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Tensile structures: Do it yourself

Features, Structure Basics | July 1, 2008 | By:

At the Free University of Brussels, Dr. Marijke Mollaert’s architecture students design and then build their fabric structure.

“Design and build your own Tensile Surface Structure!” This unique opportunity and challenge is what students from the 1st and 2nd Master in Architectural Engineering and Civil Engineering can expect in the course “Tensile Surface Structures 2” under guidance of Prof. Dr. Marijke Mollaert at the Department of Architectural Engineering of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. During the course, conceived as a project, students not only design tensile surface structures as a team, but also model, calculate, manufacture and — build them! While working in interdisciplinary teams and being guided by professionals from a variety of disciplines, the students are confronted with new problems and issues and learn from every aspect in the process “from design to prototype.” In short: a unique and fascinating challenge.

The course not only aims at involving the students in the design, problem solving, decision making, and investigative activities regarding tensile structures, but also at teaching them how to manage such projects and work within a team. They collaboratively solve problems and organize themselves in such a way that different groups deal with different subtasks of the project. During the weekly meetings, the groups present what they have investigated and what their proposal or result is, followed by instructive discussions. This way, everyone is kept up-to-date regarding every detail and decision while it also permits other groups or students to come up with new ideas, insights and solutions.

The course “Tensile Surface Structures 2,” being only in its second edition, is fairly new. In the first edition, students designed and built the “VUB-tent” (see Fig. 1). This multipurpose tent has a diameter and height of 6m (the headroom of the tensioned fabric is 3.5m). The tent was specifically designed to be easily and quickly assembled on a variety of locations. The design proved to be successful, since the University showed interest in the tent and has already used it for several prominent receptions. The second edition of the course, in which the students currently are involved, is called “tensairtent.” A VIP-tent, made of tensioned fabric and two inflatable arches (developed in accordance with the new structural principle Tensairity) has been designed and is currently being finalized (see Fig. 2).

The concept of this course has proven to be a success. Students and teaching staff are challenged to push the boundaries a bit further than usual and are enthusiastic about this unique opportunity and experience.

Lars De Laet is a graduate research assistant in Prof. Mollaert’s course within the Department of Architectural Engineering, VUB.

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