A Shady Place

Shade Structures & Shelters for Parks & Other Recreational Spaces

By Joe Bush

Shelters and shade structures may or may not be the highlight of the recreation areas and parks they occupy, but like restrooms, they are essential to ensuring that people will stay a while and enjoy their experience.

As long as the sun shines, lovers of outside pastimes will need protection from its rays. Sunscreen is the top choice, but shade offers the same protection in addition to providing relief from the heat. Trees are nature's shade structures, but it's not always possible or practical to build play areas and athletic fields under their canopies.

Older playgrounds either had no shade or featured wooden or plastic roofs over their slides, climbing bars and other adventurous elements. Today, playgrounds are often covered by shade structures using fabric of all colors and shapes supported by and stretched among steel bars anchored with cement footings.

Prices on these structures vary according to size, of course, but budgets also are affected by style, how much concrete is used—also a function of style, column size and height—and customization options. The latest in shade structures can integrate lighting into the columns, and many manufacturers and end users are building play structures with integrated shade structures.

"We are seeing a lot of people making 'quality' and 'maintenance friendly' more of the first requirement on projects rather than 'budget conscious' or 'budget friendly' being the primary goal," said Brian Fritz, a business development manager with a designer and manufacturer of open-air steel structures.

Sail Away

Shade sails—the geometric fabric pieces under tension among steel columns—are seemingly everywhere in the recreation world.

Brian Cipriano, a landscape architect with Gordon, a landscape architecture firm headquartered in Chantilly, Va., explained the appeal to his clients: "They're looking for something that isn't just a gable roof or hip roof pavilion," Cipriano said. "They want something that has some pizzazz to it, to enhance the aesthetic of the park with sort of an artsy look."

Indeed, Troy Stubbs, assistant director of parks and recreation for the Clayton County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners, said that's exactly the reason he chose the shade structures used in his jurisdiction's new waterpark, Spivey Splash. The park has several shade sail structures, but some of them have canopies that change color based on the viewer's angle. Stubbs initially saw them at a tradeshow.

"The look—it doesn't look like a building, a pavilion," he said. "It was more about being innovative and being a 2022 waterpark instead of from 40 years ago, all boxy. With it being a new waterpark, I wanted to have some things out there not too many people knew about or even were able to get yet.

"We wanted something different, to stand out."

Aesthetics aside, the main reason for installing shade sail structures is to make a play area or athletic field attractive and relaxing, said Brent Derbecker, a sales executive with a recreation product manufacturer that started a shade structure division 15 years ago. "You're creating comfortable outdoor spaces," said Derbecker. "We do a lot of shade coverings for playgrounds. Oftentimes we'll sell a playground or install a playground and the end users will note that parents and kids aren't using them in the hottest parts of the day, for obvious reasons. Time and time again you'll find the heart of the thing is designing a comfortable outdoor space for increased usage."

Derbecker said some other common reasons for installing shade structures include for protection of vehicles in parking lots, especially in the southern and western states; preserving the color of rubber playground surfaces and structural plastics, which can fade due to sun exposure; flexibility of design and size; and adhering to jurisdictions that mandate shade for recreation areas.

Three common types of shade structures, Derbecker said, include single-center-post canopies, like umbrellas; hip shade structures that use multiple columns and can feature either a flat or slanted roof; and cantilevered structures using columns to one side—thereby freeing the space underneath—with shade canopies supported by a framework.

He said around half of his company's shade business is in what he calls "standard" shade structures—for example, a 30-foot-square hip shade structure with an eight-foot entry height. Another quarter of the business is modifications on that standard—like making the entry 13 feet high instead of eight. The remaining quarter of the business is custom work, he said. "Your most common custom shade structure is going to be shade sails because they allow for asymmetrical designs, site-specific designs, and oddball shapes, sizes, lengths, widths and height," said Derbecker.

Ask the Right Questions

When potential clients jump into the market for shelters and shade structures, they need to consider a few things first, said Derbecker. What will be shaded? What clearance heights are needed? Is there any style preference? And crucially, what's the budget?

"The thing about selling shade is oftentimes people don't necessarily know what they want it to look like, they just know what the end result is," he said. "The first thing we ask them is, 'What do you want to shade?' The nice thing about selling shade, designing shade, people intuitively know the purpose of shade.

"If it's hot outside people know, 'Let me step into the shade of this tree or this building.' The concept is incredibly intuitive. What we're trying to facilitate is the preferred solution that meets the customer's expectations and budget."

By knowing that the intended shaded areas are a playground, or the shallow end of the pool, or three benches by the tennis courts, or a grouping of picnic tables, styles, models and products can be narrowed.

Derbecker said for most playgrounds the most economical way to shade is a four-post square or rectangle hip shade. "It affords great shade coverage, can be done in large sizes and is the cheapest per square footage," he said. "Typically there's a lot of square footage involved with shading a play structure."

Site amenities like picnic tables might be paired with umbrellas or cantilevered umbrellas, while bleachers at the softball and baseball and soccer fields are typically covered with cantilevers, said Derbecker. Alternately, premanufactured steel, wood or combined-material shelters can cover picnic areas, as well as dugout areas. The options for shading recreational spaces are abundant.

"When someone tells us what they want to shade, we have preconceived notions of product categories that pair well with the intended solution of shading x, y or z," Derbecker said.

It helps to come to your manufacturer with a few ideas about styles you've seen in other play or athletic areas, or at trade shows or online, Derbecker said.

Most are familiar with shade sails because they're so common and striking, but Derbecker said shade sails are often the most expensive, and here's why: In a shade sail, the canopy is absent an internal frame like you would see on a hip shade or an umbrella or cantilever. Rather, there are upright posts with various connection points that are supporting either a triangular or rectangular piece of fabric; at a glance it seems inexpensive because what catches the eye are fabric and posts.

"But what people don't realize is in order to provide the tension necessary to fully tension a canopy and apply it to the top of these uprights your steel sizes get pretty large and your concrete size gets pretty large," said Derbecker. "As a result your steel member sizes and concrete volume required for a product are probably going to be substantially larger than a comparable structure with an internal frame."

Derbecker said clearances for a playground should be seven feet above the highest standing deck to the canopy, and if there's a roof on top of the playground the preferred clearance is three feet above that roof.

In areas where vandalism is a problem, consider the height of umbrellas over amenities like picnic tables. If vandalism is a problem, " could someone standing on the picnic table have access to the canopy with a knife and vandalize the canopy?" he said. "If you're in an area that might be exposed to vandalism you might want to increase the entry height to make the canopy out of reach to someone who might otherwise vandalize the canopy."

Last but not least is to get budget details, said Derbecker. "We've designed what you're looking for, but is it really in line with what you want to spend? If not, we step back to stage one to fine-tune the process," said Derbecker.

Picture This

Technology has allowed companies to better help clients picture what types of shade structures and shelters to choose and where to put them. Fritz said his company uses a software that turns conceptual renderings into 3-D versions that clients can then use to promote their concepts to funding sources.

Stubbs said when he wanted to properly position his shade structures at Spivey Splash, the manufacturing partner used software that tracked the sun throughout the day at the waterpark's location to determine the best placement.

Cipriano said a landscape architect can help a customer get a tailor-made shade structure by working with both the customer and manufacturer. "Our clients are the end users, but we're kind of playing the designer that would work with the manufacturer to develop what it would look like," said Cipriano. "It depends on the client and how much money they have."

For one project, Cipriano's client wanted something unique so he worked with the manufacturer on a design that would fit the rest of the park's artsy vibe. There were three different sports fields, but the goal for the shade structures and amenities was a non-traditional sports look. "We came up with a circular [structure] based on something (the manufacturer) already had in their catalog," said Cipriano. "We tweaked the formula."

For another client Cipriano used one of the manufacturer's square-shaped shelters as a jumping off point to create a piece that fit better with the park's other structures.

"We took inspiration from that, and we're developing something that's more curvilinear with the same kind of principle of that structure to develop something that's a little more modern looking," he said.

Shelter manufacturers offer a vast array of styles, materials and even customization options for shelters and shade structures, so even if you don't have the budget for a completely customized look, you can almost always find the aesthetic you're targeting. RM



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