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These giant parasols are helping cities move indoor activities outside

The coronavirus is inspiring people to reimagine urban living. This scaffolding is no exception.

These giant parasols are helping cities move indoor activities outside
[Photo: courtesy Urban Umbrella]
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In a time when ad-hoc plexiglass screens and pop-up barriers have become the norm, a banal but ubiquitous piece of construction infrastructure may be the latest add-on to help buildings reopen.

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Outside the front entrance to the Brooklyn Lab Charter School, construction scaffolding is being used to create a more orderly area for student drop-offs, temperature screenings, and controlled entry and exit from the building. With an indoor lobby too small to safely accommodate social distancing, the best option was to move outdoors.

But it’s not the typical dense grid of dusty metal poles. The scaffolding being used is Urban Umbrella, a redesigned and streamlined version of the traditional scaffolding system. Composed of tall white poles topped with arching struts and a translucent roof, but free of the cage-like cross-bracing of the typical system, Urban Umbrella is a pillared canopy that looks more like a pergola than a piece of construction infrastructure.

[Photo: courtesy Urban Umbrella]
Urban Umbrella was developed through a 2009 design competition launched by the city of New York, where strict building inspection laws have required an extraordinary use of scaffolding and the so-called scaffolding bridges that create protective sheds over sidewalks and pedestrian spaces. A sleek and elegant take on the more common dark boxes that cover many sections of the city’s sidewalks, Urban Umbrella, designed by Agencie Group, won the competition. It has since been used by retailers like Ralph Lauren and hotels like the Plaza to make their entryways more open and visible during construction and inspections. The system has also been approved for use in Toronto and Vancouver.

When the pandemic hit, Urban Umbrella’s creators realized that, even if there’s no construction happening, the structure could still serve its purpose of creating safe, covered space on the sidewalk or outside a building. Add a few signs to direct people and maybe a place for a temperature screening, and the scaffolded outdoor space of a school, store, or office could become its own kind of coronavirus adaptation.

“Schools started reimagining how they’re going to welcome kids back, where the kids are going to enter and exit, how the drop-off logistics will occur with parents, is there going to be a screening place for these children,” says Urban Umbrella founder Benjamin Krall. “With this concept, we’re trying to give the school a tool to allow for safer entryway.”

[Photo: courtesy Urban Umbrella]
The Brooklyn school is the first non-construction related use of the system, Krall says, but because it’s been approved for use by various city departments, it’s relatively easy to stand one up. And, he argues, it’s much safer than the temporary tents and sheds that have popped up across the city as restaurants and businesses move into the street, particularly during the high winds of tropical storm Isaias earlier this week. “It’s structurally certified, it’s gone through the engineering, it’s gone through the wind testing,” Krall says, adding that the Urban Umbrella system is engineered to support 300 pounds per square foot. “It’s definitely more than the school needs, but I think that gives people a nicer feeling of calm,” he says.

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The setup at the Brooklyn school is only a few days old, but Krall says the company is already fielding requests from other schools for similar canopy spaces, as well as from some retailers hoping to move some of their business operations out onto sidewalks. Selected for implementation in the project by architects SITU and WXY, Urban Umbrella declined to say how much its system cost Brooklyn LAB Charter School, but said its product typically costs “three to four times more than traditional scaffolding in New York City.” Made from a standard kit of parts, the canopies can be constructed in long corridors or a porch-style grid. Krall expects more will be installed as the pandemic drags on, and says they can even be outfitted with outdoor heaters for use in the winter.

“During COVID, the urban space in New York City has changed and the sidewalk has become the place where commerce is conducted, where meetings are being held, and where people are eating,” Krall says. “I think we’ll start seeing public space being used differently over the next couple of years, and that includes shutting down streets for restaurants and allowing temporary structures for retail and restaurant use and for schools.”

These kinds of non-construction uses were already on Krall’s mind before the pandemic. He says for about half a year before the outbreak Urban Umbrella had been pitching the system for uses like playground canopies and waterproof bike lanes and bus stops. “It really was in the early stages. We hadn’t had any takers yet,” he says. “But now new use cases are coming out of this.”