Framed! The Art of Selecting Awning Materials & Styles

In commercial and public applications, awnings and their materials are being used for protection (from the sun and the weather), as a complement to the architecture, or as signage (or even all three at once). But has there been a recent shift into a new way some clients are now using awnings?

Awning Matrix of Ontario, California is a full-service manufacturer of commercial, residential, and wholesale awnings (as well as outdoor canopies, custom tarp manufacturing, and industrial sewing). The company works with their accounts and as a third-party for sign shops in designing styles and graphics for awnings, fabricating frames and covers, and installing these structural pieces. They started up for business in 1995, and Co-Owner Mark Burg has a long history working with awning companies even prior to this so he’s seen plenty of trends arrive, leave, and stay the course. “The biggest trend is that merchants and institutions these days are using their awnings more as a marketing tool to reinforce their identity or their brand than as use as signage,” he says.

And it’s this branding shift that’s led to some new questions sign makers need to consider asking clients when determining the awning materials in a project. “When sign makers contact an awning material manufacturer about material selection, the most important thing they need to know is how the [awning] will be used in the application,” advises Bryan Rose, vice-president and general manager of backlit sign and awning material and fabrics manufacturer Cooley/Group. “Is the awning going to be used as a sign, or is it going to used primarily for shade or protection? Will the warranty requirements cover your client’s request? Are there going to add any graphics to it, and will this be achieved through eradication, vinyl appliqué, or direct printing? Does it need to be front-lit or back-lit?”

If they don’t already instructions from their client’s corporate headquarters, Awning Matrix always finds out first if the awning is strictly for looks or for function (shade, protection, etc.). This is where the company had noticed the use of awnings to reinforce an identity or theme. “Graphics on awnings are more subtle with the architecture these days. Chili’s® locations now have a ghosting effect on their awnings (almost like a watermark), and you’ll see the image of an apple on Applebee’s® awnings,” says Co-Owner Rosana Burg. “One reason is that some cities won’t allow loud stripes on an awning anymore.”

Awning Matrix has been using the popular Sunbrella® fabrics from Glen Raven in a lot of projects that require the awning to carry the identity or accent the building. But since this is material is water-repellant but not waterproof, they also gravitate toward Cooley/Group’s newer Weathertyte® materials for canopies and awnings intended more for weather protection. “They’ve put a texture on this PVC material to make it look like fabric,” says Rosana. “It’s readily inkjet-printable and receives pressure-sensitive vinyl well. You can also paint them.”

Framed CRosana Burg stresses that today’s wide format printers and UV inks that cure instantaneously have been big game-changers. “You can actually make up your own complete fabric with these technologies,” he says. “This used to only be accomplished with metals or vinyls.”

If you’re a sign shop that plans on making the awning for a commercial client yourself, Rose points out that fabrics like solution-dyed acrylics can be tough to decorate as signage as they require special equipment. “PVC-type awning materials are readily inkjet-printable and receive pressure-sensitive vinyl well,” he says. “You can also paint them.”

Awning Matrix notes that the open-end blade style of awning is proving very popular with their commercial accounts. “It’s a flat, very simple look,” says Rosana, “and it can be employed with lots of different materials.”

The company mentions that the Chase® Banks and McDonald’s® chains have gone to the blade style using metal awnings, while Chili’s and Applebee’s are using fabrics in the blade style. “The new T.G.I. Friday’s® are keeping fabrics and vinyl, but it’s also a flat, blade-type,” says Rosana. “It’s been interesting to see the use of round or dome, convex-type awnings decreasing.”

Another style Awning Matrix has noticed decreasing is the back-lit awning. “Most of the major brands are choosing a front-lit style, because it’s a more conservative, richer look,” explains Rosana.

One difference between back-lit and front-lit awning material is related to the need for a uniform color. “You have to address this if the awning is being lit from behind,” explains Rosana. “But you don’t have to worry about this with front-lit, as you’re not going to see any of the potential non-uniformities in the color.

“And if you’re going to be using LED lighting, a lighter weight material is typically better, because you’ll get a very vibrant color and less lights to actually achieve the same results.”

Rosana Burg points out that requests for front-lit awnings using LEDs are increasing with a lot of commercial clients because of Title 24 requirements and perceived energy savings. “Because of the blade style these companies are using, they’re having to move the lights,” she says, “so we’re not seeing as much a call for backlit translucent material. The front-lit has a nice, clean, linear look that a lot of businesses and companies are trying to incorporate with their theme.”

Framed BSince Awning Matrix does a lot of awning work for outdoor malls, and while backlit vinyls were big here five or six years ago, they’ve noticed this environment embracing more a fabric or canvas look nowadays. “It’s also a little bit of a warmer look,” says Rosana.

Cooley/Group’s Rose has found that the most popular colors being used for awnings these days, in addition to white, are actually darker hues like red, burgundy, forest green, and black. “These colors are more standard and conservative,” he says. “Awnings aren’t being used as much to promote a ‘look-at-me’ agenda anymore. It’s more about having a rich look that accentuates the architecture or message.

“These darker colors fit into most of the major brand colors. For example, take Starbucks® and their forest green hue.”

Rosana Burg agrees that the brighter, more vivid colors are passé these days. “The super-bright yellows and oranges aren’t prevalent now,” she says. “We recently did blade-type awnings for the Paul Martin chain restaurant, and these were a mix of black and brown, almost like a mahogany stripe.”

However this doesn’t mean awning clients have completely abandoned the super-bright. It’s all about what extends the message or brand identity best. “We did some awnings for Dylan’s Candy Bar [boutique shops] that used vivid colors,” says Rosana, “but that reflects who they are. They’re a candy shop with a colorful theme, so we carried that through on their awnings.”

Framed EIt’s not only important for sign shops to recognize trends in awning styles and materials but also getting a head-start on identifying markets that might be open to them. You already know that restaurants and retail have long embraced awnings, but Awning Matrix points out somewhat surprisingly that banks have started using them more and more, mentioning their recent work for Chase Bank.

“Banks have always been real conservative in nature. If they were using awnings, it was mainly to place over ATMs so people could conduct their business without the sun glaring onto their screens,” says Rosana. “But Chase wanted to use awnings to carry a very strong message and reinforce their identity. Their blue awnings with metal letters and LED lighting is a nice image.

“I think more banks are going to be looking at that and wondering why they can’t do the same. As more banks recuperate from the recession, you might start seeing more them incorporate this trend more.”

Another big thing in today’s awning industry are environmentally friendly green initiatives—particularly when it comes to issues related to fabrics and materials. “With the LEED qualifications now in place on new construction projects, you really do have to have a program in place,” says Rosana Burg.

Cooley/Group’s Bryan Rose mentions that although many manufacturers have excellent take back/recycling programs where shops can send back materials regardless of how it was decorated, so you need to resist the temptation to take down and re-use materials in another awning project. “The challenge with reusing an awning material is that its life expectancy might not add value to a project,” he explains. “If the material has an eight-year life expectancy and has already been used for eight years in another location, it’s not going to last much longer.

“And it’s just not going to look as good, which could hurt the client and your reputation. It’s best to use new material.”

Rose continues by forecasting that sustainability will prove a big trend for awnings in the future. “We’re heading toward using alternative-type materials and building sustainability into the materials,” he states. “Materials are also going to be lighter weight and more recyclable.”

Framed GIn fact, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics has already made waves by premiering Sunbrella® Renaissance Unity (pictured, left), the industry’s first awning and shade fabrics featuring 50 percent post-industrial recycled fiber from trade partners, internal and external sources, and the company’s Recycle My Sunbrella program to create a canvas looks with fade-resistance and sun-protection qualities.

“The exciting thing about the new Unity awning and shade fabrics is that they not only have a wonderful environmental story, but they also bring a new look and feel to Sunbrella awning fabrics,” says Vince Hankins, industrial business manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. “Because of the recycled content, Unity fabrics have a vintage look that is subtly textural and feels very substantial.” (Note: The initial launch of Unity fabrics includes five solid colors designed to coordinate with a variety of exterior building trim and fascia materials: Garnet, Leaf, Char, Granite, and Ashe.)

Hankins adds that the Unity fabrics are GREENGUARD Children and Schools Certified, an international standard contributing to indoor air quality. “This makes [Unity] attractive for use inside sun-lit atriums and solariums popular today for resorts, offices and retail settings.”

Looking ahead, Rosana Burg points out that one trend she expects that hasn’t caught on yet but is talked about is being able to eventually embed a solar-type panel into the fabric. “Then the awnings could be able to collect the sun for illumination,” she says.

Even with the new equipment and materials advancements being made these days, Rose mentions that, if printing directly to the awning fabric or material, it’s always important to test the material’s compatibility with whatever inks are being used. “All you have to do is print four-color blocks on a small piece of the substrate,” he explains. “Then let it dry and then do a quick cross-hatch ink adhesion text and a flexibility test to make sure it doesn’t crack.”

—Jeff Wooten (with additional reporting by Amanda Williams)



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