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Popular Designs – Fabric Structures in the Mainstream

Tensile structure specialist and architect Nicholas Goldsmith FAIA, in his new book Mass to Membrane, argues persuasively for the importance of lighter, stronger, more flexible buildings. “Today we are at the cusp of developing even lighter building technologies, including structural membranes composed of woven fabrics, mesh materials and foils… these materials have lifespans that compete with glass products and will only become more prevalent over the next generation.” I have often made the sustainable argument for architectural fabrics as an equal material choice among traditional materials such as wood, steel and glass. Nonetheless, it’s worth repeating here, as energy conservation and improved sustainability in building design and construction remain paramount issues today – more so as we document record polar ice melting and extreme weather events.

Firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis

The Roman architect Vitruvius outlined his simple criteria for architecture: firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis – that is, stability, utility, beauty. Today’s architectural fabrics are highly durable as well as useful. They are structurally strong with high-strength fibres such as polyester, glass fibre, Nomex or Kevlar. These architectural fabrics have high strength-to-weight ratios, meaning they can span great distances and maintain very low actual weights, which in turn reduce the mass and costs of any structural system. With new molecular engineered coatings, these fabrics also perform additional functions, such as the breakdown of pollution (TiO2), UV-resistance (PVC, PVDF), fade resistant colours (solution-dyed fibres) and longevity. The infinite form-making possibilities of these fabrics also means they lend themselves intuitively to beautiful architecture. Architectural fabric can dramatically reshape the appearance of a building, through colour, 3D digitallyfabricated forms and integrated LED lighting or laminated thin-film photovoltaics.

Reducing heat gain

Finally, one of the most important qualities of architectural fabrics is their ability to shade buildings, whether in the form of awnings and canopies, large-scale shade structures, or building wraps that envelop entire façades. Scientific studies have proven that stopping solar rays from entering a building is the most

effective and cost-effective means of reducing building energy heat gain, thus reducing HVAC energy loads. “Looking back over the last 4000 years of architecture,” says Goldsmith, “one can see a clear evolution from the mass of the pyramids to the membranes of tomorrow. If the transition of mass to membrane represents our human architectural journey,” what will be “the next phase of structural and material development? Can this linear progression become one of the keys of a more sustainable tomorrow? This is an excerpt of an article by Bruce N Wright AIA, first published in Fabric Architecture. This is an excerpt of an article by Bruce N Wright AIA, first published in Fabric Architecture. Bruce is a former editor of Fabric Architecture, senior instructor of architecture and construction management at Dunwoody College of Technology, and a frequent contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review and online journal Advanced Textiles Source.