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Trinity College shade sail designed, manufactured and installed by Versatile Structures

What’s the difference between shade sails and shade structures?

 Jamie Howard      In ,

If you’re not familiar with the world of outdoor shade constructions, you may think that a shade sail and shade structure are one and the same.

Don’t worry; it’s a common misconception. The terminology in our industry can be confusing, and these aren’t the only two names out there.

While shade sails and shade structures are similar in what they do, there are some distinct differences that are important to know if you’re planning on investing in one for your home, workplace or construction project.

Shade sails

What is a shade sail?

A shade sail is an outdoor structure designed to offer shade from the sun – and the rain. Their design is based on the same principles as a ship’s sail.

A shade sail is made up of two parts: a flexible fabric or PVC membrane, which is free-spanned and tensioned between several anchor points. This tension is designed to make it more efficient at shedding water and help it stand up to strong winds.  

The anchor points can take the form of vertical columns, posts or building brackets. After the posts are inserted into the ground, the shade sail fabric or membrane is attached to each post using special connections built into its corners.

What is a shade sail best used for?

Shade sails are recommended for use in playgrounds, council parks, child care centres, commercial applications, domestic applications and sporting clubs.

Benefits of shade sails

  • Come in a wide range of colours, sizes and materials
  • Protect from both sun and rain
  • Affordable option for many homes and businesses
  • Low maintenance and require little cleaning
  • A good quality shade sail will have a 10-15 lifespan

Shade structures

What is a shade structure?

A shade structure is also an outdoor structure designed to offer protection from the sun and rain. However, it’s built differently from a shade sail.

Unlike a shade sail, which comprises posts and a free-spanned fabric, a shade structure is an architecturally designed frame with structural steel members and a shade fabric attached.

Because it’s architecturally designed, it gives the fabric a more specific shape, such as the central post curved rafter car park shade structure below. The materials used and design process make shade structures costlier than shade sails. 

Pelican Waters shade structure designed, manufactured and installed by Versatile Structures

What is a shade structure used for?

Shade structures are best recommended for commercial construction projects, corporate office parking, shopping centre car parks, sporting club grandstands and industrial spaces.

Benefits of shade structures

  • Custom designed to your exact specifications
  • Engineered to site-specific conditions
  • Steel coated for durability
  • Wind ratings up to cyclone level
  • A good quality shade structure will have a 10-30 year lifespan

What about sun sail, sun shade sails and sunshades?

As well as shade sails and shade structures, you may also have heard other terms being used, including sun sails, sun shade sails and sunshades.

So what are they?

  • Sun sails and sun shade sails

Sun sails and sun shade sails are exactly the same as a shade sail. They’re material free-spanned and tensioned between posts or brackets. They can be waterproof or made from a standard fabric.

  • Sunshades

Sunshades are often used generically to apply to any device used as protection from the sun rays. They’re also an architectural feature used to reduce heat in a building by deflecting the sun.

Types of sunshades include:

All types fall under the shade system umbrella

Whatever their exact design are features, shade sails, shade structures and every other type of sunshade are installed to provide shade and offer protection from harmful UV rays.

Waterproof shade sails and sunshades, and shade structures, also have the added benefit of rain protection, and many stand up to strong winds. Some also include additional features such as lighting and sound.

Ultimately, they all fall under the same type of product, or product umbrella (!) often referred to as shade systems.

Which shade system should you choose?

So, now you know the difference, which should you choose? Ultimately, it comes down to what you intend to use it for, where it will be used, and your budget.

Whichever option you go for, make sure you select a reputable shade system supplier to ensure you get the most from your investment and a product that performs as it should. Also, check what council permissions you may need.

[CTA] If you’re looking for a quality residential or commercial shade sail, shade structure or sunshade supplier, get in touch with our team today. We can help you select the best shade system option for your project.


  • Versatile Structures Headshots

    Jamie Howard - Director

    Co-founder and Director Jamie has been hands-on in the shade and steel industry since leaving school. With over 15 years’ experience in shade, membrane and steel projects, Jamie is excited about the design opportunities shade structures offer in the commercial and industrial sectors. Jamie’s extensive design skills give him a competitive edge in situations with technical design complexity. He has won two personal industry awards for his designs, alongside many company-won awards.