Experts discuss the best ways to encourage designers to use fabric in their projects.
Confession: I am a licensed architect (please don’t hold that against me!) and I like fabric. I am also a teacher of young architects and designers and take every opportunity to introduce students to the wonders of fabric in architecture and other areas of design. From my more than 15 years of teaching experience, students love learning about new things and fabric is the newest of the new. Ironically, fabric is the world’s oldest building material, yet students appreciate it. They truly do. And they remember, when it comes time in their professional advancement to recall knowledge from their education, that fabric is another, equal player in their wide-ranging palette of building materials to choose from. So why don’t more architects use fabric?
My experience may not be typical, so to help us unpack this conundrum I’ve asked a number of industry experts what they see as the best way to reach and convince new prospects to use fabric in architecture. In my somewhat unscientific survey, I asked one architect, two fabric manufacturers and three fabricators to share their insights on how best to educate converts to the cause.
How do architects learn about fabric?
“In my experience, the promotion of design investigations using fabric is fairly limited,” says architect Bill Baxley, a 30-year veteran of professional practice. “The discovery of fabric, for me, came from model making during school. Its ephemeral quality, accessibility and its dynamic form, making capacity allowed spatial discoveries to evolve in a way that other materials couldn’t.” Baxley, AIA, vice president of Design for the international architecture firm Leo A Daly, says that many architects have a limited understanding of how fabric fits into the overall architecture picture. “I believe that we [architects] think about the use of fabric in a very narrow way. I think there needs to be a concerted effort to transcend the ‘tensile canopy’ or ‘illuminated ceiling perception’ of fabric installations. This is how most architects think of fabric use. They need to see other possibilities that go beyond its inherent materiality.”
Fabric manufacturers tend to agree with Baxley, seeing it as a mandate incumbent upon the industry to reach out to designers. “We can’t expect them to be educated about fabric usage,” says Gina Wicker, director of architecture and design markets for Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C. “It’s our responsibility as an industry and as manufacturers of shade fabrics to educate them through CEUs [continuing education units], trade show conversations and architectural firm visits.”
Steve Fredrickson, sales manager for Serge Ferrari North America, Pompano Beach, Fla., agrees: “Currently I believe architects are primarily educated on the uses of fabric [when they see] actual applications and by articles published in trade magazines that reach the design community.” That hasn’t always been noticeable, says Fredrickson, but is improving with the specialty textiles industry’s unique ability to adapt. “One reason is due to the flexibility of fabric manufacturers versus the steel and wood industries,” which are primary material suppliers to construction in North America. “With the ability to change formulations, weaves, coatings and other aspects, fabric lends itself to innovation.”
Long Island, N.Y., fabricator Mike Mere, owner of M & M Awning, says that many architects have some, but spotty knowledge of fabric, at least in regard to awnings. He says, “I think they understand acrylic fabrics but could use more information on some of the new vinyls, and on understanding the flame codes.”
“My opinion is the education [of architects] comes from multiple sources that combine over career lifetimes,” says Roy Chism, president, The Chism Co. Inc., San Antonio, Texas. “Part of the profession is educated within their formal curriculum, part from exposure to IFAI professional programs and part from vendor specification documents placed within architecture firm libraries. And IFAI divisional continuing education presentations also are valuable, as are trade publications. Eventually, through experience—direct engagement with fabricating companies—[architects begin to] address potential applications as an element within upcoming projects.”
The story is similar in the U.K., according to Amy Wilson, head of sales and marketing for Chepstow, South Wales-based Architen Landrell. Wilson says, “In the U.K., the majority of architects generally have little exposure to fabric structures during their training and, therefore, often the first time they are exposed to them is when they find themselves working on a project where the client or a more senior/experienced architect has suggested its inclusion. Whether driven by a specific project or just an interest in fabric as a building material, we still find that there are many architects who are very keen to learn the basics of working with tensile fabric structures, and we have many requests for CPD [continuing professional development] presentations and project design workshops—both extremely effective ways of educating architects on the benefits, properties and working parameters of fabric structures.”
Contributing factors and hidden persuasions
Sustainability, versatility, lower costs, energy savings and LEED factors are issues that come up constantly when a building project begins and material choices are up for grabs. However, fabric is not often included in the discussions or creative process, because architects do not know enough about the material to know how to factor it into the design equation. According to Mere, the two main issues for the architects he has worked with are “cost and aesthetics.” Chism finds that many architects will turn to fabric “as a value-engineered alternate to other construction materials.”
Wicker echoes this sentiment. “It’s no secret that shade structures and awnings made of metal, composites or other hard surfaces can be an easier solution for the builder or contractor, as the team on site can provide those structures,” says Wicker. “Using fabric requires a different skill set and, in most cases, the use of yet another sub-contractor. In order to ensure fabric is specified for exterior shade, there is a need to inspire the architectural community to specify fabric in their designs and renderings. To do that, it’s important they understand what fabric can provide that hard materials cannot. Fabric is certainly versatile and can be more cost efficient, but that’s not enough. I believe first, the architect must feel that he or she can achieve an aesthetic with fabric that they can’t with other materials. Secondly, they have to trust that the fabric and the fabricator can deliver design and performance to suit the building’s exterior.”
“It honestly depends on the application and vision of the design team,” says Fredrickson. “Each of these are options commonly discussed on projects. The only one missing is fabric structures, [and they] are often a part of the overall project used to create an iconic look.”
In the U.K., things are quite similar on the persuasion front. “With tensile fabric and ETFE [ethylene tetrafluoroethylene] structures, there seem to be a few frequently reoccurring key selling points with architects,” says Wilson. These points are:
- Aesthetic. Fabric can create shapes that are simply impossible or not economically viable with other materials.
- Cost. Often architects are looking for a more cost-effective way to achieve something they would first consider building in another material. This is particularly common for ETFE in place of glass.
- Weight. With ETFE cushion systems, this is one of the most common reasons for specifying the product, particularly when being integrated into an existing building.
- Demountability. Architen still has a large proportion of architects and designers who are looking to build structures which can tour, be erected for a summer season or have the flexibility to be relocated.
Design architect Baxley encourages these efforts, and he readily admits that his professional peers need inspirational examples before taking a risk on a “new” material. “I believe that we think about the use of fabric in a very narrow way; exploring creative new ways to use it that support the things mentioned above would be a good start,” he says.
The best approaches
The consensus among the professionals interviewed for this article is that a varied approach is best. Of awning fabricator shop seminars, says Mere: “We have done this in the past at our facility and architects have found this very informative when they can see how awnings are fabricated. AIA classes certainly are a good method but often times are described as very basic or completely miss the target audience. When the IFAI had the fabric pavilion at the national AIA convention, that was an excellent way to promote the range of products available to the architectural community.”
“We have to inspire them first by presenting innovative possibilities for fabric use,” says Wicker. “Once they are inspired, they are much more open to product education. Fabric can be used for more than standard fixed awnings, which do a beautiful job of branding a facade, but in their most basic form are an add-on item once the tenant moves into a building. The goal is to have architects think about fabric for sun control as they design the facade. It should not be an afterthought. Inspiring and educating this audience comes partially through CEUs offered at trade events, but mostly from the grass-roots efforts of calling on the firms.”
“In my experience, a combination of stunning images, interesting applications combined with concise and well-delivered information on the benefits of working with fabric is by far the most successful,” says Wilson. “CPD presentations are excellent for this but are a mid- to long-term strategy for growing the fabric structures business. High-profile projects which get wide media attention are also excellent for raising the profile of fabric structures, and we do find that they lead to an increase in requests for CPDs and a higher general interest in our products. It would be interesting to see how introducing degree-level education on fabric as a building material would affect the architectural profession, as I suspect it would widen our appeal greatly. There are a few universities who do excellent work with their architecture and engineering students, but they are in the minority and that is reflected in the number of graduate architects who have an early interest in fabric structures.”
“I think the design community is still struggling with the perception that fabric is a nonpermanent or unsubstantial building material,” says Baxley. “Many of our clients want buildings that last 100 years; the traditional use of architectural fabrics is a challenging sell in that context.” However, Baxley agrees that education and creative inspirations could help turn this understanding around. “Design competitions, studio (university) sponsorships and beta tests through sponsored research that expose and explore possibilities can go a long way toward bringing architects into the fabric world, he says.
An ongoing discussion
While several of the respondents to this article topic had similar approaches to educating architects, all agree that not one method is sufficient, nor should the effort be single-focused or one-time only. The assumption should be that companies instigate ongoing and long-term education programs individualized to the market and company culture. As this topic is my own passion, I urge the reader to join the conversation started with this article and take it to the next level by engaging architects in your own community.
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is a registered architect, principal of Just Wright Communications, and regular contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review, Advanced Textiles Source and Fabric Architecture.