Form-Finding for Tensile Membrane Structures using Finite Element Analysis (FEA)

Form-Finding for Tensile Membrane Structures using Finite Element Analysis (FEA)

Form-finding is a crucial step in designing tensile membrane structures. It involves determining the equilibrium shape of the membrane under its own weight and the tension applied through cables and support structures. Finite element analysis (FEA) is a powerful tool used to perform form-finding simulations and achieve an optimal design.

Here’s a breakdown of the process:

1. Defining the Initial Geometry:

  • This is the starting point for the FEA simulation. There are two main approaches:
    • Simplified Geometric Model: Create a basic geometric representation of the desired final form (plane, cone, cylinder, etc.).
    • Reference Points: Define a series of 3D reference points representing the locations of key attachment points for the membrane.

2. Specifying Boundary Conditions:

  • Define how the membrane interacts with its surroundings. This includes:
    • Fixed Supports: Locations where the membrane is anchored to a structure.
    • Cable Connections: Points where cables connect to the membrane, specifying their initial lengths or tension.

3. Material Properties:

  • Define the properties of the fabric material used in the membrane, including:
    • Tensile Strength: Maximum stress the fabric can withstand before tearing.
    • Stiffness: Resistance of the fabric to deformation under load.
    • Weight: The weight per unit area of the fabric.

4. FEA Software and Analysis:

  • Specialized FEA software for tensile membrane structures is used. These programs can handle the non-linear behavior of the fabric and the large deformations it undergoes during form-finding.
  • The software iteratively simulates the tensioning process. It calculates the forces acting on the membrane, its deformation, and adjusts the shape until an equilibrium state is reached where all forces are balanced.

5. Refining the Form:

  • The initial form-finding analysis might not result in the exact desired shape due to various factors. Refinement might be needed through:
    • Adjusting the initial geometry or reference points.
    • Modifying the tensioning forces applied to specific cables.

Benefits of FEA Form-Finding:

  • Accuracy: Provides a more accurate prediction of the final equilibrium shape compared to manual methods.
  • Optimization: Allows exploration of different design options and cable layouts to achieve the optimal form.
  • Efficiency: Reduces design time and cost compared to physical prototyping.
  • Safety Analysis: Helps identify potential stress concentrations or areas of high deformation that could lead to structural failure.

Important Considerations:

  • Software Capabilities: Different FEA software offers varying functionalities for tensile membrane structures. Choose software with appropriate features for your specific project.
  • User Expertise: Using FEA software effectively requires knowledge of structural mechanics, material properties, and interpretation of the analysis results.
  • Validation: While FEA is a powerful tool, it’s essential to validate the results through physical testing or wind tunnel studies, especially for complex structures.


FEA form-finding is a valuable technique for designing efficient and safe tensile membrane structures. It allows for accurate prediction of the final form, optimization of the design, and identification of potential issues before construction begins. However, choosing the right software, having the necessary expertise, and validating the results are crucial for successful implementation.