Made in the Shade

Shelters & Shade Structures to Set Your Site Apart

By Rick Dandes

Considering that exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays is the leading cause of skin cancer, it's hard to overstate the importance of having strategically placed shade structures in parks, school playgrounds or other recreation facilities. But protecting patrons isn't the only benefit shelters and shade structures can provide.

Having shade structures also can help pay the bills. Manufacturers of contemporary shade structures cite surveys indicating that people will stay longer at facilities where they feel safe and more comfortable, thus consuming more concessions and increasing facility revenue. Meanwhile, park and recreation administrators know there is one other significant benefit to having an effective shade structure that has little to do with aesthetics: It can reduce the deterioration rate of plastics and powder-coat finishes, thereby actually extending the life of the playground or recreational equipment it covers. Since most outdoor equipment with its related surfacing represents a substantial investment, extra years of life actually helps pay for the relatively economical cost of the structure.

Shade structures come in all shapes and sizes, such as steel or wood structures, shade sails, pergolas (freestanding, open-roofed arbors) and more, all of which vary widely in the amount of UV protection provided.

Manufacturers of contemporary shade structures cite surveys indicating that people will stay longer at facilities where they feel safe and more comfortable.

But not all of these structures are created equal. In fact, levels of indirect UV can still be high beneath some of these shade structures, which in a worst case scenario might have real SPFs of only around 3 to 6. Such an SPF in a playground near a school is unacceptable, given the importance of protecting children from UV and the strong evidence that excessive sun exposure during childhood significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Factors that determine how well a structure provides shade include the size of the structure, its orientation (which direction it faces), and where it is in relation to other structures, such as buildings, trees and other vegetation. The amount of UV protection provided by a structure is also contingent upon the angle of the sun and the degree of cloud cover. Because the amount of diffuse UV that hits the skin depends on the amount of open sky visible from the shade, larger shaded areas provide more protection than small ones.

Shade structures with side-on walls or other side protection, and those surrounded by other structures provide the greatest shelter from the sun's rays.

Customize Your Facility

A variety of shade structures are available for sports parks, where people spend a good amount of time sitting in the afternoon sun.

The best way to create a gathering space, said Brad Fritz, a sales and custom service manager for a Holland, Mich.-based shelter manufacturer, "is to create more than just a picnic area."

Focus on creating a community gathering place. Have more amenities than just tables. Include built-in restrooms, fireplaces or concession stands. Enhance the space with your own logos or decorative louvers, which help to accent the lighting of the space. Amphitheaters are perfect for this type of request. Being able to house the local boy scout troop or dance studio for their recitals not only draws in the community but also helps to pay back the investment by renting the shelter to those groups.

Once the basic structure design has been chosen, details can be added, such as signage and ornamentation, added Jennifer Graves, a marketing specialist from that same company in Michigan. "By adding these to the gable of an amphitheater," she suggested, "you can identify a site sponsor or the name of your facility to promote further branding and site recognition. This can be done with a high-performance laser cutter, or additional graphics can be printed and displayed in the steel ornamentation."

Other features that can be added include handrails, gutters, column wraps/covers, lightning protection, polycarbonate roofing and windscreens. Amphitheaters can also be engineered to have additional structures added on, including changing rooms, restrooms or storage space. Many frame colors and roof options are also available to choose from.

If you are looking to create a high-end look to your park, Graves continued, consider coordinating additional shelters, trellises and signs to complement your new amphitheater and draw visitors toward it. Use similar details, colors or shapes to pull each structure together. Design elements can be incorporated into each structure to display unique detail and create architectural conversation when visitors notice the small details that were considered. A common theme throughout a park gives strong visual interest and will attract lots of attention.

Amphitheaters go beyond just bringing your community together; they can also give back to the community. Because of their ability to host ongoing entertainment and large audiences, they are the perfect place to host events for fundraising and charities. Amphitheaters can offer a high return on investment, not just financially, but also in building a community

Have a Plan

What kind of facility do you have? An aquatic center? A park? A sports facility? All could require slightly different shade structures. Graves and Fritz offered the following suggestions for specific facility types.

Fabric shade looks great in an aquatic environment. Brightly colored sails have a playful and whimsical look, perfect for covering pool areas and splashpads during those warm summer months. They can take on many shapes and sizes, making them ideal for waterparks where you need to get shade over slides and other play areas without obstructing views and blending perfectly into the design. They have a light and airy feel allowing the perfect balance of sun and shade. Fabric cantilevers will also assist with maximum shade cover with minimal ground obstructions.

When deciding on a design that best fits your site, look for a shade company that can take your ideas and combine them with their experience to create the perfect fit.

A variety of shade structures are available for sports parks, where people spend a good amount of time sitting in the afternoon sun. Dugouts are designed to not only shade a team, but to also integrate with the ballpark fencing that protects players when off the field. Cantilevered shelters can be used over bleachers to make the viewing experience more enjoyable for guests, as well as to protect them from inclement weather, or from burns associated with long periods of sitting in the sun. Concession stand covers and picnic areas are also valuable to sports parks. Food is a staple at these areas and protecting it from rain is a necessity.

Guests of amusement parks can have a much more enjoyable experience if there is shade over the waiting lines. Some parks have long ride wait times, and guests are more likely to wait if they are comfortable and protected from the elements. Concession stand and picnic pavilions are also a way for parks to provide shelter from the sun or rain. Attractions also benefit from shade. Carousel houses require a covering to protect and preserve the often delicate pieces of the ride.

Start with a plan for the shade structure. Location is obviously key. What else is around? How are the space and its surroundings currently used? Are there any planned local developments that might influence this space in the near future? Is there a certain demographic you are trying to draw into this area? Then work on the amount of square footage you are willing to give up. Are trees or other landscaping important to keep or add?

Next, decide the objective of the space. Do you want to create something large where a crowd could gather, or something small like a resting place along a pathway? Do you want the structure to draw attention and stand out, or blend in with its surroundings? What type of environment will this shelter be in? Will it be used year round? What budget do you need to stay within? How quickly do you need this shelter available for use?

When deciding on a design that best fits your site, look for a shade company that can take your ideas and combine them with their experience to create the perfect fit.

Choice of Materials

Cost, of course, is always a major factor in your choice of shade structures. Typically, fabric shading is more cost-effective than metal, harder structures, said Alan Bayman, president of an Ocala, Fla.-based shade manufacturer. "Another consideration is the aesthetics. You can do a lot more interesting designs with fabrics. You can get multiple canopies in varying colors, all at interesting different angles and heights. You can create very imaginative designs, such as multi-level sails, and all that gets balanced against the cost because the more interesting it gets, typically the more expensive it gets."

There are several installation considerations. Different designs allow for more flexibility in where support columns can be located. If you are a park manager looking to outfit an existing site, you might be more limited in what you can do. Whatever it is you are trying to shade, you also have walkways, landscaping and lighting poles. You need to think about where the support columns for the shade structure are going to go, bearing in mind that these types of structures typically get concrete foundations. Keep in mind that there are ways to engineer it so that the columns go out of the way and don't disturb the existing infrastructure.

Weather also has to be factored into your buying decision, noted Patti Abrecht, vice president, architectural division, of a Dallas, Texas-based shade and fabric structure manufacturer. "For parts of the country where outdoor activity is impacted by sun and warm temperatures," she advised, "fabric shade structures provide a cost-effective, functional as well as aesthetically pleasing solution."

The breathability of a "mesh" high-density polyethylene, UV stabilized membrane provides for not only the reduction of temperature, but also the important protection of children and equipment. The "mesh" can also block out up to 96 percent of UV rays. While solid metal or other materials offer protection from UV, they also can hold and trap heat; the openness of a mesh fabric product allows air to pass through and instead, provides a release of heat and, thus, cooler temperatures and comfort.

"Weather is critical for us," agreed Tom White, landscape architect, city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Parks and Rec department. "We have exercise equipment and a combination of tents and sails. Our structures are mostly comprised of fabrics. Maintenance is a big factor. The ease of taking it down and putting it back up, especially in hurricane season. We look to get annual contacts to deal with that and board up facilities when a hurricane approaches. We need a decent sized crew on hand to do that."

Park planner Shauna Welty, Conejo Recreation and Park District, Thousand Oaks, Calif., has similar concerns. The Conejo Recreation and Park District covers 66 square miles and serves a population of more than 140,000 people in Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and the Ventura County portion of Westlake Village. The Parks Division maintains more than 50 parks covering over 1,000 acres. Welty most often has to worry about those strong Santa Ana winds.

"Basically, with shade structures," she said, "we've done five different locations, and every one is a different scenario. As to what we decide on, if an existing site, we have constraints, so those constraints become very important in terms of shape we'd want to purchase from a manufacturer. The shape, the height required, the coloring, the exact location, even where the post footings will go, because some of them are located over play areas within a tot play area even. And so in those cases, we are a lot more restricted. And many times we need something at an existing site, where we've wanted shade for years and we've been using something, a funky temporary form. Maybe as simple as a table and an umbrella. We have Santa Ana winds here and that just blows them out.

From standard forms to unique custom applications, shade structures afford a myriad of solutions to meet the needs of a park manager.

"On a site that is completely new," Welty continued, "you have all options there. In one of our parks we had a very large picnic area that had very little shade. It had a small wood structure that was maybe 1/20th of the entire area. And that's all the shade it had for a number of years. So, at that site, we knew what we wanted. Something to cover everything. We chose a sail style, so it would be pretty, different. That park has a lot of open field to it with sky and mountains, like Thousand Oaks has in many areas. So, we went to a really beautiful shade structure there. We're getting rave reviews on that one. Cost was an issue, but we planned for it for years in advance, got our funding set up. It was a $150,000 to $180,000 structure. It is just gorgeous."

Other parts of the country have snow or cold weather conditions to consider. Many shade-solution materials are available in these parts of the country such as traditional metal like steel, wood and other composite material, as well as fabric. Solid and sturdy architectural fabrics, such as PVC membranes, can be designed and engineered to withstand many challenging rain, snow and other climatic situations.

However, Abrecht said, a mesh fabric shade structure is still a viable solution in these regions as the lightweight material and its potential simplicity of design, unlike a heavy metal or wood structure, allows for the simple removal of the "fabric roof" for portions of the year when outdoor usage and activity are reduced.

Most importantly, all regions of the country have specific building codes that provide standards for design and engineering to best protect people in the park or facility by holding to standards that dictate long-term performance and quality. Following and holding to those standards protects the recreational facility or park, and their investment.

Fantastic Fabric

From standard forms to unique custom applications, shade structures afford a myriad of solutions to meet the needs of a park manager. They also often offer a cost-effective way to transform an existing space by adding to a design theme or creating an interesting new focal point for a location that is looking to stand out and add value to the community.

Because of their flexibility and formability, fabric structures can be designed in an impressive variety of shapes and configurations for an array of spaces. "Creating space is exactly what one gets when a fabric structure provides and defines a comfortable gathering spot," Abrecht said.

"Shade structures not only protect children from the sun when playing on a playground," Bayman added, "but they also offer shelter to both participants and spectators at sports facilities. Ball fields, soccer fields, tennis courts, swim complexes, aquatic parks and pools are just a few examples of the limitless uses for fabric structures."

Shade structures not only protect children from the sun when playing on a playground,but they also offer shelter to both participants and spectators at sports facilities.

Covering and customizing a stage or amphitheater or simply defining an entry area or focal point for a park or community facility adds value in both beauty and function.

Other benefits realized by the addition of a fabric shade structure include the opportunity for revenue enhancement. Increased appeal means increased usage, which potentially translates into more revenue for owners. Locations such as waterparks will often rent areas with permanent shade structures for special events such as birthday parties, corporate events, school retreats and more, which results in bottom-line benefits. When incorporated into outdoor amphitheater locations and other civic spaces, revenue-generating opportunities are added for events, concerts and other performances where covered venues can gain income from year-round activities with rental and cover charges.

"Probably more than any other building material," Graves said, "fabric expands the potential for design freedom and adaptability to any community project."

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