Tensile fabric structures have been used for ages.  In the earliest days, these were the simplest forms of shelters such as tent, tipis, and yurts.  They became popular mobile shelters because only a few materials were needed, most easily obtained from nature.  The oldest known forms of tents are from Siberia, Alaska, Lapland, and Iceland.  Since the materials used are bio-degradable, documentation of any earlier use is unknown.

Tipis are another early form.  Native Americans are well-known for their use and upgrades of the simple tipi.  The tipi’s conical shape was ideal for its ventilation, its rain shedding ability, and its ability to withstand extreme winds.  Native Americans later made adjustments by adding liners and vent flaps.

Tensile Fabric Structures

Tensile fabric structures did not really take off until after WWII.  It became one of the most promising trends in modern architecture by Frei Otto in the 1950s.  In Germany, Frei Otto used tent technology to build cotton fabric canopies similar to circus tents. The theory was based on tension instead of compression loading.  Compression loading makes use of bricks or concrete blocks stacked on top of each other to form walls.

In contrast, the force of tension and the use of flexible materials could be used to build with less materials.  During his time as a prisoner of war in France for two years, Frei Otto spent his time making all sorts of structures with whatever materials he could find. The next five decades after his release, Otto explored the idea of making something out of barely anything. He continued his research using lightweight plexiglass and plastic strung between hardware frameworks. Experimenting in structural engineering, he used nature as his guide such as spider webs and trees.

Tension Membrane and Fabric Supported

Frei Otto became an important figure in tensile architecture development.  His studies into the self-forming processes of animal life, soap bubbles, crystals, and microscopic plants turned out to be the reason behind his success.  The Pritzker jury commented that in comparison to the heavy, columned buildings of the Third Reich, Otto’s work was low-cost, lightweight, and even temporary.

Tensile Fabric Structures

Impermanence has been the hallmark of Frei Otto’s fame.  For the most part, only pictures remain of his work.  But his influence can be found in Google’s new complex with tensile webbing to NFL stadiums.  MIT published two volumes of his research in the 1960s and examples of his works were published by the Whole Earth catalog.  Within the same timeline, Otto founded the Institute of Lightweight Structures.

Part of the University of Stuttgart in Germany, it was responsible for publication of several books and papers filled with his innovative ideas. The 86,000 square feet of the German pavilion in the Montreal Expo was his first large-scale project and the first introduction of free flowing and organic tensile architecture.

Frei Otto’s contribution to the tensile architecture was helped by the mathematical genius of Horst Berger. Instrumental in the development of Otto’s inspiration, he developed mathematical equations to put his ideas into physical form. Berger took the soap bubble form and discovered a relationship to enable them to use this in various architectural forms.  Horst Berger is internationally known for his part in the design, development, and engineering of tensile fabric structures.

Tensile fabric structures have two main systems:  tension membrane and fabric supported.  The reliance on cables and steel framing for base supports is called a tension membrane system.  In comparison, the utilization of mechanical engineering to support the fabric with positive internal air pressure is called a fabric supported system. No matter which base system is used, a lasting protection over great lengths by using very little material is provided by tension fabric roofs.

On every continent, tension fabric structures can be found in many different sizes and styles.  Transitioning over the years, many types have been developed and used such as temporary, permanent, air-supported, tensioned, large and small.  Membrane and fabric types can vary including PVC, PTFE fiberglass, and insulated membranes.

These structures have an overwhelming aesthetic appeal.  They are iconic in the way they combine uncommon geometric and physical characteristics.  Insulated membranes help to improve energy conservation in an enclosed structure. Roofs, skylights, accent enclosures, and free-standing buildings all can be done with tensile fabrics.

Tensile Fabric Structures – The History Behind Them

Fabrics structures also have an economic advantage over compression based structures.  Less structural materials are needed, even with bigger, more expansive structures.  A reduction in maintenance and construction costs in contrast to traditional methods have a big appeal to building owners. Structures utilizing tensile fabrics require very little maintenance or upkeep.  The use of a good preventive program can reduce maintenance costs significantly in comparison to traditional costs of upkeep for traditional structures.

There is no doubt tensile fabric structures make a big statement.  Cost effective, architecturally appealing, and environmentally safe, it is bound to reach even higher heights.

Continue reading the facts given over here about Tensile Fabric Structures.

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