Serious About Shade

Shelters & Shade Structures Enhance Sites, Protect Patrons

By Dawn Klingensmith

Dallas takes its shade seriously.

In August, Friends of Living Plaza—a volunteer organization dedicated to making Dallas' 5-acre City Hall Plaza a "livelier and better used space"—opened its weeklong SHADE display featuring locally designed and built shade structures to "showcase local talent and provide much-needed shade" in one of the hottest Texas months, according to the event website. Although 2,000 people work right next to it, the sprawling plaza is underused due to its lack of seating and shade. The SHADE display of temporary structures may, therefore, become an annual event, or a means of auditioning different structures before investing in something permanent.

Also in August, reported that FC Dallas Stadium is planning major improvements, most notably "a welcome respite from the hot Texas sun." Hunts Sports Group, owner of the soccer-specific stadium, is looking at partial roofing options. "The message I hear from the fans is that shade is king," Vice President Dan Hunt told

If shade is king, its reign in Dallas is longstanding and far-reaching. The city's inventory of park pavilions includes historic structures from the 1920s and 1930s. In 2002, the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department completed a long-range "Renaissance Plan," followed by the successful passage of a bond referendum in 2003 for park capital development, including a sizable allocation for 23 replacement or new picnic pavilions throughout the city. A prominent architect was assigned to each project and instructed to build a safe, durable and easy-to-maintain shelter, "contextual within the surrounding community and embraced by the neighborhood." According to a map of pavilions produced by the parks department, "The replacement program was so successful that another nine pavilions were included in the 2006 bond referendum."

Shade is king. And Dallas is not the only city to take it seriously.

Shade Is Essential

On the whole, in new construction shade is "not as much of an afterthought as it once was," whereas it "used to be window dressing or icing on the cake."

In Columbia, Mo., the public has grown more vocal in recent years about the need for shade at playground facilities. Skin cancer awareness has fueled demand, in addition to playground surfacing upgrades to poured-in-place or tile products, which get hotter than wooden mulch, said Matt Boehner, senior parks planner for Columbia Parks and Recreation.

In addressing the public's concerns, the department has discovered in fabric shade structures an opportunity to implement colorful, thematic design into new and existing playground facilities.

"The nice thing about fabric is it has a lot more design flexibility," said Newell Roundy, president of a Dewey, Ariz.-based manufacturer of prefabricated steel shade structures. "We're seeing fabric acting as a focal point—not really blending in but standing out."

Fabric offerings and installations have "exploded" in the past decade or so, Roundy added, but at the same time, "since the economic downturn we've seen a surprising increase in custom steel shelters being asked for. I believe it may stem from architects and landscape architects having more time to devote to a project (due to the decrease in new project starts) and wanting to make more of a design statement."

On the whole, in new construction shade is "not as much of an afterthought as it once was," whereas it "used to be window dressing or icing on the cake," said Gary Haymann, executive vice president of a Dallas-based manufacturer of four shade and fabric structure brands. "That's not to say we're being brought in on the front end of all projects, but there's been improvement, definitely."

In Roundy's experience, "nowadays during the master-planning phase of a park, shade is always in there, just like you'd plan for walkways, restrooms, etc."

But when budget constraints necessitate cutbacks, shade is seen as expendable. "You can't cut turf or irrigation, but shelter is an easy change order to put back in later," said Roundy, adding that additional shade structures can be "phased in" once it's clearer how the public uses a park.

Shade as Sculpture

When choosing shelters and shade structures, a number of factors must be taken into account. "Are you just looking for shade, or are you looking for weather protection? Does it need to be waterproof, or does it need to be breathable, allowing air to pass through? If you just pop something up with no airflow, it won't provide much relief from the heat," Haymann said.

In addition to function, aesthetics is an important consideration. Is a branded or thematic aesthetic important? Should the shade structure complement nearby architecture or natural surroundings? A well-designed shade structure can become a focal point, a landmark or a brand icon, Haymann said. It can have dynamic or dramatic elements, light up at night or be used to enhance or even frame a view.

"We've seen combinations of materials such as steel and wood used in creative ways," Roundy said. "Our main forte has always been the use of tube steel frames with a steel roof, but last year and again this year we are designing and building combination steel and log structures for a strong but rustic look."

Developments in the shade structure market include ease-of-use and adjustability improvements, including better rotation mechanisms on umbrellas.

A broader array of available colors and textures for powder coating allow for more imaginative designs, he added.

Dallas' use of high-profile architects to design new pavilions with bond funding resulted in "some very interesting, very arty shelters," said Michael Hellmann, assistant director of parks and recreation.

One of the commissioned pavilions "looks like a fluttering butterfly lifting off of the ground," he said. "It's bright red and really sticks out. The neighbors love it."

Also said to resemble origami, the Opportunity Park Pavilion designed by Elliott and Associates Architects in Oklahoma City consists of red and silver aluminum planes and is a dual-purpose structure—a shelter for picnics and a performance shell for festivals and events.

Proving that shade structures can rise to the level of public art, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture in 2009 held a "Gimme Shelter: Ideas Competition for Urban Shade," inviting artists, architects and other design professionals to invent new forms of shade structures that are functional by day and visually appealing after dark to enhance the city's nightlife.

Undergraduate students at Arizona State University rose to a similar challenge last year, erecting a sculptural shade structure titled "Peritoneum," referring to the chest cavity. An American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) competition called on students to create a shade structure that is sustainable, buildable on a limited budget and engaging to the community. Originally built on a plaza on the university campus for $16,000, Peritoneum was recently moved to a downtown Phoenix art district. The design, which won the ASLA's 2012 Student Award of Excellence, calls to mind a ribcage — albeit a curvy blue one — and serves as a shaded passageway. The plywood structure is painted with a protective, self-priming high-grade exterior paint to keep it from soaking up rainwater and succumbing to Arizona's scorching sunlight.

The nicknames given to Peritoneum—including "blue whale," "dinosaur" and "giant ribcage"—go to show that the structure successfully engaged the community, along with its status as a photography hot spot due to the interplay of light made possible by the undulating "ribs."

Practical Considerations

While Dallas dipped into a generous bond allocation for a host of new pavilions, most municipalities are strapped for cash. When it comes to shade structures, "Budgets dictate everything," Haymann said.

In Columbia, money is saved by taking advantage of the city's "good canopy of trees" as much as possible, Boehner said. "When we do need shade structures, our own staff builds them in-house most of the time, using stick frame or concrete post construction. It's cost-effective. We have moved a little toward prefab options where it makes sense. We purchased our first canvas shade canopy to rent out as a picnic area at one of our wading pools. We wanted something a little more colorful than what we usually use."

Finding a wide variety of "prefab options" on the market, "we were able to consider multiple solutions," said Boehner, adding that fabric structures in particular have come a long way "in the last little while."

Not only have they come down in price, but they also come in a variety of "creative and original" shapes and forms, are more structurally sound, and are easier to take down for seasonal storage, he explained. "The wading pool is a seasonal facility, open only from May through August. We needed a shade structure that could be broken down so the canvas isn't out in the elements nine months of the year when we're not using it. We take the canvas down and store it in wintertime, but the structural posts stay in place."

Fabric may need to be stored in a specified manner so as not to void the warranty.

Other developments in the shade structure market include ease-of-use and adjustability improvements, including better rotation mechanisms on umbrellas. In addition, many steel frames "come with hidden connections so kids can't take them apart," Roundy said.

Other practical considerations when purchasing and placing a shade structure or shelter include accessibility; maintenance requirements; proximity to restrooms, trash receptacles and other provisions; lighting requirements depending on park hours; structural requirements like wind and snow loads; and vandal resistance. "Visibility from the roadway is important for patrolling," Boehner said. "Clearances are also important. You don't want shade structures to be climbable."

One question to consider is whether the structure is to provide weather protection as opposed to just shade. Where vagrancy is a concern, there are perforated roofs that provide shade but allow for the passage of rain, discouraging people from "camping out" in inclement weather, Roundy said.

Aesthetically, perforated aluminum roofing can provide "a soft shade pattern" when the weather is nice and the sun is filtering through, he added.

Shady Profits

Besides UV protection, patron comfort and aesthetic appeal, shade structures can potentially increase or generate revenue. Ample shade may increase visitation and stay time; give sports facilities a competitive edge for tournaments; and extend the life of park furnishings and playground equipment by protecting them from the elements.

Columbia's parks have rentable picnic shelters, and the shade structure at the wading pool is a popular choice for parties. In fact, "Throughout the summer, most of our shelters are almost completely booked up," Boehner said.

From rentable cabanas to built structures, it's common for commercial aquatic centers to rent out shade structures by the hour, and municipal facilities are following their lead, said Toni Nigrelli, a business development specialist for Water Technology Inc., an aquatic facility firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis. And though aquatics facilities mustn't be responsible for patrons' belongings, creating a sense of "ownership" and security allows them to come and go with fewer concerns about theft or takeover.

Municipalities are also picking up on the common commercial practice of incorporating sponsored shade structures, with corporate logos and signage. For municipalities, sponsorships help defray costs and build a sense of community, Nigrelli said.

Shade sponsorships aren't just for aquatics facilities, where the presence of logos and branding might be expected. MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock, Ark., solicited sponsorships for a $5,000 "shade sail" near its doggie splashpad, promising a donation recognition plaque in return.

Shade4Schools Inc. offers a different fundraising approach for schools allowing them to sell shade by the square foot and inviting local corporations to donate and show support for schools. The program gives back to donors through positive publicity and by embossing corporate logos on top of shade structures.

Shade as a Health Issue

Municipalities are also picking up on the common commercial practice of incorporating sponsored shade structures, with corporate logos and signage.

"One of the things I've seen more and more in newer aquatics facilities is shade structures being placed near or over the zero-depth area where young children are playing, to protect their sensitive young skin," Nigrelli said.

Much is being done to raise awareness about UV exposure and skin cancer. A number of nonprofit groups offer shade-structure funding assistance to schools and parks, including the Shade Foundation of America, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Northern California grassroots organization Canopy.

Through its Shade Structure Grant Program, the AAD awarded funding to 21 recipients this year alone, in advance of the National Program for Playground Safety's "Playground Safety Week." Since 2000, the AAD has awarded more than 285 shade structure grants to public schools and nonprofit organizations across the country.

Shade does more than protect children's skin. It also may also help combat obesity by keeping kids active. A June 30, 2011 USA Today headline championed shade as "a weapon against skin cancer, childhood obesity." The following year, on April 3, 2012, data journalist Carl V. Lewis offered five theories on his website to explain why the South is the most obese part of the country, fingering extreme heat and lack of exercise as prime suspects: "Southerners also tend to be less physically active than the rest of the country, burning off fewer calories and retaining more body fat, USDA data says. … Some researchers have speculated that the South's lack of physical activity may not be so much sheer laziness as it is a lack of access to places to exercise. Few rural areas have fancy private gyms for southerners to burn off their extra calories, and most of the year it's just too plain hot in the South to exercise outdoors."

The southwest experiences extreme heat as well. Promoting physical fitness by fending off brutal sunrays is one of the stated goals of the Million Dollar Hole-In-One Contest, held annually at the Randolph Golf Complex in Tucson, Ariz., to assist in funding shade structures at local parks. The Tucson Parks and Recreation Department and the Tucson Parks Foundation hold the event in order to allow comfortable use of playground equipment for a greater portion of the day and year.

Shade for Cars, Critters

Back in Dallas, "It's sunny and hot here, and one of the comments we hear all the time is, 'Where is the shade?'" Hellmann said.

Despite the abundance of pavilions, there is a perceived shortage of shade that the parks department is seeking to address, one facility at a time, not just in local parks but along loop trails, in sports complexes and in dog parks. "We have fabric shade structures in some of our spraygrounds," said Hellmann, adding that year-round exposure means they require more maintenance and fewer years of service than you might expect.

At aquatics facilities and anyplace else patrons may stand in line for long periods, be sure to offer shade to make their wait bearable.

At aquatics facilities and anyplace else patrons may stand in line for long periods, be sure to offer shade to make their wait bearable. In 2007, a girl waiting in line for a roller coaster at a Texas amusement park fainted due to the heat, fell 10 feet through a gap onto concrete and was paralyzed. At issue in the subsequent lawsuit was the lack of safety netting beneath the platform, but the local press pointed out that riders standing in line have little shade and no fans or misters to keep them cool.

Shade isn't just for patron comfort but also for the safety of employees who stand on platforms for hours on end supervising crowds and loading rides.

Increasingly, shade structures are being installed to shield more than just people. In Dallas, sunscreens were put in place to protect monumental art deco murals at Fair Park from harmful UV rays after the artwork, created in 1936 and painted over in 1942, was painstakingly restored.

Many municipalities have parking lot shading ordinances in place, generally calling for tree canopy shade. The benefits of "green lots" include temperature reduction by shading parked cars and pavement; stormwater management through bio-retention; and the potential for dual purposing when not being used for parking. However, several manufacturers offer parking lot shade structures, sails and canopies in various designs and colors. In Los Angeles, solar structures that capture solar energy while shading parked cars are popping up thanks to a streamlined permitting process.

At Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., three full cantilever canopies were erected over the dolphin pool because dolphins can get sunburned. In the ocean, they find shade on their own, but captive dolphins require their keepers' assistance. A two-part coal tar epoxy was used on the steel supports instead of the usual powder coat finish to guard against saltwater degradation.

There are special finishes to address concerns such as graffiti and UV fading as well. In fact, with so many shade systems and materials on the market, there are viable "under cover" options for just about any installation, including custom solutions for cetaceans and sedans as well as economical prefab structures for schoolchildren and swimmers.

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