Today’s architect has a difficult decision to make when it comes to choosing materials. There is steel, glass, concrete and wood. What about the fabric! Architectural fabric structures are quickly becoming a very common and visible part of the built environment. No longer used for garden parties or traveling circuses, these structures come in many new forms and uses.

Fabric structures for as little as one person, such as a boutique hotel in the Australian outback, are being designed to cover more than 50,000 at the Super Bowl in Houston, Texas. Fabric structures are now being designed to cover animals as well, as at Seaworld, Orlando, where these structures cover dolphins to prevent them from getting sunburned (do they get sunburned too?). And let’s not forget man’s new best friend, the automobile. Increasingly, the automobile takes center stage where valet attendants, airport parking owners, and car dealerships are discovering the advantages of covering automobiles.

Fabric structures are used as ceilings, sails, walls, lights, shades, and even signs. With all these different uses and shapes, there are a variety of materials to choose from depending on one’s needs, budget, and design.

The best way to determine which material to use is to see what has already been used for the type of building you are considering.

If you are interested in structures such as tents or umbrellas where the primary purpose is to provide temporary nomadic shelter, you are probably looking at coated polyester or vinyl laminate.

If you’re looking into awnings and canopies, the options are endless. You’ll most likely hear words like acrylic canvas and backlit fabrics and materials that you can apply graphics to.

If shade is your primary concern, the buzzword is structural mesh, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), perforations, and light transmission percentage.

For storage, industrial applications, and temporary buildings, a common term may be clear or pre-engineered fabric buildings with materials that are resistant to mold and mildew, such as polyolefin.

The interior and lighting industry has its own variety of fabrics where flame resistance, UL ratings, and percentage reflectance are the most important aspects.

Air and tension fabric structures are highly dependent on the structural characteristics of the fabric, so tensile strength, sound absorption, and solar transmission play important roles in their selection.

So what material do you use?

Is your project near the water? Is it meant to last 20 years? Do you want to see it from afar or do you want it to be dark inside at noon? These are all important questions that one must answer before even starting. Fabric structures have very few components. In most cases, it’s just steel, fabric, cables, and hardware. The choice of each component will undoubtedly affect the others. Other issues include: span, size, availability, cost, codes, etc.

In most states, permanent, totally enclosed structures require a “non-combustible” or Class A/B rating under building codes. The most recognized and accepted material used for architectural applications is Teflon or PTFE coated fiberglass.

Recognized manufacturers include Saint Gobain, Verseidag, FiberTech and Taconic. Teflon arrives at the site as brown as a pair of khaki pants, but will bleach to a milky white over time (usually 4-8 weeks). The biggest problem with Teflon is that it is stiff and brittle and must be handled very carefully to avoid breaking the fibers. The best part is its lifespan (25+ years) and its “self-cleaning” attributes.

Other “non-combustible” materials include silicone-coated fiberglass, Gore Brand Tenara architectural fabrics, and ethylene tetra ethylene, or ETFE.

Silicon has been on the market for quite some time. Unlike Teflon-coated fiberglass, which can be heat welded, silicon must be glued with a special adhesive. Silicon’s advantage over Teflon is its translucency, cost, and availability of colors. Gore Brand Tenara is also in the “non-combustible” category. Its advantages include its high translucency, long lifetime, and it is more flexible than silicon or Teflon, so it can be used for shrinkable frameworks.

ETFE is not really a fabric, but rather a film that is currently being promoted as an alternative to structural glass. It is “green” and is the new hot material for architects around the world today. It is being used at FIFA stadiums in Germany, the Olympic Games in China, being specified for commercial and retail buildings and the option to create artificial rainforests for zoos and science centers.

Most fabric structures being considered today are for uses that do not require complete enclosure. That means they are most likely “outdoor” or do not require a Class A rating. Class C is the most common rating and NFPA 701 is the certification most accepted by most fire marshals. Vinyl Coated Polyester (PVC) is the most common material used on the market today.

What’s not to like. The material comes in a variety of colors, strengths, weights, thicknesses, perforations, translucency, and textures. The material is flexible and stretches quite well. You can find material with guarantees of 10, 12 and up to 15 years. You can find material from 50 to 100″ wide so you can have few, fewer, or the fewest seams.

Manufacturers include Ferrari, Mehler, Naizil, Seaman and Verseidag to name a few. These are the names you see most in the Specifications, which means that these companies directly market and assist the Architect in the early stages of design.

PVC comes in a variety of premium finishes: acrylic, PVDF, and PVF film. There is much debate about top finishes, but all manufacturers agree that they are necessary to protect the base fabric from degradation by UV rays, water, and wind. Frankly, it’s all about the liners. PVF is a film that is applied to the main fabric, while acrylic and PVDF are coatings. Both PVF and PVDF claim to be “self-cleaning” or provide the base material with a much cleaner, maintenance free surface, but both require additional work in the shop that may be unknown to the Architect. Both top of the line PVF and PVDF require the top layer or film where two panels meet to be ground in order for them to be RF welded. This requires a lot of time and a lot of care to keep the seams free of dirt, pattern, and mildew. There are “weldable” PVDF, but their warranties are not as long as high-tech topcoats. PVC structures love graphics and provide a great backdrop for projected images.

Today, more and more fabric structures are designed for shade only. Structural meshes and perforated fabrics are specified by the need for shade, the need to allow the elements to pass through the material, and the need for a “see through and be seen” space. The most widely used material is high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Manufacturers include Multiknit, Coolaroo and Shadetex. This material is a higher grade mesh than you would see at a home improvement store or outdoor furniture store. HDPE is used for playgrounds, areas that require protection from hail, schools, day care centers, as well as theme parks and public gathering spaces. The mesh is heated so you can stay cool. The mesh comes in colors, with a fire resistance classification and with different perforations. It has a useful life of 8-10 years and in most cases reduces the size and loads on the structural system and foundation because it requires less wind.

If you want to keep it simple, then work with materials that don’t rely on their structural features for stability. These materials are usually encased in a frame. Materials are typically vinyl-laminated polyester, acrylic-coated canvas, and lightly topcoated materials. Sunbrella is a common brand. The material has less technical information available to apply it to fully designed lightweight structures, but when used as a cladding on a frame, it offers many opportunities for the architect. You can apply graphics to the material, add texture to the surface, or do something truly unique.

If you want to find materials for interior applications, look no further than the theatrical drapery and industrial fabrics industry. There are lightweight PTFE materials used for the roofs of domed stadiums, PVC fabrics are used for the stretched-fabric sculptures inside, while theatrical drapery materials from companies like Rosebrand and Dazian are used for a smoother appearance. Spandex/Lycra is another common material used to transform temporary and permanent spaces, but it requires the material to be fire treated prior to fabrication.

Lastly, it doesn’t hurt to dream about the future of architectural fabrics. The wish list would include “smart” fabrics, fabrics that change color depending on the weather, light, or mood. Fabrics made with optical and photovoltaic fibers, materials with a longer useful life, greater tensile strength, improved self-cleaning, greater translucency and respectful with the environment.

The future of Architectural Fabric Structures depends on the continued effort by manufacturers to improve their existing products and introduce new materials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *