Safe Haven

Protect Patrons & Beautify Sites With Shade & Shelters

By Rick Dandes

Shelters and shade structures can provide a wide array of benefits to parks and recreation facilities—and their visitors. From sun protection to a home base to gather the troops, shelters serve myriad functions.

Offering visitors shelter in recreation areas has become an ever more vital issue throughout the United States due to changing and indeterminate weather conditions, and the increasing awareness of the danger of skin cancer caused by the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

Because of these concerns, the inclusion of shade structures, shelters and even enclosures is receiving more attention—and more importantly, funding—from government officials and private benefactors, who are seeking cost-effective, safe and aesthetically appealing structures to provide shade for visitors to parks and playgrounds, pools and waterparks, sports and athletic facilities, retail and community centers and much more.

"It's true, the most obvious reason to have a shelter in a park is to protect your guests from the harmful rays of the sun," said Steve Sharpe, general manager, Summer Waves Water Park, Jekyll Island, Ga.

"Today's sun lovers are more knowledgeable about the risks of spending too much time in the sun. And these shade structures can offer them relief from the heat and exposure."

But there are other reasons, Sharpe said, to have shelters as part of your overall design. Families and groups like to make these shelter structures "home base" for their day at the park. And, if a family member gets separated from the group, they know where to go to reunite.

"Adding new and different shelter structures to your park is a good, low-cost way to upgrade your facility," Sharpe added. "With the different styles, vibrant colors and covering options of the new structures, you are limited only by your imagination. With most manufacturers having design specialists on staff who are eager to help, you can turn a boring space into a beautiful desired location of your park."

Shelters may also be introduced into a park environment to "energize" a space with social activity—and can even become a fairly substantial source of revenue. Picnic shelters with grills and other amenities will provide the foundation for the location of other facilities such as playgrounds, fishing piers and horseshoe pits within the park, said Fred Walters, a principal with MESA Design Group, based in Dallas.

"Depending upon the program of use," he continued, "these facilities are often rented for special events and corporate functions. Shelters are generally located in choice areas of parks to take advantage of scenic views, lakeside breezes or nestled adjacent to a picturesque grove of trees. If well designed, these structures have the potential to be timeless and iconic features of the park's identity and heritage."

Form & Function

It's a given, said several park managers, that existing structures must be well maintained, clean and accessible, or people will generally not use them.

Beyond basic cleanliness and safety are the aesthetics, which are often subjective. Some people gravitate to what architects call the classic "logitecture," often associated with the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. These structures were built by tradesmen and craftsmen often living on site using local material, often harvested on site. They generally have a massive and durable appearance with a somewhat whimsical quality, Walters explained.

The simple lines of contemporary structures, he said, "often have appeal as they have a utilitarian aesthetic that is purpose-built and driven by the materials used in their construction. Contemporary shelters may be interpretations of traditional structures such as wildlife blinds, lean-tos or tents. Though rooted in tradition, the linear planes and geometries contrast with the natural scenery around them."

When choosing a new shelter design, the shelter certainly should fit within its natural environment and complement the surroundings to create a sense of place, insisted Rhonda Gracie, landscape projects coordinator, Parks and Recreation Department, Greenspace Management Division, Miami Beach, Fla.

"It should be made of durable materials that will age like a good bottle of wine," she said. "The structure should be easy to maintain and not look outdated within a few years. I tend to choose classical lines that work with various architectural sensibilities. Many manufacturers will also provide free 3-D color rendering to help their clients visualize the product before purchasing."

From a park manager's perspective, said Sharpe, of Summer Waves Water Park, "I suggest first looking at function and then consider form."

Like Gracie in Miami Beach, Sharpe said that if you establish a need for a structure, then most shelter manufacturers offer enough options to satisfy your design requests. Some things to consider when thinking about aesthetics are color schemes and design. You want to make sure that what you decide upon blends in well with the existing structures in your park.

That's also what Duane Randall, director of Parks and Recreation, City of Vinton, Iowa, advised. "I think the first priority is if the structure matches or fits in with the park or setting," he said. "If you can also give the structure some artistic value or uniqueness, it will be a positive for your facility."

The question of how best to get a "look" that fits in with a site is considered critical. Fortunately, there are a plethora of options available: from retractable systems to metal, fabric, wood, and tensioned systems. If this consideration is truly important for you, retain a qualified design consultant such as a landscape architect or architect. The design consultant will examine your needs and recommend a solution that responds to the site and the appropriate aesthetic. A stock shelter may be the most appropriate choice, Walters said. However, the design consultant can assist in choosing the best model and properly integrating it into the site.

Whether your site calls for ultra-modern or old-world, there is a style to suit every need, and almost all manufactures will modify the shelter dimensions to fit within each site's requirements.

Find Your Look

Customization may be necessary to get the look you are seeking. The ability to customize largely depends on the manufacturer and contractor you choose. Changes to the structural system will be the most costly, while changes to veneers, fixtures, and finishes can substantially alter the look of a shelter into something crafted for a particular site.

"There are many different ways you can modify a shelter," Gracie added. "The foundation and slab can be engineered to meet your particular site. For example, when building here on Miami Beach we have a high water table and often place shelters along the shore. So we request spreader footers to avoid the holes filling up with water and the expense of renting specialized equipment to dig narrow deep holes."

You may also want to select various column and roofing building materials, choose different colors, or add lighting, fans, TV and audio components, just to name a few.

Randall, of Vinton, Iowa, put it all into a bottom-line perspective: With the technology that is available, he said, the customization is endless. Companies can now make anything you want, he said. It just comes down to how much funding you have available.

There are many manufacturing companies that would be more than happy to show you multiple design options. There are numerous prefabricated designs and styles to choose from that are pre-engineered to meet local building codes and built to hold up to hurricane force winds or earthquakes. And many companies allow some custom modifications to these predesigned structures so you can get a customized look without the custom price tag.

There are cost-effective solutions out there, Randall explained. "But I would make sure before doing them that you don't give up your needs of the structure, the quality of the structure and of course the safety of the structure."

Making Cost-Effective Decisions

Cost-effectiveness is a question of program or function (use), desired aesthetic, and longevity. There are a variety of modular or "off the shelf" options in the marketplace, designed in a variety of styles. However, buildings that are cheap-looking or lack structural integrity do not foster admiration or respect and will invite abuse in a park environment.

A well-made shelter should yield cost-effective dividends in long-term use and lower maintenance costs for the investment.

Do your homework, said Sharpe, of Jekyll Island's Summer Waves. "Select a reputable vendor that will stand behind their work. Summertime elements here in the south and on our island are brutal on structures. Make sure you understand the warranty and that the vendor understands your expectations."

All good manufacturers have qualified experts on staff who are eager to work with you and help you make these decisions. When they are completed, they often offer a "wow" factor to your facility, and your guests immediately notice the improvements.

In the long run, shelters can increase park revenues. In fact, it is "often a consideration for the projects we are engaged in," Walters, of MESA Design, said. "Shelters that have a special quality and enhance places, while offering opportunities for a variety of uses are the most successful. Our research has shown that poorly designed or visually unappealing facilities are usually unsuccessful at revenue generation and actually become financial burdens to those responsible for their maintenance and upkeep."

"Our main shelters are good revenue generators," Gracie, of Miami Beach said, "because they are rented out for picnics, family reunions and weddings. Some manufacturers even offer an option that functions almost as a cabin at a campground."

As with most design disciplines, the buzzword these days is sustainability. Design and construction using local materials and manufacturing as well as recycled materials is both popular and environmentally responsible. These facilities are also opportunities for public education about conservation and our relationship with the natural environment.

All About the Shade

Although by now most people are aware of the comforts and health benefits of staying in the shade, a recent study from Consumer Reports revealed that many popular sunscreens are not providing the protection consumers expect. For one thing, lotions need to be re-applied so often that most people cannot realistically apply enough to be adequately protected. Further, the Consumer Reports study showed that many popular lotions simply do not protect against cancer-causing UVA rays.

Since the 1930s the odds of being diagnosed with skin cancer have increased dramatically, so when shade structures are added to a park system one of the primary reasons is to reduce harmful sun exposure to residents and visitors.

"Ultimately," said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based company that manufactures both shelters and shade structures, "there is no better protection than finding a shady place, and imaginative and colorful shade canopies can provide this type of foolproof protection."

A shade canopy installed over a playground also keeps the equipment cooler.

Shade canopies can be made of various materials, but fabric—often manufactured from high density polyethylene (HDPE)—is most common and recognizable. It is strong, durable and comes in many colors. The lightweight tops are porous, making them cooler than canvas tops, as they allow air to pass through.

In Miami Beach, said Rhonda Gracie, "we have added 14 shade systems to our playgrounds over the past five years and will add an additional three more this coming year. Since we began installing shade systems at our parks we noticed a dramatic increase in use within our playgrounds. Our patrons now stay and play longer."

At schools, one of the best ways to protect children from solar radiation is simply to provide ways for them to avoid the sun and find shade. This can be done with a grouping of shade trees, a shade structure over the play equipment, a shade structure element like the side of a tall building, or an available indoor area. Permanent shade structures provide an alternative for creating high-quality shade where trees may not be the best option.

Finding Shade

There are several things to consider when looking to buy a new shade structure.

  • Once past the design and color selections, consider the ease of installation. Is putting this structure up something you can do "in hours" or will you need a contractor? There is a big cost savings if you do not need outside help.
  • Consider: How is the warranty affected if the installation is done "in house"?
  • With most structures, the frames or the structure itself will last a very long time. What you need to consider is how the structure is covered, the life expectancy of the covering and how the covering is attached to the frame. Is it easy to put on and take off? Is it safe and secure?
  • In assessing the adequacy of shade provision at a school, perhaps prime attention should be directed to the outdoor eating areas. Next might be the young children's jungle gym play equipment area.
  • Temporary shade structures, such as umbrellas or portable shelters, are useful for providing shade at special or impromptu events and as a shield from solar radiation for staff on yard duty and outdoor pool supervision.
  • If school remodeling or new construction is planned, shade provision should be strongly considered in the architectural design. If planned ahead of time, there may be very cost-effective opportunities for providing areas of high-quality shade by incorporating structural elements such as covered porches, broad eaves or breezeways.
  • Most shade structure manufacturers offer similar fabric canopy styles, such as kites, sails, hip and canopy roofs. The big difference between these companies is in the customer service and the ease of removing and re-attaching the fabric canopies when winds are expected to exceed 90 mph. During the threat of high winds you need to be able to remove all of the canopies as quickly as possible.
  • If you reside in a harsh environment like Miami Beach, consider spending a few dollars more by upgrading the shade structure frame to a more corrosion-resistant metal like stainless steel.

As for aesthetics, there
is a shade design for
almost any need.

As for aesthetics, there is a shade design for almost any need.

Shade kites and sails tend to add a dramatic modern look and are designed to fit any site and desired shade coverage. For a bold statement select multiple color shade panels, or for a softer, minimalist and elegant look use a lighter monochromatic color scheme.

"At our waterpark," Sharpe said, "we have large 20-foot umbrellas, which are very common. These offer a good amount of shade and are very aesthetically pleasing. These function just like an umbrella and can be lowered and raised as needed."

Summer Waves also has a two-post hip structure. These offer a little more shade than the umbrellas and there is no center pole to contend with.

A cantilever shade, also found at the park, seems to be the shade of choice for his guests. "They offer twice the shade of the other two structures and the supporting poles are completely out of the way. To me, this structure gives you the most for your money," Sharpe said.

The waterpark also features shade sails. These offer a huge amount of shade and due to their contemporary design they can completely change the look of any area.

Because of the many shade options that are offered, any location in a facility can have shade. Walkways, food courts, front entrances, picnic areas and pavilions are just a few areas they can be enhanced by the addition of shade structures.

All-Weather, All-Year Use

While shelters and shade structures are open to the air and installed in parks, enclosures offer flexibility of use during all weather conditions as well as year-round availability. Enclosures typically incorporate some sort of climate control and lighting. They are also specifically designed to fit the facility's location and program of use.

But there are other reasons why certain types of enclosures might be your structure of choice. Retractable roof enclosures provide users with the best of both worlds, offering year-round flexibility. In the summer months, opening the roof ventilates the space naturally, and lets in the sun. Then on rainy days and in the winter, users can still enjoy natural sunlight and outdoor views under the closed roof.

Enclosures offer other possibilities, said Mark Albertine, president of a manufacturer based in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. "Besides having an operable roof, an enclosure can also include sidewalls that open partially or completely to let in even more fresh air. Depending on your project, they can open up to an exterior environment like an outdoor play area—or whatever your imagination can come up with."

For parks and recreation facilities, he continued, "an enclosure offers year-round usage, which for many of these facilities is important in terms of being able to provide a fulsome set of programs that meets the needs of all their patrons."

If you're looking to protect an aquatic facility, you should seek a pool enclosure based on the ease of maintenance and corrosion resistance. Enclosures constructed with materials such as aluminum, glass and polycarbonate stand up to moisture and chemicals far better than conventional construction, added Heather Steines, vice president of a manufacturer based in Garden Prairie, Ill.

A pool enclosure allows you to welcome the nice weather in and keep the inclement debris and weather out. Recreation and vacation facilities do not have to worry about contingency plans or loss of possible usage due to weather and other variables.

Some of the trends enclosure manufacturers are offering include LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) lighting, wifi and food preparation facilities.

"The trends largely depend on the desired use," Fred Walters of MESA Design Group said. "The longest running trend is toward flexibility. Is the enclosure intended for overnight guests, corporate functions, educational field trips or wedding receptions? All of these activities potentially occur at a specialized enclosure, however they all have very different needs."

Along with LEED/sustainability, added Michael Crowder, an official with a structure manufacturer based in Stratford, Wis., "Energy savings, daylighting, recycled content of the building materials, as well as the indoor environmental quality of facilities are now increasingly being targeted."

The marketability of a sustainable facility cannot be underestimated, Crowder said. The general public is becoming more and more attuned to all things green. Pre-engineered solutions are attractive, as most of the design, engineering, fabrication and erection of an enclosure is handled by one company, saving a significant amount of time.

If you are considering an enclosure for your facility, Albertine explained, first, identify your needs and work with an experienced firm to help you realize your vision.

Understand your available space. You might want an enclosure, but have space constraints.

Next, try to work with a design firm that understands the business of parks and recreation facilities. The company should specialize in this field. A good firm will have a strong portfolio of projects and strong client testimonials.

"Any experienced vendor," Albertine added, "will have detailed specifications of their structures, a warranty as well as third-party certification and energy studies that support the building's energy and operating cost savings. And, the firm you choose should have an experienced team of designers, engineers, skilled manufacturers and project managers who can achieve the vision and deliver a solution that meets all of the project's unique requirements."

Depending on the firm you engage, enclosures can contribute to LEED, providing a number of credits in a number of categories. Or if LEED isn't your goal but you want to build as 'green' as possible, incorporating alternative energy sources such as solar panels is also an option.

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