The Anatomy of a Fabric Building

April 13, 2016 By Rachel Reese

Rachel Reese

Whether it is sustainability or economy driving the change, new industrial construction is starting to look different. Instead of the dark, dingy structures reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution, businesses across industries are turning to light, bright fabric buildings for various industrial needs. Storing grain, salt, and sand; housing equipment and workers; covering sports arenas and event spaces; and more, fabric buildings provide an outstanding number of uses, making them a sustainably innovative solution to practical industrial architectural demands.

Yet, the idea that fabric could possibly be strong and secure enough to provide such benefits is outlandish to some. How fabric could possibly be the answer to industrial construction woes is a question best answered by investigating the anatomy of a fabric structure.

The Fabric

Technically, the industry name for fabric structures is “tension membrane buildings,” as the material often called “fabric” isn’t the same as the textiles used to make clothing and furniture. Though the make of the fabric can vary from company to company, the best materials are polyethylene (PE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which are durable plastics commonly used elsewhere on construction sites. Both PE and PVC are notorious for their strength, even under intense sunlight and high winds, making them ideal coverings for structures.

Traditional building materials consume unreasonable amounts of energy in creation, but most fabric for tension membrane buildings are remarkably sustainable. PE and PVC are both recyclable, and usually construction companies take advantage of pre-used plastics, like those used in milk cartons or shampoo bottles, in the creation of their cloth, which saves that waste from clogging landfills.

Additionally, both types of fabric are up to 12 percent translucent, allowing the interiors of fabric buildings to make use of natural light, lowering energy bills. Meanwhile, fabrics have a higher rate of solar reflection than other building materials, meaning the material doesn’t magnify the sun’s heat like glass and concrete do. This provides additional energy savings throughout the seasons, decreasing the structure’s carbon footprint significantly.

The Steel

Of course, the miracle of fabric ends with its lack of rigidity ― fabric cannot stand on its own. As in most construction, rigid steel beams form the skeleton of tension membrane buildings, and the beams are joined and reinforced in similar manners to standard construction: cross-bracing and purlins. However, superior fabric structure providers are picky about the type and quality of steel and reinforcements they use. steel

Open web trusses are cheap options, but they are particularly susceptible to rust, which kills buildings. Solid beams are the least prone to corrosion, and any rust that appears can be thwarted before irreparable damage is done. Additionally, steel beams can be further protected from corrosion with galvanization, which binds a zinc coating to the steel to shield against oxidization.

Additionally, like the PE and PVC fabric, steel is a sustainable material. In fact, steel is the most recycled material around the world, as melting and reforming the metal does not lead to degradation or weakness in any way. Thus, recycled steel beams retain the strength and durability of new steel beams while keeping heavy metals out of landfills.

The Extras

Steel and fabric are ultimately adaptable, which means a fabric building can take any form. An airplane hangar has vastly different needs from an equestrian arena, but through customization of various extras, fabric buildings can suit both industries perfectly.

Because tension membrane structures are so lightweight, builders have options when it comes to their buildings’ foundations. Smaller buildings can take advantage of pre-cast concrete, which is inexpensive and portable for semi-permanent structures. A second option is helical anchoring, which screws into the ground to keep the steel and fabric tight without extensive excavation, which is also beneficial for relocation. The strongest and most permanent foundation is cast-in-place concrete, which is nearly indestructible.

Ventilation is another significant consideration, especially for industrial buildings. Fabric structures are especially adept at passive ventilation, which uses smart design and natural forces to refresh indoor air. However, active ventilation options are usually available as well, and the installation of fans and exhaust vents are simple when they are factored into the original designs.

In addition to these features, industries have total control over the design and layout of their fabric buildings. Length, width, height, and clearance are all decided by the building’s purpose. Roofs can be off-set to facilitate conveyors and catwalks; columns can extend to the ground or halt halfway; and lean-tos and overhangs can add space outside the main area for storage or safety. Due its ease of use, fabric offers many more options than traditional building materials, which makes it easy to see why fabric structures are revolutionizing industrial building.

2 comments on “The Anatomy of a Fabric Building

  1. PVC and maybe even the PE in this form are not recyclable. PVC is also considered hazardous in the building industry and is on the Living Building Challenge (LBC) red list. Steel is recyclable but it is heavy and rusts as the article points out. Aluminum extrusions would be the better option as they do not rust and are also 100% recyclable without degradation.

  2. It’s interesting that people are starting to look at fabric buildings more, but for certain industries it makes sense. Thankfully, sustainability can still be a pretty big factor with the steel support structures. Thanks for sharing!

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