16 July 2019

An architect’s perspective on fabric structures


Structures made from tensile fabrics differ greatly from those constructed using more traditional building materials.

The variety of exciting, three-dimensional, dynamic approaches that are available using tensile fabrics are made possible due to the material’s light weight and inbuilt versatility in form and structure.

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Tensile structures include not only traditional simple or complex membrane enclosures. Modern materials can also be employed in a wide variety of situations, such as to construct sails, banners, shade structures and even fabric sculptures, lending a unique facet to any venue.

Providing Strength and Structure

Traditionally, structure and strength have been provided by using guy ropes – the most obvious and widely used example being on traditional tents. These allow the structure to maintain its shape under extremely heavy loads, meaning the tensile fabric structures are far from flimsy. In fact, with careful design, they are able to withstand even the harshest of environmental conditions.

In modern structures, guy ropes are more often metal cables or wires. However, the principles remain precisely the same, allowing great loads to be evenly distributed across the fabric and into supporting structures and materials.

Modern tensile fabrics

One of the more commonly used modern materials is polyester fabric coated with PVC. This is essentially a more robust version of what many modern tents are made from. It is ideal for use in medium to long-term applications because of its high tensile strength, excellent durability – the material has an expected life in-use of 15-20 years – and qualities of translucency and flexibility that make it pleasing to the eye and easy to install and maintain.

For longer-term or more permanent structures, materials such as glass cloth coated with PTFE may be more suitable as they are chemically inert, have excellent self-cleaning abilities, and resist degradation from exposure to micro-organisms and moisture. Another alternative is the Gore-Tex based fabric Gore-Tenera. This has the advantage of being UV-resistant, making it especially useful in areas where it is likely to be exposed to prolonged periods of high-intensity direct sunlight.  Also it can be put around steel structures which make it long lasting and sturdy.

Many awe-inspiring examples

From walkway coverings and stadium roofs to entire buildings, there are many awe-inspiring examples of Tensile Fabric Structures throughout the world. One of the best known is the O2 Arena in London, often better known by its former name, the Millennium Dome. You can source one for your business to with similar sites to www.spatialstructures.com/building-systems-explained.