Floating on the land

ETFE is the solution for a lively French resort.

Located in Neydens, France, Vitam’Parc is a 50,000 square meter tourism destination that is part spa, part sports center, and part shopping mall. Its New Age offerings include: meditation rooms, climbing walls, a water park with various indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa health center, hotel, restaurants and a shopping area with an anchor supermarket. There are a variety of aquatic exercise programs, organized children’s games and even a “laser labyrinth” where kids can play at being a cat burglar, snaking their way between the beams.

For a project of this scale, transparent materials are essential to minimize its visual impact on the landscape and to bring light inside its cavernous aquatic spaces. Founded in Barcelona in 1967, L35 Arquitectos are specialists in destination shopping and leisure projects of this type; and they have built up a portfolio in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Based in Gersthofen, Germany, SEELE was responsible for design and construction of the roof. Having completed ETFE projects around the world for zoo pavilions, research centers, train stations, and, most prominently, Beijing’s Birds Nest Stadium, SEELE is now increasingly working in France where ETFE is becoming popular.

Architects Luisa Badía and Néstor Soldate from L35 explain that ETFE was the ideal choice to tie the immense building into landscape. “The undulating forms remind us of the Salève mountain range,” they say. “Inside, the water slide area recreates an organic atmosphere with its geometry of sloping planes and its vegetation, as if the hill located at the northern end of the site actually continued and extended right into the building.”

Green roofs blend the Center into the rural landscape while also helping to absorb rainwater, which is reused as landscape irrigation. Inside, swimmers and waterpark visitors experience a strong sense of the changing light, passing clouds, and vistas into the charming agricultural landscape. At night, the linear Aquatic Center glows against the sky, its ETFE canopy resting gently above the wood space frame and surrounding glass walls.

So far, L35 has used ETFE in two of projects: at Vitam’Parc and for the roof of the Islazul shopping center in Madrid—both pioneering ETFE applications in those regions. Luminosity and lightness of weight were key reasons for choosing ETFE. Vitam’Parc features two ETFE roof coverings: the roof of the Aquatic Centre and the skylight set in the green roof of the main building above the two-story climbing wall. The Aquatic Centre’s ETFE roof is supported by an intricate wooden form in a wave-like shape. The wood structure supports 53 ETFE cushions with a total surface area of 4,300 m2. The cushions range in size up to 22 meters high and 3.5 meters wide and are inflated at a pressure of 300 Pa with two DG 100 T air pumps.

Arched steel trusses span Vitam’Parc’s dramatic rock climbing area and support seven cushions at the roof. The structural steelwork rises higher in the middle allowing the roof to curve in two directions. The delicate construction gives climbers underneath the impression that they are ascending into an open sky.

The project’s ETFE cushions in the Aquatic Centre and climbing wall are inflated with air at low pressure to give an insulating layer against heat and cold and to withstand the effects of wind load. “ETFE responds well to the structural demands made of it,” Badía and Soldate note. This durability is “a factor worth bearing in mind in an alpine climate with cold and harsh winters, abundant snowfall and strong winds. Another advantage [of ETFE] for our project is its resistance to great variations in temperatures and chemical damage, such as from chlorine in the swimming pools.”

For large sports facilities or greenhouses, ETFE is an effective material both for its 95% light permeability and its cost, which can be three times lower than traditional glass roofs. Remarkably, according to L35, ETFE weighs only 2% of what a traditional glass roof and structure might. Because of its light weight and ease of handling, ETFE “has an impact on transportation and installation and therefore on the construction time,” they add. And, its anti-adhesive qualities make it less attractive to dirt and easier to clean.

Most important for destination tourism, ETFE air cushions offer adaptability to many playful and organic shapes—a great advantage for projects like this one that make a large footprint on an historic piece of countryside. Although only 10 km from the Swiss urban center of Geneva, Vitam’Parc offers a rural escape for families seeking a water park vacation or couples on a spa retreat. Its architecture is airy, expansive and festive—an effect achieved by a sophisticated blend of wood and metal structural design and a floating carpet of ETFE.

Vitam’Parc is a hybrid project type that is largely unknown in the United States. Yet, if such projects come to North America, whether to sunny tourist meccas like Orlando or winter cities, ETFE cushions will likely play a part in the solution.

Frank Edgerton Martin, a regular contributor to Fabric Architecture, writes frequently about landscapes and design for international design journals.

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