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Tensile fabric reigns in recent interior projects

Interiors | September 1, 2007 | By:

Some of the most interesting interior fabric structures are found behind (private) doors.

Over the past 10 years, interior tensile fabric structures have advanced greatly from the arrangements of stretched cotton stapled to wooden batons that were typical for the time. Now, with a wide range of both synthetic and natural fabrics, and increasingly powerful “patterning” computer software, a host of different shapes and applications can be produced using fabric. Combine this with increasingly sophisticated printing and lighting capabilities, and it is possible to produce not only practical and functional structures but also dynamic and aesthetically pleasing ones as well. Although many dynamic interior projects have been installed in public locations, such as shopping centers and museums, some of the best structures are located behind closed doors, in offices and privately owned buildings. In this column, I’ve chosen a small selection of some of my favourite projects, all located out of the public eye. I’ve tried to show the different and varied uses to which tensile fabric can now be put.

Saga Call Centre, Folkestone

With the increase in telephone sales and inquiries in the UK, there has been a corresponding demand for new call centers. Often, the design solution has been to use industrial warehouse-type constructions designed and built as offices. The theory is that these kinds of buildings yield a large open-plan workspace at a relatively low cost. Unfortunately, the interiors, with their exposed industrial look, need “dressing.” Designers also have to work around the additional problems of no natural light and poor acoustics. The Saga Call Centre at Folkestone, Kent, is a good example of the use of fabric as an essential part of the design. This project in particular stands out because tensile fabric replaces the conventional suspended ceiling while also acting as a light reflector, and on the sidewalls as an acoustic baffle.

For Saga’s ceiling, large panels are attached to a pre-built sub frame to produce an overlapping chevron effect. These frames, built off site, consist of PVC-coated glass fiber mesh (Satine) stretched onto lightweight steel frames. Recent UK legislation regarding percentages of reflected light in office buildings gave the designers the chance to use fabric to resolve the lighting problem without resorting to harsh direct illumination. One of the properties of PVC glass mesh is that it reflects light well. Due to the openness of the mesh, the light is softened, greatly reducing the glare usually associated with reflected light. Clusters of suspended hyperbolic kites serve as reflectors above column-mounted light fittings. A blackout fabric, tensioned to adjustable wall-mounted frames, also helps increase the interior illumination and improve the buildings’ acoustics. Gentle mood lighting between the panels creates a warm glow as well as increased ambient light. The combined effect of all the fabric structures is to reduce the perceived areas of the large flat wall and ceiling and to eliminate the echo usually associated with internal open spaces. The overall effect is very impressive, completely eliminating any harsh industrial feel to the space.

The success of this project was due, in part, to the architect’s incorporation of tensile fabrics as a major part of the interior design. All too often I see tensile fabric structures put into buildings as an afterthought. Sometimes this works, but more often they look out of place and fail to show their true potential. On the contrary, the combined fabric elements have given the Saga Call Centre a warm, work-friendly environment without affecting its functionality.

Designer: Pringle Richards Sharratt
Fabric used: PVC-coated fiberglass mesh (Satine)

Compaq Offices, UK

This project is included for its effective use of one of the most basic tensile fabric shapes, the hyperbolic parabolic. This large glass atrium needed a revamp as a presentation area requiring the use of projection and large TV screens.

A simple and cheap solution could have been to tension a large flat piece of fabric horizontally under the atrium glass. Although probably effective, it would cut the space in two and could be best described as merely functional. Also, one of the requirements of the owners of the building was that there be no edge fixings. The solution the designers implemented used the simple hyperbolic shape to great effect. In its most basic form, raising the opposite corners of a square or rectangular shape and lowering the adjacent ones forms a hyperbolic shape. The double-curve shape that is produced has been used repeatedly on tensioned fabric structures. For this shape in fabric to be effectively used under tension, the structure has to be made up of carefully patterned sections. Although this can require complex patterning software, the end result is simple and elegant.

Each sail was connected to cables run down the side of the atrium. These cables were fixed to steel uprights of the building, which not only fulfilled the owners’ “no fixings” requirements but allowed for the panels to be easily removed for cleaning or access. By interlocking the high points and low points of a series of elongated hyperbolic rectangles, the designers have fulfilled their brief. The end result provides the essential shade required, the overall brightness and solar gain reduced by 47%, and due to the openings between the panels, the structure has not encroached into the feeling of space in the area.

Designer: Fabric Architecture
Fabric used:: PVC-coated fiberglass mesh

Architects and designers often can be instructed by their clients to change the acoustics of a building. This can mean producing a more acoustically comfortable space, as with the call center, or trying to block out unwanted noise. With the Dyson project, the latter was required. Due to a change of use from warehouse to office, the noise from the adjacent research and development area had to be blocked out. The client’s brief was to achieve this with a screen along the walls of the warehouse. The designer’s solution was to construct a curved screen made of large, fabric acoustic panels. These panels were constructed around modular aluminium frames and manufactured off site to allow for a relatively simple and short installation. The acoustic panels were constructed using a sandwich of two layers of acoustic foam, one layer of rubber, and two top layers of the finishing acoustically transparent fabric. This combination allows sound penetration through the outer layer, which is then slowed by the foam and finally stopped by the rubber.

Not only did the acoustic panels succeed in the suppression of unwanted noise, but they also managed to create a far friendlier environment. It would have been easy for the screens to be dwarfed by this large space. Instead, these bold curving walls have become part of the building that, although still obviously industrial, is now clearly not a warehouse.

Designer: Tensile Fabric
Fabric used: PVC-coated fiberglass mesh (Natte); Acoustic foam (Melatec)

Travelex, Peterborough

Tensile fabric structures often can provide solutions to design problems where the use of more traditional building methods would be completely untenable. Here, a new restaurant, located on the ground floor of an atrium, needed to be screened from people using the escalators. The reason for this was the restaurant users had the uncomfortable feeling of being “watched.” The screen had to curve around the two fights of escalators as well as bridge the gap between them. It had to screen the diners but could not block out the light. Here the use of fabric was ideal; what other material could produce such a lightweight 3D form completely fulfilling the design brief, yet retain the feeling of openness and light of the atrium?

Due to the complexity of the multiple coned shapes and the irregularity of the attachment points, considerable time had to be devoted to patterning and design detail. As all the metal work was manufactured off site, and with little or no tolerance in the design, the importance of a precise survey and accurate installation were crucial to the success of this project. Installation was made more complex because the escalators could be closed off only for short periods of time. Therefore, due to the difficulty of access from the ground floor, the structure had to be designed for the majority of the installation to be undertaken in situ, from the first floor.

During installation, a problem with oil from the escalators dripping on the fabric was highlighted. The solution was to incorporate a system of aluminum trays above the fabric to catch the oil from the aging escalators. Drips and leaks on to any internal fabric structure can quickly cause staining, seriously impairing the aesthetics of the canopy.

The overall effect was stunning. With the whole structure very much on display, from above and below, none of the workings could be hidden. As a result, all the structural steelwork became part of, and added to, the whole design.

Designer: Tensile Fabric
Fabric used: PVC-coated fiberglass mesh (Natte)

Channel Five, London

A refurbished area of the Channel 5 offices in London is the location of a very dynamic use of fabric structures. The space had a high glass roof with period wooden beams. The client sponsored a competition to produce a design that would give the area a feeling of light and space when used as a canteen and for staff recreation, yet create a more intimate feel when used for conferences, program displays, and multimedia presentations. The winning design utilized the lightweight nature of fabric and both its illumination and shading properties.

Natte, a PVC-coated fiberglass mesh, was attached to ridged tubular steel frames. Each frame was suspended with cable that, through a series of pulleys, eventually leads to a manual winch attached to the wall. This enables the frames to be lowered and raised. The usual position of the canopies was raised to produce a feeling of space and light for the cafeteria while providing all-important shade from the all-glass roof. When lowered, the fabric and frames become fabric light diffusers to totally redefine the space.

The success of the design works because of how the space is perceived. Down-lighting the area enhances the feeling of double height, then by up-lighting the lowered panels, the apparent volume is completely changed.

Designer: Hugh Broughton Architects
Fabric used: PVC-coated glass fiber mesh (Natte)

Defra, UK

This was a project with the major component designed to be purely aesthetic. The brief given to the artist was deliberately left blank. The client wanted something that “tumbled into the space,” an eight-floor-high atrium.

The artist used organza silk painted with fabric dyes. This particular silk is almost transparent so that no matter from where the structures are viewed, no part is obscured. Each “leaf” has a mild steel spine with glass fiber rods on the outer edges to give the fabric shape. The leaves were carefully suspended to give the impression of gently falling from the sky. Although not designed to be functional, the leaves have the added benefit of acting as a sound baffle to improve the acoustics of the area.

Designer: Jan Blake
Fabric used:: organza silk

Ed Matson is the managing director of Sky Art Ltd. in the UK, a company that specializes in cleaning interior tensile structures and installing art in interior spaces.

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