Fabric structures – an alternative world

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Rubb UK’s structural engineer Dale Robinson highlights the features and benefits of fabric structures, their versatility and the benefits they can bring to clients looking for unique building solutions…

Tensioned fabric structures are becoming a well-developed technology. Architects have had the ability to experiment and create innovative fabric solutions. They are aesthetically pleasing, sensitive to the environment, and can be very cost efficient. 

Tension structures are becoming more commonly used in modern architecture due to the pleasing aesthetic properties they hold. It is believed they are efficient structures due to their weight/ strength ratio. There are three main elements of a membrane structure; the fabric which has to be constantly in tension in order to generate stiffness in the structure, flexible elements such as ties or cables, and the rigid support member’s that are subject to compression and bending forces.

In architecture fabric structures tend to be associated with large scale projects such as the London Millenium Dome, the Water Cube in Bejing, the Kiev Stadium and Jeddah Haj terminal to name a  few. However, there is another side to fabric structures that the architecture world may be less aware of. Structures that bridge the gap between the iconic structures mentioned above and the typical cycle shelter or entrance canopy. The ordinary structures used on a daily basis in the industrial, sports and aeronautical industries. There have been numerous successful, non-iconic projects where fabric structures have been adopted as an alternative to more traditional materials for buildings such as warehouses, hangars or sports halls.

These types of structures which are most commonly akin to portal frame structures use the fabric membrane as a cladding rather than the structure itself. Therefore the natural stiffness that is generated by the curvature of the fabric is not required to stabilise the structure. This offers great advantages over traditional builds. The main advantage is having the potential for a faster installation which results in a more cost effective solution. Another advantage is the ability to specify a translucent roof which can allow natural daylight into building saving energy costs. Given the flexibility of the fabric almost any shape can be accommodated and these structures are easily deconstructed which is predominantly why they excel in the temporary and relocatable markets. More recently there has been a large requirement for this type of structure to be designed and installed as a permanent solution. This tends to be in the sports industry mainly for schools, sports clubs and training facilities for professional sports teams. For a permanent solution additions can be made to the structure to include insulation, heating and ventilation to meet the necessary environmental regulations and more importantly to comply with Part L of the Building Regulations. Other ancillaries can be incorporated such as gutters, windows and doors along with any other additional requirements to provide sufficient amenities to the end user.

A fabric clad building solution is one of the most versatile and innovative solutions to modern day building problems. Although these structures tend to take the geometric stance of an industrial shape structure the shaping possibilities are limitless. The specific market and cost restrictions generally dictate this type of structure albeit we have seen exceptions in sports training facilities where alternative shapes tend to be introduced.

If a project operating on a tight timescale and requires a reliable, robust and cost effective solution, fabric covered buildings should be considered. They are designed suitably, as any other building, for the relevant environmental loading and to comply with Building Regulations. There are a variety of fabric colours available, that come with the necessary information on fire resistance and thermal properties to aid the designer. These structures can be partly clad in fabric along with alternative materials to form a unique hybrid solution which enables the architect to easily incorporate their own ethos into the final solution. Not forgetting this type of structure is sensitive to the environment and most fabric is recyclable which in turn makes this option sustainably viable.

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