Film-clad structures can help retailers to display stock that would otherwise be open to the elements, Sally Drury explains.

Canopies and covered walkways: popular options for garden centres and retail nurseries to offer a safe shopping environment - image: NP Structures
Canopies and covered walkways: popular options for garden centres and retail nurseries to offer a safe shopping environment - image: NP Structures

Visit any garden centre or retail nursery on a nice sunny day and there will be customers outside happily browsing the benches and beds of roses, shrubs and fruit trees. Attention may be turned to the displays of planters and outdoor ornaments. Then a shower comes along and there is a mad dash for the shelter of the interior sales areas or, worst of all, perhaps for the car. The weather can be changeable, presenting a challenge to retailers with stock open to the elements.

Now picture this. A small retail nursery on a Sunday afternoon. People are wandering in and out of a range of polytunnels, perhaps even an old Venlo glasshouse. Purchases are being made. But what if there were to be an accident? What if the cladding on the tunnel caught fire? Most insurance companies would wriggle out of paying against claims and the Health & Safety Executive would be bound to take an interest. But there are solutions.

Canopies and covered walkways

Popular at garden centres across the country - and increasingly found on retail nurseries - canopies and covered walkways offer a safe environment in which customers can shop. They can also represent a means to increase profit when the weather turns, ensuring sales are less weather-dependent, and they can improve stock presentation. Additionally, a well-designed structure can enhance the appearance of outdoor sales areas.

Polybuild has been in the business of designing and manufacturing polytunnels, canopies and walkways for more than 36 years. Director Graham van der Hage offers good reasons why retailers should invest in canopies. "They protect customers, giving them time to browse in comfort outside in the dry, even on wet days, and so create more selling days per year," he says.

"Canopies can also extend the selling time at the beginning and end of the year. With regard to stock, canopies protect plants from the elements and keep them looking at their best. For dry goods stored under the canopy, stock life can be extended - the packing protected from fading in sunlight and kept looking new for longer."

Professionally designed and well positioned, canopies can also be aesthetically pleasing, providing a light and airy atmosphere as an addition to the more traditional indoor space. Covered walkways have advantages too. They can encourage customers to venture outside, guide movement in a sensible way to various areas of the site and even lead them to special promotions or to the furthest parts of the garden centre or nursery.

While canopies and walkways can provide practical solutions to many problems, increase revenue and offer visual features on site - and all for a fraction of the cost of a conventional building - erecting such a structure is not as simple as deciding to just erect a polytunnel.

Canopies and walkways must comply with certain factors. Van der Hage explains: "The biggest difference between these structures and a traditional polytunnel is that the cladding material has to be flame-retardant - so if there was a naked flame touching it, it would make a hole in it but the flame would not spread."

Updated cladding materials

In the early days, structures were frequently clad in the green and white striped Nicotarp material. "Like a 1970s fairground," NP Structures manager Nigel Carr recalls. "No longer available, people are now using PVC fabrics of different weights and gauges."

Depending on whether you are growing or retailing, the fabric may have implications. "PVC cladding material can present difficulties when you are growing. The material with the best transmission stops about 25 per cent of light going through whereas a polythene will stop just nine or 10 per cent," Van der Hage points out.

Carr agrees but says that can be less of a concern where the site is purely retail in function. "There won't be as much light coming through, but then in a garden centre it will be hoped that the plants are not going to be sat underneath the cover for very long. The plants will have already matured and be at their best. The retailer is just trying to hold them until they are moved on. In any case, the nature of a canopy is that a lot of the light comes in through the sides and ends."

Diversity in choice of claddings

Various claddings are available. The translucent PVC used by NP Structures gives light transmission of around 60 per cent. Fordingbridge supplies Opal 60 and Opal 20 flame-retardant PVCs. They provide 60 per cent and 20 per cent light transmission respectively - the first being the better option for plant sales areas and the second suitable for providing more shady conditions for hardware sales. Opal fabric also cuts out harmful ultraviolet rays.

"Opal 60 also creates an environment with ideal conditions for plants, allowing growth but preventing 'stretching'. The fabric can be screen printed so things like entrances and cafes can be signed on the structure itself," says Fordingbridge marketing manager Charles Howes. Currently popular from Fordingbridge is glulaminated timber and Opal fabric, suiting the natural environment of garden centres while being durable and aesthetically pleasing.

There are cost implications to flame-retardant cladding. Whereas a normal production-type polythene may cost between £1 and £1.50 per square metre, PVC cladding is likely to be six times as much - even as much as £14 or £15 per square metre, depending on the amount required and the work involved.

"Polythene is blown as a giant tube, cut up the middle, opened out then folded and rolled onto reels. The sheets can be as wide as 14m. PVC cladding, on the other hand, is bought as 2m-wide rolls and the strips welded. A canopy measuring 20x30m means there will be a lot of strips to heat-weld together - it's more labour. Also, it is a much heavier fabric and can be difficult to handle."

The weight of the fabric means that normal polytunnel hoops are not suitable for use in the construction. Instead, trellis or curved box-section beams are likely to form the framework. Depending on the width of the structure, more steel may be required and the legs may need to be stronger.

Then there are the regulations, building controls and planning. Any structure entered by the public must conform to building regulations and when a garden centre applies for planning permission, building control will get involved. They will want to see calculations and to ensure that the right grade of steel is used for the purpose of the structure.

Compliance with latest legislation

Anyone planning a new retail building project needs to be aware of new legislation that came into force last year. "From 1 July 2014, the CE marking of steel works became a legal requirement for garden centre building manufacturers and any building projects commissioned after that date could be compromised should the garden centre employ a retail framework manufacturer that is not CE-credited," Carr explains.

"In the event of a non-accredited manufacturer being used, local trading standards will be able to suspend building work and potentially recall products used in the building. Trading standards also have the power to insist that a building is taken down if it is found to be unsafe."

There is uncertainty as to whether a non-CE marked building is insured if constructed after the date the legislation came into force - a very real issue if a building collapses due to snow loading, for example. Leading insurers have not yet committed to a position on this and garden centres are advised to check with their individual insurers.

"We believe that trading standards will be following up those manufacturers who carry out work illegally," says Carr. "The majority of manufacturers in the UK have currently achieved or are working towards achieving CE accreditation. With this level of coverage, it means that we do expect manufacturers with CE marking to report those that do not. After all, those operating without CE marking are breaking the law and could potentially damage the reputation of the whole industry."

As a requirement of CE marking, the manufacturer must have a quality management system, such as ISO9001:2008, in place.

As a final tip, companies offering design with 3D modelling can help increase the understanding of how the building, canopy or walkway will look once constructed as well as how they will link to existing structures.

Polytunnels, canopies and walkways for retail purposes:
Clovis Lande Associates 01622 873900
Fordingbridge 01243 554455
National Structures 01772 799222
NP Structures 01282 873120
Polybuild 01903 892333
Polytek Services 01622 721389
Polytunnels for production purposes:
Clovis Lande Associates 01622 873900
Crop Solutions 01738 450437
First Tunnels 01282 601253
Fordingbridge 01243 554455
Haygrove Tunnels 01531 633659
Keder Greenhouses 01386 49094
National Polytunnels 01772 799200
NP Structures 01282 873120
Polybuild 01903 892333
Polytek Services 01622 721389
Premier Tunnels 01282 811250
XL Horticulture 01404 823044

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