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The versatility of fabric for shade

Case Studies, Exteriors, Features, Interiors | December 1, 2013 | By:

From urban renewal to water conservation to alfresco elegance, the benefits of shade structures cover a lot of ground.

There’s something about a well-designed textile shade structure that acts like an invitation. Whether the structure is angular or curved, freestanding or an extension of a building, crisp white or in vivid color, people are drawn to its artistic nature and the comfort it offers. With new developments in available textiles and innovative designs, companies that offer shade solutions are cashing in on the opportunities—for urban renewal, design and branding, water control and conservation, energy efficiency and sustainability, comfort, and what some might call alfresco elegance.

Water control and conservation

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Harvesting rainwater is nothing new, but using fabric shade structures to collect and distribute rainwater, while providing an attractive aesthetic, is largely an untapped resource that can translate into growth potential for fabricators.

Architen Landrell, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, U.K., manufactures a structure that is essentially the opposite of an umbrella. The Inverted Cone acts like a giant funnel; water collects in the canopy and is channeled through the center mast into underground systems. “It’s a design that has been available for a long time. We’ve manufactured them for about 30 years,” says Jason Smith, business development manager. “The modern aspect is the ability to channel the water for a second use. The water can be tanked and used again to flush toilets or irrigate landscapes.”

Stirling, U.K.-based tensARC Ltd. manufactured an umbrella-type structure for the 2006 Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea flower show, which takes place each year at Chelsea Hospital in London. The temporary structure was manufactured of stainless steel and coated woven polyester, and collected water that was stored in a tank underneath, from which the entire garden was watered.

The inverted cone design can function as an aesthetic element in addition to its ability to harvest water. Montreal, Canada-based Sollertia Inc. designed a signature piece for the outdoor terrace of Granby, Quebec, Canada’s Cantine Ben La Bedaine restaurant. The inverted conical structure provides a sculptural element that is also functional. The structure’s inverted fabric cone funnels rainwater, which is collected in a decorative fountain equipped with water jets. “We used a translucent membrane for our design of the cone so that during the day the terrace is bathed in sheer luminosity,” says company president Claude Le Bel. “And at night the structure is lit in a most remarkable way.”

Alfresco elegance

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Creating outdoor spaces that have the coziness of being inside combined with the natural light and fresh air of the outdoors is a continuing trend that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down—for both residential and commercial clients.

Polyfab’s HDPE sail cloth is a popular choice for alfresco applications, and for the first time is available in white. Duvall Design Inc., West Rockport, Maine, installed a 30-by-50-foot structure in Rockport, Maine, that spanned a residential patio, stretching from the garage to the house and at places reaching the ground. “It ties together the house, the landscape and patio, creating a comfortable social space that was previously unbearable to sit on,” says owner Charles Duvall. “And white is a great color to work with that we didn’t have before in this fabric. It doesn’t compete with other colors or architecture.”

Residential clients don’t generally want the heavy steel that is required to tension structures that use heavier fabrics, so fabrics that require lower pre-tension loads are used. “On domestic applications we prefer to use Ferrari Precontraint® fabrics because they’re easy to tension up smoothly at low pre-tension loads,” says Dr. Paul Baglin, managing director of tensARC Ltd. “For clients who prefer a more tactile type of fabric, we’ll use acrylic canvas though it’s not as durable.”

Whatever fabric and rigging is used, it’s important to achieve a proper tension drum skin canopy and see that the structure doesn’t move too much when the wind hits. Loss of tension leads to water and dirt accumulation, and fabric deterioration, Baglin points out.

For commercial shade/mesh applications that require structural engineering, there aren’t many fabric options, according to Mark Welander, owner of Fabricon LLC, Missoula, Mont. When Fabricon worked with Kansas City Tent and Awning Co., Kansas City, Mo., on a shade structure over an atrium for the Carter Arts Center’s student center, Welander used Ferrari’s Soltis® 92 PVC-coated polyester mesh. “Soltis has been one of the few mesh fabrics we’ve found that can be suitably engineered,” Welander says. “It can be tested and provides the numbers for engineers to confidently say, ‘Yes, we know this fabric will hold up to snow and wind loads.’”

Urban renewal

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City officials are choosing fabric structures as part of revitalization programs that energize struggling urban neighborhoods to spruce up degraded spaces, provide shelter and act as inspirational focal points. “We get a lot of requests from architects for urban renewal projects,” says Architen Landrell’s Jason Smith. “Tensile structures are brilliant for urban renewal because you can create beautiful and functional structures that bring people together to socialize—rain or shine.”

Charles Duvall designed the shade structures for a project to renovate Georgia Street in Indianapolis, Ind., in 2012. The city used its block grant to renovate the three city blocks, which included constructing a center median space with one lane of slow traffic on either side, lined with restaurants and retail shops. Duvall designed 44 wireless retractable shade structures, using a retractable system he developed. The 44 shade structures are deployed each morning and retracted each night, and can be operated from an iPad®.

Because the project would have to withstand snowy winters, Duvall chose Ferrari’s 28-percent open mesh. “The mesh was originally designed for building facades,” Duvall says. “I had always used HDPE woven fabric in the past for shade structures, but needed something more durable for this. The Ferrari mesh is designed for a 20-year life. It also has a nice look and transparency, and we were able to choose a color that blends in with the existing historic architecture. When the light bounces off the fabric at night, it creates a warm environment.”

Although the city in which the project will take place is usually the catalyst for the project, it isn’t always the entity that hires the fabricator. “Sometimes the city has restrictions in the way it is able do things. The process can get a bit confounded with how city projects are funded,” says Fabricon’s Mark Welander. “The city isn’t always able to make projects happen in the same way a private entity can.”

In one instance, Fabricon was hired by a city’s downtown association for a project in the city park. After the company completed the project, the downtown association gifted it to the city. Another typical scenario is that the city will hire an architectural firm, and the firm will subcontract the fabricator as a consultant. “Bidding these projects is usually a two-step process,” Welander says. “The client brings you in to design the project, but it still has to be vetted by the city before you get the bid.”

Comfort, inside and out

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For just this once think inside the box. Shade structures can be installed inside—managing comfort, while enhancing decor. An emerging market in the United Kingdom may again be paving the way for other parts of the world. “About four years ago we began designing internal tensile structures in the domestic [residential] market,” says tensARC’s Dr. Paul Baglin. “Initially we developed structures for commercial markets, but with the economic downturn, sales became sporadic and we started focusing on the domestic market.”

Glass atriums and conservatories become hot-houses—even in a rainy climate such as the U.K. For tensARC, installing interior shade structures has become a huge growth area. “Because there’s no wind load on interior fabrics, the structural requirements on the fabric are reduced,” Baglin says. “You can make very elegant shapes or very simple shapes with less technical ability and therefore less cost.”

For those structures, tensARC uses a polyester/elastane stretch fabric, selected for its durability and ability to reflect the sun. “It’s a very closed knit on one side, which gives it a reflective, almost pearlescent surface,” Baglin says. “It’s good at reflecting the heat back out.”

The fabric is also washable, and tensARC installs the structures so they can easily be taken down and reinstalled by clients. “Because we use stretch fabric, it’s self-tensioning,” Baglin says. “We don’t use any rigging—just hooks onto a fitting so it’s quick to unclip and put back up. The ease of cleaning is one of the big selling points.”

Architen Landrell has been receiving an increased number of inquiries for interior fabric solutions, perhaps in part due to a record hot summer with an abundance of sunshine in the U.K. “Our phones have been ringing off the hooks with people in office buildings with glass atriums complaining that their staff can’t see their computer screens because of the glare and that it is difficult greeting people because the sun is in their eyes,” Jason Smith says. “So we’ve been designing and installing fabric sails, hypars, blinds and other custom structures to artfully handle the concern.”

For a project in Blenheim Palace in the U.K.—the birthplace of Winston Churchill—Architen Landrell installed three fabric sails underneath the gift shop’s glass atrium roof to reduce solar glare and solar gain. “The client didn’t want traditional blinds; they wanted something that would soften the space and act as an architectural feature—that is also functional,” Smith says. “We used Trapeze® fabric [from Dazian] for the installation because it effectively diffuses the light and we were able to tailor it to fit the space.”

Design and branding

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Awnings have long been an effective way to brand a business, but other kinds of shade structures are emerging as an additional option, especially when organizations understand that branding isn’t only about company colors and logos. Shade structures can be a creative option to communicate branding as a message of a company’s (or a city’s) personality and what it promises its clients.

“We think that fabric facades will start playing a larger role as shade structures,” says Claude Le Bel of Sollertia Inc. “They’re a great way to give form or shape to a project and an easy way to give a building a signature look.”

The director of the Ecole de Cirque de Quebec, a circus school in Quebec, Canada, that promotes the circus arts and stimulates the emergence of a new generation of artists, enlisted Sollertia to design and fabricate a fabric canopy for the school’s entrance. The director requested that the all-season tensioned canopy act as a symbol of the school’s mission, using the chapiteau—the circus big top—as inspiration. “The form of the structure was also inspired by movement, by the youthful suppleness of the body, by the grace and power of acrobatics and by the skin and spine of the skeletal structure,” Le Bel says. “The dynamic form and fluid lines of the tensioned membrane add an organic feel to the architecture.”

Structures can also be designed to reflect light to enhance branding capabilities. “A fabric’s smooth and translucent surface is a canvas for the interplay of light, shade and color, and we can create some incredible spaces using lighting,” Le Bel says. “With tension fabric structures we are able to create a large variety of unique architectural and geometric forms for our clients, giving them the benefit of strong brand recognition.”

Energy efficiency and sustainability

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Is more heat in a home or office a good thing? It depends on the season, of course. As more people turn to solar and geothermal systems to heat and cool their homes and places of business, ambient heat gain can be a challenge, one that can, to some extent, be addressed by well-designed shade structures.

Duvall Design completed a residential installation to expand the fabric structure over a roof in Cushing, Maine, in August 2013. The client’s cooling system didn’t perform well due to heat gain through the metal roof, so Duvall installed a two-layer shade structure 60 by 30 feet, over the roof and extending over the 16-foot-wide deck below. “The client cut his heat by 15 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the summer after we installed the structure,” owner Charles Duvall says.

Duvall performs dynamic shade studies prior to settling on a design so the client can see the impact of the time of day on the structure. “I try to organize the structure so it’s functional over the course of a year,” he says. “You can think you’re solving a problem by putting fabric over a large area but if you don’t pay attention to the angles, it’s ineffective. You can move a flashlight over a physical model to act as the sun, or you can use software to see where shadows and sun are cast at any given time of day.”

On the cutting edge of fabric structures with light transmission properties is ETFE—Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene. “A core part of our business is designing, manufacturing and installing ETFE systems,” Jason Smith says. “It’s a totally different kind of system than woven-base cloth fabrics, such as PVC or PTFE. The ETFE copolymer is extruded into thin films (or foils), which are used to form either a single-layer membrane or multi-layer air-filled cushion. A lot of our clients want ETFE because of its light transmission, which can be up to 95 percent as a single layer.”

ETFE weighs 1 percent that of glass and has similar light transmission capabilities. It’s popular with general contractors because the steel work and foundations normally used for support can be dramatically reduced to support ETFE. The product can be specified in up to five layers. The space between layers is filled with air from an air handling unit that requires about the same amount of electricity it takes to power a 100-watt light bulb for one day.

With Landrell’s Intelligent Printing option, end users can manage the amount of light that enters a space by increasing or decreasing pressure in the cushions. The top and middle layers are printed with an opposing pattern. As the air pressure decreases, the printed layers come together, reducing the light transmissions; as it’s increased, the patterns “open up,” allowing light in.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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