Working with architects: How fabricators can forge productive partnerships

January 1st, 2018 / By: / Features

After severe damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Houston, Texas, was restored with fabric architecture. The venue seats over 16,000 people. Photo: Pfeifer FabriTec Structures.

Fabrics and architecture have been partners for millennia and have worked together to create some of the most iconic, useful and beautiful structures in the world—from traditional Mongolian yurts to arena domes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Indeed, fabric is a critical element of our built environment. It’s still a process of education about fabric structures for some architects, even as some specialize in designing and building with fabric. Once you begin working with an architect on a structure, you may also notice that some parts of the design-build process are decidedly different than more conventional architectural undertakings.

For the serious manufacturer or project manager who wants to work with an architect on a fabric structure, there is no single path to success. But there is a series of inroads to creating a working relationship and a process that incorporates fabric and design.

Fabric is a natural building element, but it also has many rare properties when it comes to design. Unlike other building materials, fabric provides improved levels of translucency, allowing natural light to influence energy use and atmosphere; it offers high albedo, helping to reflect heat and light from buildings to moderate their temperature; and the manufacture and use of fabric in building applications creates much less environmental impact. Fabric interiors offer flexible and variable designs, as well as acoustic benefits.

These qualities, and others, create unique design opportunities and considerations for fabric structures and the architects who work on them. The literal and figurative design flexibility of fabric allows architects to design and build structures in almost any shape, size or dimension. The unique possibilities require unique designers and unique working relationships.

Starting the process

“The easiest way to get your foot in the door is to use one of the AIA CE [American Institute of Architects, Continuing Education] programs that has been put together by one of the IFAI [Industrial Fabrics Association International] divisions,” says Marc Shellshear, director of sales for Value Vinyls in Grand Prairie, Texas.

“Because they don’t teach fabric architecture in college, most architects are anxious to learn about fabrics and fabric structures.”

Shellshear also recommends being targeted with your communication. “Know your audience. You need to be sure you are speaking to architects about something relevant to them. If you speak about schools and the firm doesn’t do school work, you will lose them quickly. Do your research about the firm and find out what type of work they do and how that applies to your products.”

Sam Armijos, president of Fabric Architect LLC in Fairfield, N.J., recommends a more personal approach. “Get to know one architect really well and one engineer and learn their language,” he says. “Go listen to an architect or engineer speak. Attend an AIA chapter meeting, go to a builder’s trade show, [and] visit a school of architecture. Research local architects and engineers on the web. Find out what kind of architecture or engineering they practice, their specialty or style. In my experience, an architect who practices historical preservation is not going to be interested in modern tensile structures (however, there is always a first!).”

Jim Miller, owner of J. Miller Canvas Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., has advice on the process from a fabricator’s perspective, suggesting a collaborative approach to project planning. “Usually the architect has a concept but needs assistance in the nuts and bolts of how to put together a fabric structure,” he says, “while some are much more detailed in their drawings.”

Ron Paratore, senior sales representative for Trivantage LLC, Cleveland, Ohio, emphasizes that time is of the essence when working with architects on fabric applications. “You need to find ways to meet [their] needs in a time sensitive manner,” he says. “Keep in mind the exterior attachments, like awnings and canopies, are rarely incorporated in the original design. As a necessary afterthought, fabricators must respond with urgency to meet the architect’s need.”

Writer, editor and licensed architect Bruce Wright explains that most architects learn of new materials and processes at local and national conventions for architects where manufacturers can get in front of designers with their products. “In spite of new digital and electronic communication today, face to face is still more effective than any other means,” says Wright. “Architects like to touch what they are going to use in their building designs. That said, the next important step in that communication process is providing detailed specifications of what the product is, how best to use it and where to use it; i.e. ‘best practices’ to obtain the desired results that a product claims. Here again, direct communication from a manufacturer to the architect conveys the unique qualities that a particular product or service can provide and how an architect might consider it in their next project.”

Building relationships

A good working relationship is important to develop on any architectural project, and especially so when working with the unique qualities of fabrics. Shellshear points out that fabric manufacturers have two routes for relationship-building with architects: marketing or project-based. “Are you actively seeking architects from a marketing perspective or are you chasing projects and working with the architect after the project has been bid?” he asks. The ideal situation for a fabricator, Shellshear says, “is to have your product and/or company specified” in the plan.

In order for that situation to occur, he suggests proactive marketing directly to architects, inviting them to lunch and continued education through AIA CEUs. “If the relationship is proactive then you may also have the opportunity to help them choose fabrics, colors, textures, design, etc. If the relationship is reactive then it becomes extremely important that you become a resource for the architect. It is important you review the design and specifications packets thoroughly and develop a list of questions or RFI [request for information]. If you develop this RFI and offer questions and solutions the architect is more likely to work with you for changes if required in the design, fabric, colors, etc.”

Wright agrees, adding that AIA conventions on local, regional and national scales are very effective. “It [has] been my observation over more than 20 years of practice and engagement with both sides of the architectural spectrum—design and product/construction—that two of the best ways that an architect can learn about a service is through trade shows and in ‘lunch and learn’ sessions that manufacturers regularly sponsor through local trade associations. These can be held at the architect’s own offices or at association venues.”

Armijos takes a visual approach to starting a conversation. When it comes to fabric architecture, “pictures are worth a thousand words,” he says. “Show or send them an image and ask them if they have ever considered a fabric structure for a possible solution to a project they are working on, or [say] ‘This design/project/image made me think of you.’ It is all about starting a dialogue.” He goes on to encourage people to seek out the real decision-maker. “Who is going to pay and who is the key contact person?” he asks.

At Miller’s firm, his relationships begin when a client contacts him about a project. “We discuss feasibility, design parameters, size, etc.,” he says.

Paratore finds the ball in his court when it comes to establishing contact. “The fabricator often initiates the relationship,” he says. “This could be through direct contact or indirectly through general contractors and/or other clients using architects. Most communication is via email, though samples should be [shown] face to face.”

Decision time

The buck stops at the architect when it comes to final outcomes; final decision-making responsibility usually falls to them. From materials to design, if the architect doesn’t sign off on it, it isn’t going to happen. This is far from a one-sided relationship, however. Their decisions are informed by everyone invested in the project.
“We are perceived as the experts,” Armijos says. “Even if [we] don’t know everything about a material or design, [we] have the resources of the IFAI to answer any questions [the client] may have.”

Miller notes that clients will often present a variety of material options that don’t always meet the right criteria for a project. In this instance, a fabricator’s input into the decision-making process is paramount. “Usually a contractor will offer a few fabric options that are appropriate for the type of structure [we are working on],” he says. “Not all materials meet the criteria for every project. There are waterproof materials, open weave materials, fire retardant materials, [etc.].”

Paratore agrees, adding that a fabricator can have great influence on the fabric types and designs. “Fabricators should always be considering structural integrity along with the project vision when choosing and recommending fabrics and final designs to build,” he says.

Shellshear acknowledges the decision-making authority of the project architect, as well. “Typically the architect makes all final decisions, depending on the relationship,” he says. “Whether it is reactive or proactive determines how much input the fabricator may have with the project. Because fabric architecture isn’t taught in most architecture programs, most architects are open to suggestions on type of fabric and even some design changes, assuming they are required from an engineering perspective. Typically the architect wants what they designed, as far as the finished project, however.”

Project demands can also determine materials and systems decisions made by architects. “When an architect firm begins the design of a project, they first determine the appropriate occupancy usage and building type,” says Wright. “These will lead to accepted standards of safety, material choice, energy and sustainability design. If a manufacturer wishes to get their fabrics to be considered they must get in the door prior to a project’s start and educate the architect to the benefits, capabilities and life-safety issues of their product so that it, along with more traditional materials like steel, glass, wood and concrete become part of the palette of choices architects turn to when starting their designs.” Wright believes that fabric has superior benefits in shade and energy reduction contributions, especially in sustainability applications. “These qualities and benefits should be strongly emphasized, then followed up with facts and detailed specifications that architects have at hand when they start their projects,” he says.

Making it work

With any working relationship, anticipated and unanticipated issues can arise when fabricators and architects collaborate. With fabric architects, Armijos specifically points out the payment process and price of materials, the lifespan of fabric and maintenance considerations. Details can get lost in translation in the design/fabrication/installation process chain as well.

Miller says, “Expectations need to be clear as to what a fabric structure can and can’t do. We often have designs that look great but cannot be made the way the architect wants it and meet engineering and city codes. Working with architects can be very rewarding because they have a vision and the ability to show their clients what a project will look like that we as fabricators may not be able to do.”

Despite these challenges, Wright believes participating in local architect society events, and “at the least, exhibiting at their annual conferences, and maybe even offering to give CEU-based learning sessions,” can create lasting, successful working partnerships.

Jake Kulju is a freelance writer from Shafer, Minn.

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