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The 8 Different Types Of Permanent Shade Structures Explained

Permanent shade structures make a fantastic addition to any commercial outdoor space. The choice to install one is easy; resulting in more usable and modern space with sun protection.

But with so many types of permanent shade structures out there, it can prove difficult to know which is the right shade for your business or organisation.

That’s why we’re running through the 8 types of shade structures and their unique benefits so that you can find the right design to suit your needs.

Bright coloured shade sails.

1. Shade sails

Other names: Hypar sails, shade cloths, fabric sails. 

Common characteristics: Outdoor shade sails have two main components: shade cloth, and steel (or sometimes wooden) poles. Between 3-6 steel posts are the most common for a commercial shade sail, depending on the design and number of sails. For the classic 4 pole shade sail design (6 if two sails are used), the fabric has a distinctive twisted shape. This hyperbolic design increases the tension of the sail and reduces flapping even in high winds.  

Common uses: Found in all corners of Australia, from outdoor classrooms and playground equipment to local pools. Shade sails are a very versatile structure suited to small and medium outside spaces, and you can even opt for waterproof shade sails with PVC fabric instead of shade cloth.

Common industries: Perfect for schools, council and commercial areas, – shade sails are applicable in pretty much any industry that has people on site.  


  • Cost-effective
  • Can easily use multiple structures 
  • Easily customisable – both size and colour
  • Shade cloth can block up to 90% UV 


  • Poorly made sails from cheap companies can flap and sag
  • Standard shade cloth is not waterproof, but waterproof PVC fabric option is available
  • Limited to smaller spans (up to around 20 metres)
star structure

2. Umbrella Style Structures

Other names: Star structure, umbrella shade, commercial umbrella.

Common characteristics: These structures have 1 post with a fabric cover stretched over fully braced arms extending from the one main column. With just one pole in the ground, star structures effectively shield small outdoor areas with minimal ground-level obstructions, making them a good alternative to shade sails. 

Common uses: Perfect for small spaces, these structures can either have a centre post or a corner post and extend out over a small area. This makes them ideal for sand pits, outdoor seating areas, poolsides, small eating areas, and outdoor learning areas.

Common industries: Councils, schools and commercial places like shopping centres or pools are all perfect examples of industries that implement star structures. Like shade sails, they are a versatile structure. 


  • Easy to customise colours
  • Works well with both shade fabrics and waterproof fabrics
  • Minimal ground obstructions


  • Must be square – limited customisation of shape
  • Size limit around 12m x 12m maximum
covering your bowling green

3. Large span fabric structures

Other names: Barrel Vault structure, canopy, tension membrane structure, membrane structure, dome structure.

Common characteristics: An arched steel frame with a high-tension polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabric cover, generally spanning 15-20m at a minimum. The curved architecture of the structure allows for optimal height clearance without the need for central posts that obstruct the middle ground. 

Common uses: These structures are most commonly used over sports courts because of their ability to span large distances with high clearance. They can also be used over swimming pools and multipurpose spaces like school quadrangles.

Common industries: Sport and recreation industries along with schools are most common due to their wide use in sports courts. 


  • Large clear spans – no obstructions to sport
  • Works well with either shade fabric or PVC fabric
  • Shape and size are completely customisable


  • Not recommended for small spaces
  • Longer installation time compared to shade sail/umbrella-type structures 
Greenline Sydney

4. Hip and Ridge Style Structures

Other names: hip structure, fabric roof, gable roof, joined hip structures

Common characteristics: Hip shade structures typically consist of a triangular frame between posts, with either a shade or PVC fabric roof. Better suited to larger spans, these also prove a great option for sports courts as they boast a similar height clearance and ability to span long distances to the large span fabric structures. 

Common uses: Large areas like multi-purpose spaces, playgrounds, large covered outdoor learning areas, and sports courts are best suited to these super-span hip structures. 

Common industries: Schools and sport and recreation industries are the industries that most widely apply these lower-cost fabric roof coverings. 


  • Cost-effective option for sun protection across large areas
  • Low edge gives good shade coverage
  • Colour of fabric and steel is easily customisable 


  • Minimal options for customising the shape
  • Water collection can be difficult when waterproof fabric is in use 
Sports Court steel structures

5. Steel shade structures

Other names: Covered outdoor learning area (COLA), Pergola, Awning, solid roof structure.

Common characteristics: A practical and traditional-shaped roof (gable, skillion, or curved) with steel posts. These large metal shade structures are the most durable yet labour-intensive permanent shade solution providing ultimate weather protection for open-air venues. 

Common uses: Steel structures are super versatile – they can be used for small areas like picnic spots, or walkways, large sports facilities and multi-purpose spaces like school quadrangles. 

Common industries: Schools top the most common industries for their wide use of steel structures in multi-purpose quadrangles and walkways. 


  • Most durable materials
  • Versatile in sizing
  • Customisable roof shape/design


  • Hot during summer months
  • Noisy if care isn’t taken to insulate them properly
Commercial car shelter at woolworths

6. Cantilever shade structures

Other names: Walkway structure.

Common characteristics: A cantilever shade structure has posts on just one side, with curved shade supports that extend outwards to provide overhead shelter. The curvature of the roof ensures proper water drainage and excellent shade coverage. The roof can be either tensioned fabric (shade cloth or PVC) or steel. 

Common uses: The cantilever is a versatile structure with many possible applications, including car parks, walkways, sports seating and amphitheatres. 

Common industries: Commercial industries like retail and entertainment venues.  


  • Minimal posts
  • Unlimited length 
  • Allows uninterrupted sightlines 


  • Limit to how wide it can span
  • Greater deflection 
Shade Structure

8. Multiple structures

Other names: Multi-panel shade structures Hexagon or octagon shade structure. 

Common characteristics: Multi-panel structures are architecturally striking shade solutions that use multiple fabric sails to often create a hexagon or octagon shape. They can also be multi-level and customised into many shapes and configurations to create bold designs for commercial spaces.  

Common uses: In shared local community areas and large-scale stadiums or event districts/spaces. 

Common industries: Government/council and entertainment industries.


  • An eye-catching look allows you to make a statement as well as provide shade
  • Many design possibilities allow you to get creative 
  • Can shade large spaces using multiple panels and even levels


  • More costly and time-consuming than a simple structure to design and construct
  • Small gaps in shade are unavoidable

Custom shapes

If there isn’t a design on our list yet that appeals to you or suits the needs of your intended use, custom shape shade structures are also an option.

For those who are looking to make a bold and artistic statement with a distinct shaped tensile membrane structure, it is possible to get a custom shape design drawn up and installed. 

This option is perfect for businesses that want to make an impression, or entertainment spaces and community spaces where the ‘wow factor’ pays off.

What are the benefits of having a commercial shade structure?

A commercial shade structure can transform any old outdoor space into a more usable area. With incredible UV protection and waterproofing options, make your business or organisation more safe for everyone. 

Plus, with so many designs to choose from you have the opportunity to make a design statement too. Find out more about commercial shade structures here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are shade structures called?

Shade structures can also be known as fixed shade sails, COLAs, awnings, pergolas, solid roof structures, garden shade sails, canopy shade structures and many other names due to the diversity of designs available. 

What is the best shade structure material?

Steel is a good material for permanent structures if you are okay with a longer construction time and extra costs. As far as fabric goes, shade cloth protects from UV and PVC provides waterproofing and UV protection. 

How long do shade structures last?

High-quality tensile fabric shade structures can easily last at least 10-15 years with proper maintenance. Steel shade structures should last indefinitely if the steel is properly coated and the coating is maintained regularly.