Ever since the 1970s back-to-earth, energy enlightenment era of oil embargoes and the beginning of the environmentalism movement, architects and government officials have acknowledged the importance of making ever more energy-efficient buildings.
It has been proven that buildings (the construction of them and the manufacturing of all the materials that go into making and operating them once they’re built) and the related construction of infrastructure, roads and parking lots, etc., contribute up to 40 percent of all carbon added to the earth’s atmosphere—more than any other single category of carbon production.
This is now taught in all North American architecture schools as baseline knowledge, and has been promoted for decades by European schools. In fact, the next wave of thinking, led by German architects and educators, is the “Passive House Design” approach that looks at the total building in all its interconnected facets. This approach looks at the design and construction of highly energy-efficient structures and how they are integrated into their sites, climates and social support systems. These principles are being applied to all buildings, not just residential structures, and a more recent development outgrowth of this philosophy has taken it to the next level (also led by German designers), called the “Net Zero Design” approach. This means buildings are highly efficient, use no more than the minimal energy necessary to operate—and replace all of the energy they use. These buildings may even contribute back to a local power grid with any excess energy generated in a normal building operating cycle.
Given the recent history of European advanced energy design and construction, there are naturally a number of innovative building cladding systems developed throughout the European construction industries that contribute to an energy-efficient bottom line. These include highly responsive and effective facade cladding systems that incorporate specialty fabrics in intelligent ways, such as vertical shades systems, retractable awning and shading devices, and entire building wraps.
Skin in the game
With this industry advancement now underway, a number of industry experts are sizing up this trend in North America. According to Steve Fredrickson, Europe is “generally speaking far ahead of the North American market, and it’s for a variety of reasons: First is the lack of standardization in air conditioning in most homes and retail locations. The need for a barrier against heat gain is fairly common across the [European] continent. The second reason, I think,” says Fredrickson, sales manager for Serge Ferrari North America, Pompano Beach, Fla., “has a lot to do with the European building codes being more accepting of new products and developments to reduce energy gain.” Fredrickson says the North American market for fabric shade systems has become more difficult due to the building codes already in place, and the time frames it takes to make any changes or adaptations to them that would favor the use of fabric.
Some see the North American market as having some distance to go before more widespread acceptance will be seen. “From my point of view, I would say Europe is ahead,” says architect Samuel Armijos, AIA, president, Fabric Architect LLC, Fairfield, N.J. “A lot of the [typical American] building cladding systems (metal, curtain wall, etc.) are built or designed for exterior applications. There are so many more examples of [vertical] fabric systems to see in Europe. There just aren’t many projects here in the U.S. to send someone to see the benefits. Take ETFE [ethylene tetrafluoroethylene]. There are so many examples of ETFE to visit here in the U.S. that it is now more acceptable to design and build using this material. Where are the best examples of textile facades in the U.S.? A couple of projects in the Southwest, perhaps?”
Architect Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, senior principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York, N.Y., generally agrees with Armijos. Goldsmith has designed several of the few examples in the U.S. that use tensile fabric elements as shading devices. “It’s true that Europe has more examples of fabric vertical shade systems,” says Goldsmith. “However, there is growing recognition by North American designers that exterior shading, in certain cases based on regional climate conditions, can provide advantages to a building’s facade that other cladding systems struggle to attain—such as lightweight, efficient, cost-effective shading functionality.”
“European countries have historically been much further ahead of the North American market when [it comes to] using shading,” says Mike Squizzato, president, Stobag North America Corp., Burlington, Ont., Canada. “In Europe, when it’s too hot outside you head for the shade, and in North America you head for the AC. Imagine Disney World, where doors are always open and people stand close to the doors to get that cooling effect. Some parks have introduced water cooling stations when shade protection should be the solution. North American markets are tame in comparison to European markets, but are growing quickly. Awnings and vertical shading offer a perfect solution for a natural air-conditioned environment.”
Squizzato points out that the cost of electricity in Europe plays a big role in design choices when it comes to building energy control. “Europeans are more cost-conscious, since electricity rates historically are considerably more expensive in these markets than in the United States. Some statistics show where awnings and vertical shading can save over 50 percent on electricity costs. North American markets will quickly catch up to Europe, however. This business is taking off and growing exponentially.”
“Yes, Europe is still ahead of us in fabric facade architecture,” says Paul Snustead, Associate AIA, director of facades, Structurflex, Kansas City, Mo., “but Structurflex has made huge strides in changing the tide here in the U.S.” (Structurflex is one of the few U.S./international companies that has staffed a team of professionals, including a director of facades, that focus on the U.S. façade market.)
Tensile facades (also called textile, fabric or flexible facades) are an innovative, long-lasting, cost-effective alternative to traditional metal mesh facade screens, says Snustead. “They cost approximately 50 percent of a metal mesh or perforated metal facade. Additionally, this exterior ‘second skin’ building system acts as a screening or shading device.” Architects can count this toward reduced energy consumption and/or LEED certification.
Two steps forward
While experts interviewed recognize that the North American market cannot match that of Europe (at least not yet), there are contradictory signs that fabric-based shading systems could be declining, maintaining or growing, depending on the individual markets studied and what approach is taken. More traditional building cladding materials continue to compete for an architect’s choice. But fabric is still a viable option.
“In the past five years,” says Armijos, “I have seen few leads turn into [shade] jobs. The parking garage is the biggest market [for these facade systems] but you are competing against the prefab concrete guy who is designing floor and wall systems to create a facade all in concrete.” Likewise, says Armijos, steel fabricators are partnering with metal and steel mesh facade combinations. Where does fabric fit in? “The focus needs to be on the cladding of existing buildings.” The challenge, says Armijos, is that there are so many other facade cladding options, such as rain screens, plastic and wood, competing with fabric that “it will take a major world event to get a push toward textile facades like the World Cup Qatar, or an Olympics or World’s Fair.”
“We have seen a decline in the use of stainless steel cables over the years within the fabric structure industry, so we don’t see a lot of these types of projects anymore,” says Andrew Trowbridge, U.S. western regional sales, Ronstan International, Portsmouth, R.I. “What we are seeing is a trend towards the use of greening systems for shade and coverage of bare facades. There has also been a swing towards the use of perforated aluminum panels.”
“From our point of view,” says Fredrickson, “vertical shading is growing, but is also a fairly generic term too; there are multiple options available in the market in the form of static or retractable. I see growth in both options across the continent for some years to come.”
Others feel the market is not only not declining or holding steady, but is in fact on the verge of rapid improvement. “The fabric facade architecture market that utilizes various tensile fabric meshes, membranes and foils, has been expanding exponentially,” says Snustead. “We started out with simple parking garage screening systems using tensile meshes. Every major metropolitan municipality requires screening of parking garages, and we can provide a very economical solution that is 50 percent less expensive than typical traditional metal mesh or perforated metal screening systems. Also, tensile meshes allow for natural air flow to maintain an open garage without expensive mechanical ventilation.”
“We see both vertical shading solutions and awnings are growing exponentially,” says Squizzato, “with an ever-so-slight leveling trend in Europe. In Europe, nearly every window of a hotel or business or apartment building is covered. Using either type of shading can help architects achieve Green Building certification with LEED credits assigned for their use. More densely populated cities as well as ‘cottage country’ are seeing substantial growth and are the ones realizing the benefits of using sun solutions.”
On average, the outlook for vertical fabric shading is positive. Our sources give a cautionary thumbs-up to the market, but urge those who would consider getting into it or expanding their current practices to carefully research all the technical and market details before jumping in.
“The fabric facade architecture market will become a mainstay in the U.S. as more and more architects and general contractors become familiar with it,” says Snustead. He notes that Structurflex has seen an 800 percent increase in the amount of facade projects the company produces on an annual basis, and fabric facades are quickly becoming a major portion of company operations. “We recently did the first ever laminated PTFE mesh facade for the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL Practice Facility in Jacksonville, Fla. Architects are constantly looking for new, innovative ways of expressing themselves. Not only is this medium innovative, but it is very economical.”
“There will be continued growth for sure, but as with anything it takes the right products, being used by the companies equipped to do it, in order to sustain growth,” says Fredrickson. “We’ve seen other markets start to choose cheap products to try and mimic ours without the proven performance. This has led to issues in those markets like poor performance or even failure, and that can boomerang and hurt the rest of the people in that market.”
“As the environment gets warmer and temperatures climb,” says Squizzato, “people in general will flock to solutions and entertain alternative cheaper methods of staying cool as compared to air conditioning. North America will start to look like Europe; buildings will have more color with the use of awnings, and vertical shading will become increasingly popular. Within 15 years we will most definitely compare more to our European counterparts, and North Americans will stop running for the AC comforts of home and start enjoying the natural comforts of shading in the great outdoors.”
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is a licensed architect and consultant to designers and other architects on lightweight structures. He is a frequent contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review, Fabric Architecture and Advanced Textiles Source.