered with a Dallas-based manufacturer of shade structures to spread that message.

To that end, the program includes an educational component and a mascot, UV Man, who visits schools and community events to teach kids sun safety. Barth also developed the concept for a UV Warning Signal, for use at aquatics centers and other outdoor recreation areas. (See "Run for Cover".)

The program's other goal is to promote an online auction that schools, organizations and communities can use to raise money for shade structures.

The online auction underwent a trial run in September and, as of this writing, is expected to be up and running in October. Barth said the foundation will attract bidders through its online magazine, Sun Smart Connection, which has 9,000 subscribers, and other marketing efforts. The magazine's coverage includes products on the market being used to shade outdoor play areas.

For more information on the initiative, visit www.skincaf.org.

Beat the Budget

Once your purpose and intended application are set, then your budget will drive the selection process.

Among the quickest and least expensive solutions are cantilevered shades and portable, collapsible umbrellas, some of which can be repositioned during the day depending on where the sun is. The umbrellas typically detach from a sturdy base if storage is necessary. They generally are used to shade poolside chaises and tables in the concessions area, said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based shade systems manufacturer.

Due to cost and function, steel-supported, fabric-covered umbrellas that range from 8- to 40-foot diameters are popular choices for municipal facilities, Klug said.

"These are relatively easy to install, are colorful and relatively cost-effective," she explained.

Another advantage is that, for a nominal cost, facilities can install the base components during initial development with an eye toward adding more shade as funds become available, Klug added.

In fact, fabric shade structures in general are a good choice for retrofitting because structural interference is minimal.

Umbrellas and cantilevered shade structures can be put in place with relative ease over "hot spots" such as information centers, concession areas, lifeguard stations and bleachers. Other high-priority shade areas may require a greater investment of time and money. These include picnic areas, waiting areas (i.e., wherever lines form—outside restrooms, at entrances, at attractions, etc.), animal enclosures, spraygrounds and playgrounds.

In any case, wherever outside activities occur from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., there should definitely be shade available. Positioning is critical—the location, orientation, height and size of a shade structure must take into account the sun's changing angles throughout the day.

It is always desirable to use a combination of trees and fabricated shade structures wherever possible. Among fabricated options, each has its pros and cons.

Solid Protection

Structures with solid roofs last longest and offer the best protection against the sun and weather, and some can be accessorized with cupolas, weathervanes, clocks and columns. On the lower end, prefabricated steel is an option. But these types of structures are relatively expensive and probably require permits. In certain situations, though, only a gazebo, pergola, pavilion or custom-designed shelter fits in the context of its surroundings and serves the purposes required.

For example, when Solomon, Kan., started downtown redevelopment, two old commercial buildings were demolished, setting in motion historic mitigation requirements. In the buildings' place is a "pocket park" with a raised shelter as its focal point. At each of the four corners is a trio of 10-inch-diameter columns, mounted on a brick pedestal that matches the masonry used elsewhere downtown and in some of the original buildings. The relief on the columns is reminiscent of the columns on one of the demolished buildings.

Traditional building materials can be used where a classic look is desired, such as a wooden gazebo in a botanical garden. But they also lend themselves to architectural inventiveness. For a waterside picnic area at the Eldean Shipyard in Macatawa, Mich., the desired aesthetic was something open and airy, but with a solid, substantial look. Based on client input, a Holland, Mich.-based shelter systems company came up with a 20-foot-diameter octagonal shelter with a single column supporting the steel roof from the side and top as opposed to down the center. (The fabric version of this design is called an offset or side-post umbrella.) Perhaps it's going a little too far to say the roofing looks magically suspended, but the shelter's openness is uninterrupted all the way around, save for the one post, which withstands the high winds off Lake Michigan. The footing was custom-designed to carry the load in a soft, wet embedment. But what's truly magical as far as visitors are concerned is the surprise of hearing their voices echoed back at them from overhead when they stand at the center.

Another inventive—and somewhat controversial—structure is a sculptural, fiberglass design at a beachside park in La Pineda, Spain, intended to mimic the shape of real pine trees nearby. According to the Web-based publication Inhabitat, which tracks design and materials innovations, "The architects recognized the park's need for shade, but were presented with the dilemma that salt spray from the nearby water would make it difficult to grow the same pine trees that already existed on the site." So they came up with a network of abstracted trunks and canopies made of salt-resistant fiberglass "to complement the angled and varied effect of the pine tree's shape," the article continues. The interconnected structure sways slightly in the wind, as trees would.

Although the article concluded that the architects "definitely captured all the beautiful physical attributes of the pines," readers' responses were critical of the overall appearance ("hideous"), colors (not at all "treesy") and functionality (two readers questioned the structure's ability to cast any usable shade).

Run for Cover

After hearing a Little League coach downplay the importance of sunscreen, William Barth, founder and president of the Skin Cancer Awareness Foundation, Minden, Nev., made it his mission to teach kids about the risks of too much sun exposure. Later realizing that the population at large needs to be educated, too, he developed the concept of the UV Warning Signal so people would at least be mindful of the sun's UV intensity.

Manufactured by the Solar Light Co. in Glenside, Pa., the device displays the real-time UV index in order to warn of potential overexposure in areas like aquatics facilities, golf courses, beaches, ski slopes and other outdoor areas. It resembles a traffic signal and uses a series of five colored lights to indicate the intensity of UV radiation. One swim facility uses the device in conjunction with an educational program consisting of handouts on sun safety and free sunscreen.

Proceeds from each sale of the UV Warning Signal will help support the foundation's education programs for children, including the Sun Smart Kids Cool School Program, through which free teaching materials are available for downloading.

Design Matters

Fabric shade structures provide varying UV ray protection. "Breathable" knitted shade fabric, or mesh fabric, is lightweight and allows some light through as well as some air, and allows heat to escape through the mesh. This creates a considerable cooling effect for guest comfort. Coated fabric traps heat but offers greater UV protection and is water- and mildew-resistant.

The cost and complexity of fabric shade structures vary widely. They can be designed into a variety of shapes and sizes—some so large that the fabric essentially becomes a vented roof, as is the case with the layers of fabric sails covering the entire Rotary Amphitheatre in Fresno, Calif. And some essentially become works of art because they can be twisted, angled and otherwise manipulated into all sorts of geometric or organic forms.

A temporary pavilion commissioned for the 100th anniversary of architect Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago is co nstructed of huge fabric panels zippered over aluminum supports. Architect Zaha Hadid's creation, which Chicagoans call "the Pod," is "an arresting combination of naturalistic forms and alien shapes," writes the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, Blair Kamin, in his Aug. 5 review. The structure's shape puts him in mind of a conch, he writes.

The structure provides shade but also allows sunlight to enter through overhead slits in such a way that it interacts with an inner layer of white fabric. (Although pretty, this so-called "daisy effect" should be avoided when a structure's principal purpose is to provide shade, says one manufacturer. In the case of "the Pod," shade was certainly lower on the list of priorities for the famed architect.)

The pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park is intended to be temporary, but permanent fabric structures on a smaller scale have been shown to be cost-effective, attractive and durable. With colored fabrics, fading can be a concern, so find out how the fabric is expected to hold up in your particular environment, Klug advised.

Inferior finishes can be a problem in certain environments, too. Your support structure can be beautifully designed and sturdy, but if it's not properly protected against the elements, your structure's looks and longevity will suffer for it. Powder-coating over an epoxy primer is fairly standard. Leading manufacturers offer a variety of colors. In seaside areas where salt spray is present or in other highly corrosive environments, additional coatings may be required.

Hot in the City

When it comes to shade providers, nothing beats the beauty of trees. But fabricated shade structures have come a long way since striped awnings, rising to the level of art in some cases.

Embracing this fact, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture in February put a call out to artists, architects and other design professionals to invent new forms of beautiful and durable city shade structures for the "Gimme Shelter" competition, part of Phoenix's efforts to revive its urban center as a "connected oasis" of shaded sidewalks, streets and open spaces, offering relief from unremitting heat.

"We wanted shade structures by day, but at night we wanted them to still look special," said Elizabeth Grajales, public art project manager. "We're growing really fast. In the evenings, people are going to the opera and out to nice restaurants."

In the first stage of the competition, designers submitted concepts for review by a selection committee composed of one panelist from the city's Shade Task Force, along with six others who, collectively, appreciate that artistry must co-exist with practicality.

As of this writing, the 188 submissions had been narrowed down to seven finalists.

"Some came up with really brilliant solutions for shade, and now we're giving them a reality check—we're assigning them a specific site," Grajales said.

During stage two, finalists will be paid up to $6,000 to further develop detailed designs and models. Winners will be contracted to complete a site-specific shelter.

Designers were urged to conceptualize new forms for "built shade," using beauty, scale, functionality and durability as guiding principles. But since Phoenix has nearly 300 sunny or partly cloudy days per year, providing usable shade is serious business.

"We're being scorched," Grajales said.

Therefore, contest entrants were required to consider how southern, western, eastern, overhead and low-angle sun exposures require different forms and solutions. Designers were also encouraged to combine built shade with living shade, and to make use of practical, sustainable, graffiti-resistant materials that minimize heat transmission and withstand unrelenting sun exposure. Plastics and fiberglass, for example, were discouraged because they are prone to disintegrate in the heat. Designers using metal were expected to keep in mind that metals get hot to the touch, and to design accordingly.

Judging the stage one entries, "We saw so many bizarre things," Grajales said.

A team from San Francisco proposed shading the entire city. Another entrant, who advanced to stage two, incorporated music into the design.

Profit Potentials

By now, it should be obvious that shade structures aren't just window dressing. But in addition to UV protection and aesthetic appeal, they offer a range of other benefits, not the least of which is the possibility of increasing or generating revenue.

Ample shade may increase visitation and stay time, and at sports venues, it may provide an edge over other facilities in drawing tournaments. It can extend the life of playground equipment by protecting it from the elements, and prevent equipment from getting too hot. There have been cases of children suffering serious burns from playground equipment and surfacing that is exposed to the sun, adding urgency to a national push for schools to cover outdoor play areas. (See sidebar, "Recess from the Sun," on page 22)

At aquatics facilities, cabanas can be rented out. And parks and recreation facilities of allrent ou t larger shelters and shade structures for picnics, parties and other private functions.

Shade structures absolutely are a means of generating more revenue for Lewisville's aquatics center, Pickett said, because people are eager to reserve them for special occasions. "This has been a very popular feature that we previously could not offer," he explained. "We have two structures dedicated for birthday party rentals, and they stay booked."

Where appropriate, facilities may consider corporate sponsorships for fabric shade structures, as the cloth shades can serve as ad space for logos and branding, and can be switched out if and when the sponsorship ends.

An underappreciated benefit of shade is relief from eye strain. Walking around the North Carolina Zoo grounds, "the surface concrete is almost white," Such said. "If you're there on a bright sunny day, after a while, your eyes are just dead tired because of the glare off the concrete. Shade structures help subdue that."

While sun worship might not be a thing of the past, facilities are finding that shelters and shade structures are the shrines to which patrons inevitably flock. "Wherever you have a shade structure," Such said, "people are sure to congregate."

Built Shade Trends
  • Recognizing the need for shade structures at splash pads and skate parks, and retrofitting accordingly.
  • Incorporating shade structures at the onset of new construction proposals.
  • Luxury camping, or "glamping," giving rise to the popularity of tricked-out yurts, with bathtubs and mini bars.
  • Incorporating photovoltaic cells into shade structures, so as to double as lighted sculpture at night.

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