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Regulatory considerations in the design of fabric awnings

Continuing Education | July 1, 2009 | By:

Awnings in the architectural design process

Recent trends in building regulations for commercial and residential projects may push architects toward taking awning design more seriously. In the past, architects have been tempted to view the awning as a discrete, subordinate element of a building envelope. As such, it is a candidate for cost cutting that may substitute another less expensive shading device or eliminate the awning entirely. The charming effect of awnings sketched in during the schematic phase is easily sacrificed after bidding because awnings can always be added later.

Today, regulations ranging from zoning ordinances to green building design guidelines are trending toward “locking in” schematic design elements such as awnings, requiring them to be constructed as originally designed. Two types of regulation directly affect awnings in different ways, but both reflect the same trend, enforcing compliance with approved design concepts established early in the process.

  • Zoning Ordinance Design Guidelines (particularly those promoting New Urbanism).
  • Sustainable, Green Energy Conservation Standards (e.g. LEED Rating System).

Compliance with zoning ordinances affects building design at the beginning of the process. Site plan approval by local agencies now includes requirements for building as well as for site. Envelope components —including awnings— are typically incorporated in a formal design submittal, a site plan review package. Colored elevations as well as material samples are part of the submittal package. This package proceeds through a process that involves planning staff review as well as separate public hearings and approvals by the planning commission and city council. Formal approval incorporates drawings and supporting documents that bind an owner contractually to build what is shown. Removing an element such as awnings in a subsequent phase requires an owner to restart site plan review. Compliance with site plan approval is checked by city agencies when the building permit process is started. Failing to build an approved feature —such as awnings— constitutes breach of the agreement.

Sustainable, green design guidelines affect buildings involved in a voluntary certification process such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification ( As with zoning ordinances, LEED certification emphasizes compliance with design concepts established in an approved application. LEED involves a compliance check termed “commissioning” at completion of building. Commissioning confirms that a building is constructed and performing according to the approved design. If awnings are included in envelope design to score energy conservation points during design phase, the awnings must remain through design and construction.

Zoning ordinances incorporate green guidelines. Many ordinances now include extensive guideline documents that address general design issues beyond site details, such as setbacks and parking ratios. Content of guidelines varies: unlike state and local building codes, which are based on national model codes, zoning ordinances show significant variation. Zoning ordinances are written to reflect peculiarities of specific locales: town, city, county/province, and region. Zoning design guidelines vary as well: some promote land use planning concepts that include green goals such as tree preservation, wetlands and wildlife habitat protection. Zoning guidelines that address building design often directly identify awnings as a desirable design element for both aesthetic and energy conservation reasons. In a hot climate region, guidelines may emphasize solid shading over fabric; however, other climate regions promote fabric awnings, depicting them in drawings and photographs.

Current zoning design guidelines for buildings address massing, detailing, style and construction materials, including color and texture. For awning designs under such guidelines, the site plan review process often involves submitting color elevations showing awning shape and size as well as fabric samples that show color(s), finish and texture. Many guidelines illustrate acceptable designs using photographs and drawings. Awnings are typically included as an example of desirable streetscape. Window shading and weather protection for pedestrians are often listed as advantages. Some awning design alternatives may be favored over others; for example, traditional appearance may be favored over contemporary translucent backlighted sign awnings.

Zoning ordinances devote a separate section to signage. Awnings involving signage must comply both with general design guidelines and with detailed requirements of the signage section, which limits size and location of graphics on an awning. Building code compliance is checked in a preliminary way during site plan review and again more thoroughly during permitting. Permit review assesses awning design compliance with structural and fire safety requirements as well as compliance with design guidelines. Permit submittals for awnings must address the following issues:

  • Compliance with zoning ordinance limits on signage size and location,
  • Resistance to environmental loads,
  • Flammable materials incorporated on the building envelope (for fabric awnings).

Precedents guiding awning design for historic buildings

Awning design for historic buildings must refer to precedents. Design guidelines for awnings for historic buildings can be found in the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) Preservation Brief 44: “The Use of Awnings on Historic Buildings: Repair, Replacement and New Design.”

This document promotes guidelines based on historic precedents. It recommends research using old photographs and drawings to find precedents for awnings proposed for rehabilitation or restoration of historic buildings. It emphasizes the need for documentation to support awning design concepts; however, it leaves open the possibility of interpretation and extrapolation of precedents. It is interesting to note that NPS Preservation Brief 44 includes as historic designs —along with traditional canvas awnings— aluminum frame and slat awnings from the 1950s and 1960s.

NPS Brief 44 offers specific suggestions for repair and replacement of awnings in a historic district. Further, the Brief proposes the idea of adding appropriately designed awnings where they did not originally occur on existing historic buildings and on newly designed infill buildings in historic districts.

Form and function

  • Use primarily triangular sections with some variations for arched openings.
  • Avoid contemporary commercial forms with large vertical sign surfaces.


  • Reuse operating hardware and structural frame if possible.
  • Use an acceptable substitute such as lateral arm structure with powder-coated aluminum frame.


  • Use acceptable substitutes for traditional fabric: solution-dyed acrylics and acrylic-coated polyester-cotton.

If historic forms are most appropriate for awnings on infill buildings in historic districts, what about awnings in entirely new districts?

Historic precedents incorporated in New Urbanism

Themes in many design guidelines for new construction derive from a “New Urbanism” exemplified by Seaside, a planned community in the Florida Panhandle and extended to North Miami Beach (Florida) New Urbanism Zoning District.

New Urbanism is also known as Traditional Neighborhood Development/Design (TND). A key concept is the traditional town center expressing regional vernacular forms and materials. Themes common to design guidelines include:

  • Traffic planning that separates automobiles from pedestrians, often subordinating automobiles.
  • Building design that reflects human scale in massing, fenestration and detail (such as awnings).

Countering past trends, current zoning may institute a maximum setback from the street. The intended result is closely spaced buildings and narrow streets, approximating a vision of traditional town street life. Zoning guidelines that include photographs and drawings of the town center concept depict pedestrian amenities in outdoor spaces including fabric structures providing shading and protection from weather. These structures include:

  • Traditional striped and solid color fabric awnings.
  • Canopies.
  • Umbrellas over tables.

It is clear that the notion of a quaint, dense collection of buildings crowding a street populated by throngs of pedestrians is not practical in all districts of an urban region. Zoning design guidelines create separate categories for zones dominated by pedestrians versus zones dominated by automobiles. Different zones have different requirements for awning design:

  • Town center: traditional awnings emphasized, though some modern forms may be acceptable.
  • Highway commercial: contemporary backlighted high-impact awnings may be permitted.
  • “Overlay” zones, such as historic districts: may have stringent requirements for historical accuracy of proposed new awnings.

Awnings as sustainable design components

Among urban planners and architects, sustainable urban development is linked to traditional community patterns.

Zoning design guidelines link awnings to this general notion of sustainability by depicting awnings as important components of traditional streetscape. The link between awnings and sustainable community is well established when considering streetscape and pedestrian amenities. The contribution of awnings to sustainable energy performance of a building envelope is also established; however, awnings may be viewed as traditional or low-tech components rather than leading edge or high-tech. It is important that both design professionals and regulators see the potential for fabric shading devices to contribute energy conservation in high performance buildings as well traditional.

Examples of New Urbanism themes in current design guidelines

“City Wide Design Guidelines,” 2005, Temecula, Calif. Photographs and drawings illustrate awnings creating human, pedestrian scale.

“Columbia Heights Design Guidelines,” Columbia Heights, Minn., 2003. Photographs and drawings illustrate awnings contributing to streetscape, building character, pedestrian and envelope shading.

“Design Guidelines for Downtown Jacksonville, NC,“ 1999. Diagrammatic drawings illustrate permissible awning/signage locations. Photograph recommends awnings as an improvement to building character.

James A. Strapko, NCARB, ICC, is an architect and teacher in Minneapolis, Minn., with licensure in 35 states.

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