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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

Sun Protection Beyond Awnings

John S. Saunders, CEO, USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc., discusses his company's activities and outlook.

By Stephen M. Warner, Contributing Editor

John S. Saunders is a co-founder and senior partner at USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc., Dallas, and currently serves as the company’s president and CEO. Saunders has more than 20 years’ experience in the fabric structure industry. He is a native South African and received his Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is married and has two children, and currently resides in the Dallas area.

Textile World: When was your company formed?

Saunders: USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc. began in 2004. It was actually a coming together of four independent companies: Sun Ports; Shade Structures; FabriTec Structures; and Vehicle Protection Structures (VPS). Each is now a brand of USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc.

TW: What’s the scope of your activities?

Saunders: We provide shade and architectural fabric structures for a wide variety of markets and applications. Our modular products are used primarily to provide shade and weather protection for schools, parks and recreation facilities. Our tensile membranes also provide shade, but clients for these types of custom structures are often looking for an iconic structure that can give a facility a unique look; these are used for stadiums, amphitheaters and transportation facilities, to name a few. Through our four brands, we have now produced more than 250,000 structures, primarily in the United States.

John S. Saunders, CEO, USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc.

TW: As I understand, you market the Sun Ports and Shade Structures brands to markets that include schools and day care centers, amphitheaters, water parks, zoos, aquatic facilities, parking areas and sports facilities. Can you tell us more about these markets for shade products? What are the market drivers?

Saunders: Yes, Sun Ports and Shade Structures offer essentially the same product, but to different areas. Shade Structures sells exclusively in the state of California, while Sun Ports covers the rest of the country. Both brands manufacture modular fabric structures that focus on protecting children through the shade provided at locations such as school, day care, parks and recreation, and community facilities. These structures utilize fabrics that can block out up to 96 percent of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays and help prevent sunburn, heatstroke and skin cancer. They can also preserve and extend the life of recreational and sports equipment. Shade Structures largely focuses on supplying shade products for the school systems in California. In fact, California, Nevada and Arizona all now have requirements to provide shade in public locations; and that list of states should expand in the near future. Shade Structures was actually the first to have a fabric product approved by the California Division of the State Architect (DSA) and now offers more DSA-approved structures than any other shade provider in the state. There are many other applications for fabric structures beyond parks and recreation. Military applications, for example, include training facilities, ordnance storage areas, tank shade and shooting ranges on bases.

TW: What types of fabrics do you use in your shade products?

Saunders: We use a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) knitted mesh supplied by Multiknit (Pty) Ltd. in South Africa for shade applications. When you think of shade, you may think of traditional applications like residential and commercial awnings. But we’ve taken the applications further. Our lightweight materials and easy installation allow large areas to be covered at much less cost. Traditional canvas awnings use heavier materials that trap heat and do not allow airflow like a knitted mesh does; hence, the traditional awning material requires additional support framing for stability and strength, and this means higher costs. The breathable mesh fabrics we utilize can provide a reduction in temperature by as much as 30 percent underneath the structures. Wood, canvas or steel structures simply cannot do that.

TW: Are you focused mostly in the southern U.S.?

Saunders: That was our original geographic scope. We were filling a unique need in the region, which frequently experiences harsh sun and hail. But we have gradually expanded into the middle U.S. and also have a number of projects in areas more to the north such as the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, and County Farm Park in Ann Arbor, Mich., which significantly spiced up its facility with our custom butterfly and flower structures.

TW: Can you tell us a little about the Vehicle Protection Structures brand?

Saunders: Our focus with this brand is more equal protection from both hail and sun, primarily for the auto industry. Hailstorms can result in devastating damage. Many people don’t realize, for example, that a good-sized hailstone traveling 100 to 120 miles per hour can have the same effect on vehicle windows and bodies as a sledgehammer swung at full force. VPS customers are car dealerships, rooftop and large-area commercial parking facilities, and automotive manufacturers that have a high concentration of stored cars. We also provide structures to protect boats, recreational vehicles, construction equipment and other products in situations where there is a lot of product in a confined, open storage area.

TW: What are the market drivers in the VPS segment?

Saunders: The primary market driver, naturally, is the state of manufacturing. If people are buying cars, the need grows to cover the inventory. Aesthetics also enter into the equation when you consider the value added to the facility. Shade comfort is another benefit when making buying decisions. An asphalt car lot is a hot place to be when you are looking at purchasing a vehicle. Provide a shady place, and people will look at the car longer.

ASU SkySong, a mixed-use project including office, research and retail space, has as its centerpiece a custom tensile fabric structure supplied by FabriTec Structures in conjunction with FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York City, and Higgins Development Partners, Chicago. The frame consists of eight steel structures that support integrated conical-shaped pieces covered with Teflon®-coated fiberglass fabric that can withstand 650 pounds of force per square inch.

TW: Tell us a little about FabriTec and how its products relate to shade.

Saunders: FabriTec is the brand within USA SHADE that manufactures larger tensile membrane structures. These applications frequently use heavier-weight fabrics like polyvinyl chloride and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and, like most large structures, they are designed primarily to protect the user against harsh, inclement weather and cold. However, the tension structure at ASU SkySong at Arizona State University (ASU) in Scottsdale, Ariz., was designed with the goal to provide both shade and water collection. It uses 45,000 square meters of PTFE membrane and features unique inverted cones at the base of the structure that collect rainwater. FabriTec has really done some amazing projects over the years, such as the cloud-like structures at the entrance of the Lone Butte Casino in Chandler, Ariz., the seven majestic canopies at the Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit, Mich., and, recently, the massive San Diego International Airport project in California. These structures really showcase what can be achieved utilizing fabric in architecture, and our team of designers has really raised the bar in terms of imagination and innovation.

TW: What’s the outlook for USA SHADE & Fabric Structures?

Saunders: The outlook is good. I’m very bullish on the future. We had a few lean years with budget cuts in the schools, government and private industry; and also the slump in automotive sales. However, as the economy has improved, we have seen these markets rebound. There is a demand for protection from the effects of weather and the sun. Health concerns for children are certainly a major driver. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the market penetration.

Editor’s note: Stephen M. Warner, Arden Hills, Minn., is publisher of BeaverLake6 Report, beaverlake6.com, a Web-based newsletter reporting on trends, data and issues that he feels influence the technical textiles industry. He also is former president and CEO of Industrial Fabrics Association International.

July/August 2013