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Building potential

Features | November 1, 2010 | By:

Architects are discovering new uses for fabric when cladding buildings, to striking effect.

Decades of experimentation about how best to use fabric in building design and construction has garnered a lot more interest and growing potential for what fabric can do, driven by a desire for greener, cleaner, lighter, higher performing and sustainable structures. “Architects are still trying to struggle with how to deal with the impermanent nature of textiles, or general lack of knowledge of what they can and can’t do. I think we’re on the cusp of something that hasn’t yet unfolded,” says Blaine Brownell, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture.

Re-thinking fabric

Architectural fabric is taking several directions—one as an exterior envelope that adds a high profile, visible and dramatic effect. An example, says Brownell, is the new Jean Nouvel-designed Copenhagen Concert Hall in Denmark, noted for its striking resemblance to blue glass, yet it’s really a translucent textile façade made of Ferrari’s Stamisol® FT 381 stretched taut over a steel frame. In daytime, vague outlines of people and space are visible inside; at night, the fabric is a projection screen for moving video images of concert performers, color and light that enliven the building.

Fabric is also being used as a building ‘skin,’ blending visible and performance features, such as thermal control, water and dirt repellency, light transmission, acoustical absorption, sustainability and disaster protection. “Architects for years have said they basically want GORE-TEX® for buildings,” says Brownell. “They want light and air transmission, but control of moisture.” They’re also looking at the potential for renewable energy with fabric, the ability to integrate thin film photovoltaic into a fabric skin.

Others are experimenting with disaster relief structures, incorporating fabric into concrete for stability and waterproof membranes into walls. Brownell is fascinated by the idea that fabrics can be a source of building security. Zetix™, for example, is a blast defense fabric made by Auxetix Ltd., Tiverton, England, that is designed to protect against multiple explosive incidents. It can also be used for hurricane or military defense applications.

The ‘green’ response

As the industry grows greener, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Wayne, N.J., is working at finding a way to attach photovoltaic cells on its PTFE-coated fiberglass membranes (SHEERFILL®), a product the company has been manufacturing for several applications since 1973. It started selling ETFE for new construction because of its greater translucency and malleable properties. Energy savings and sustainability are driving the need for smarter new—and retrofitted—stadium roofs, and PTFE membrane only has an insulation value of R-1, according to Marcel Dery, global sales manager.

A new layered composite called Tensotherm™ by Birdair Inc., Amherst, N.Y., is helping to solve the issue. It uses Nanogel® aerogel, a 1.27cm thick, feather-light insulation layer that traps air to prevent heat loss and solar heat gain, and allows daylight harvesting by transmitting and diffusing natural light. A layer of aerogel sandwiched between two layers of PTFE, rather than the standard one- to two-foot space required for fiberglass insulation, can boost R value to 12.

“This is an answer to something that we’ve been looking for a long time. Being able to control R is a big deal,” says Dery. “It responds to energy reduction concerns. All we do is replace the roof; nothing else has to be replaced. It makes retrofitting very easy.”

Elevating R value

New European energy and building codes also drove AeroLite Fabric Pty. Ltd., a division of Fabritecture LLC based in New South Wales, Australia, to create a three-layer fabric composite called AeroLite™ to address the need for greater thermal efficiency without sacrificing the thin profile necessary for freeform design and translucency in its fabric structures.

“A lot of our applications are for fully enclosed structures that require mechanical cooling or heating, and building codes in Australia and elsewhere are now requiring continuous form insulation to increase thermal efficiency in such structures,” says Dave Gullis, managing director of Fabritecture.

A thin layer of Aerogels® SpaceLoft® blanket sandwiched between two layers of PTFE or PVC helps boost the R value and can insulate very thin spaces. The thermal efficiency of AeroLite is six times greater than a single-skin fabric system, Gullis says, and two-and-a-half times greater than a double-layer fabric system. Initial studies have shown it can reduce energy consumption from heating or cooling the interior of a fabric structure by 30 to 70%, depending on the climate. It is being used in sports stadiums, recreational facilities, water parks and “green” shopping centers around the world. AeroLite development manager Lisa Leslie says it is also being used in thermal awnings and blinds to provide a lower cost option to window replacement for retrofits of old buildings that must comply with new energy codes.

Creative spaces

J. Miller Canvas Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., is working with a number of architectural firms to create cutting edge designs with fabrics that conserve on space, waste and energy. “It’s definitely about how to better utilize space—more open work environments where people can collaborate and work together,” says owner Jim Miller. “There are things you can do with fabric that you can’t do with hard surfaces. It’s exciting to have something that starts from nothing and come up with these totally different ways of using fabrics.”

The company built a large retractable fabric classroom at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. With the flip of a switch, a series of motors and micro switches raise the entire room up and fold it against the ceiling to open the full space for special events. The room is made of a canvas exterior and sound-absorbing interior material for privacy.

Fabrics in building design and construction—greener, cleaner, lighter, cheaper, longer or better performing functions—are part of the discussion and continue to be developed. Miller, for one, is convinced that “we’re just at the beginning.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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