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The sustainable future of fabric

Case Studies, Features | January 1, 2008 | By:

Fabric’s sustainable future may help lead design forward.

It hasn’t always been this way for fabric. That is, being the messenger — if not the message — for a more sustainable future. In the past, designers who used tensile fabrics were not nearly so concerned — or impressed — with its modest carbon footprint, minimal post-construction refuse, daylighting and water-harvesting capabilities, and relative ease and low-cost of replacement. While fabric’s daylighting potential was always a no-brainer, its unique position to contribute significantly to a more sustainable built environment, both micro and macro is still underappreciated but growing.

Enter the 21st century, with its acute global issues of over-population, loss of natural habitat, carbon emissions and pollution of all kinds — in a nutshell the specter of diminishing resources and climate change. Today, heeding the clarion call of environmental sustainability many architects and designers agree that fabric structures have an important role to play in creating an eco-friendly future. Fabric structures, permanent and temporary, large and small are rising up across the international landscape like exotic mushrooms (and sometimes as colorful) on a forest floor.

Examples include Herzog + de Meuron’s retina red 2006 World Cup Allianz Arena in Berlin made from recyclable ETFE; the here-today-gone-tomorrow temporary Adidas Arena that provided comfort for 10,000 fans at the same event; a public artwork in Husnes, Norway, made of aluminum struts and PTFE fabric, designed by Ali Heshmati of LEAD Inc.; and closer to home Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects, a Gold-LEED structure which in 2003 was ranked as the largest “green” building in the world.

To better understand fabric’s potential I consulted with Larry Medlin, professor and director of the School of Architecture at the University of Arizona; his colleague, Jason Vollen, a leader in the school’s Emerging Material Technologies area; Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA LEED AP and senior principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York City; Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota; and David Abramowitch, of Giant Inflatables in Melbourne, Australia.

All agree: the future for fabrics is bright. Particularly if designer and client can realign and expand their ideas of what constitutes a viable building or structure. According to Fisher, “Living lightly on the land is a key principle of sustainability, and fabric allows for that more effectively than almost any other material.”

To anyone in the industry, it is no secret that building construction negatively impacts global and environmental conditions on a grand scale. Tons upon tons of materials from every construction site contribute to the scale of the carbon footprint, whether it is how these materials are manufactured, the cost of transporting them to a site, or the plethora of post-construction refuse that needs to be disposed.

“We have an obligation to solve this,” states Goldsmith. “We must find ways to reduce the carbon footprint, reduce fuel consumption in both fabricating materials and shipping them to a site. There are light-weight materials such as inflatables, tensile fabrics and cable that use far less materials — and energy resources.”

Goldsmith notes tepees and Bedouin tents as ancient solutions to problems of sustainable structures. “We need to reconsider these structures in solving our current problems,” he states. “Societies have had long relationships with lightweight structures; there is no reason why we can not revisit these ideas. One question is how can fabric structures be used in relationship to different climates.”

Vollen concurs. “Fabric is an important player in the future of sustainable living. As systems become more complex, different uses and types of fabrics will emerge,” he says. “Like 3-D woven fabrics, and layered building skins, that is, building skins made of multiple, lighter layers that shade intermediate spaces (between indoor and outdoor) and create livable micro-climates that allow for larger living areas with reduced conditioned space.”

Incorporating fabric components into a building is also one path for satisfying LEED requirements. It can be a component in a passive solar system, contribute to increased daylighting in buildings, be the tensile structure for renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels and provide shade to keep buildings cool in hot climates. Fabric can also reduce light pollution. Goldsmith cites the rediscovered use of window shades and canopies as important passive solar systems. “Window canopies have been forgotten in a big way,” says Goldsmith. “But there seems to be a rebirth — shading windows from the sun can provide huge savings when cooling a building. Brise soleils, fabric canopies and curtain wall cladding systems, made from silicone glass fabrics, have huge potential.”

Issues? There are many. With regard to sustainability, one is the fabrication process and actual material make-up of a tensile fabric. How fabrics are made and coated to withstand the elements and whether they are recyclable needs to be scrutinized. “We need to look at the full cycle of the life of the material,” explains Goldsmith. “We need to perform a ‘cradle to grave analysis’ to really determine fabric viability in terms of sustainability.”

Fisher agrees. “The issues of sustainability have more to do with the source — how the material is made, what resources it requires, what carbon is released into the atmosphere by its manufacture and its shipping to site,” he states. “We also need to understand the life of the material — how long will it last and future uses, beyond its current use.”

In short, manufacturers and suppliers must identify where, by whom, and under what conditions fabrics are manufactured. They also need to provide information on the product’s carbon footprint and if and how it can be recycled. “If they don’t have these answers,” says Goldsmith, “they should be losing customers.”

Another consideration is that prefabricated structures made from tensile, engineered fabrics require more upfront design and detailing than traditional, brick and mortar structures. All issues and components need to be fleshed out prior to actual construction, which increases initial costs.

With regard to LEED certification, Medlin underscores that it is not just about designing a structure but about “totally figuring it out — ahead of time.” He notes that not all architects are well versed in working with fabric. For example, steeper roofs are required to shed snow in cold climates. “One hurdle is to integrate hardscape elements into the fabric structure,” says Medlin. “It requires some finesse and skill to do this. It also requires a more sophisticated design process than sticking stucco to boxes.” Also, adapting fabric to building code requirements may make fabric prohibitively expensive for more common uses, residential for example.

Although fabric structures can be more expensive and time consuming to design then traditional structures, for Medlin these considerations ultimately yield long-term sustainable benefits. Vollen corroborates this by identifying two approaches to fabric’s sustainability: manufacturing fabric so durable that it needs no replacing for the lifetime; and/or making biodegradable fabric that returns to the earth and can be replaced cheaply and easily.

All of Vollen’s projects address sustainability ( “We design to take advantage of thermal flows, drafting, high insulation and properly tuned shading devices, ones that delicately touch the ground and so forth,” he says. “Unfortunately most sustainable work is limited by budget.”

Medlin asserts that society is suddenly — and finally — ready to consider solutions to environmental problems. “Fabric’s multiple capabilities from catching water, trellising plants, daylighting, and providing shade for cooling, are being looked at seriously,” he says. “Fabric can contribute to a regenerative landscape. This is important. It can’t be overlooked.” Medlin also explains that using fabric structures is one way to bring the indoor outside, as in the Edith Ball Center, a project that required re-conceptualizing with a more innovative approach. Instead of being enclosed, the Center’s three community pools — lap, therapy and swimming — are under a dynamic, open fabric system that can be adjusted to season and climate.

Abramowitch, who recently designed a huge, removable inflatable wall (an IFAI award-winning project) envisions fabric’s future as offering temporary shelter toincreasingly mobile societies. “Such structures are incredibly efficient in manufacture and can be designed to be energy efficient,” he states. “The continued development of new materials that are strong, light and easy to manipulate, and have the advantage of relatively low-tech construction methods, will inform the structures with greater meaning in the sustainable, sensitive future.”

What about aesthetics? Can fabric be a sustainable, functional solution and still encompass a variety of successful aesthetic strategies? Most fabric structures seem to follow a curving and arching design template. Is this all there is? “Most importantly, sustainable architecture must develop into a recognizable typology so the public can put the image with the content,” explains Vollen. “Without this, sustainable building will remain secondary. Every movement in architecture has an associated typology; sustainability has been so much about performance, rather than form, that it has remained on the outside as a formal movement.”

For Abramowitch, “The real challenge is not in the creation of such a solution but in the education of the ‘end user’ that such technology is mature enough to meet requirements for function and aesthetic.”

Mason Riddle writes frequently on design and architecture. Her piece on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway appeared in the Sept/Oct issue.

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