Fabric Structures in Residential Applications

By: Sam Armijos

Fabric Structures are considered the oldest forms of Housing. Throughout history, they have been adopted in one form or another by different groups of people living in a variety of environmental conditions. The tent form was ideal for nomads because they were lightweight, mobile and adaptable but the "modern Nomad" doesn't need a tent anymore as our living quarters have become more permanent wherever we happen to be or go. 20 years ago, This author wrote a student thesis on the potential of Fabric Structures in Housing. The focus of that report was to demonstrate that the "overall performance" of Housing could improve with the use of Architectural Fabric Structures.

Overall performance is defined as the success of a building or space in sustaining human needs (physical, social and environmental). This sounds quite utopian but what's wrong with dreaming a little in college! Unlike other building types, Housing is a very personal experience and a form of architecture with complex physical, environmental and social issues. My utopian vision was to first have a decent home (fabric structure) for every person. I dreamed of a "mast supported" single family home with a Teflon roof over the main living spaces and a shade structures over the outdoor living spaces. My dream has not come true and maybe for good reason.

The use of fabric structures in residential applications must be looked at differently at each segment of the market. For single family homes, the use is extremely personal and often experimental. An Architect wants to put his or her signature on a home and can use a fabric structure to make a particular statement whether it is a retractable roof, wall or even floor. On the other hand, the benefit Architects tend to seek in using fabric structures in housing is a safe and reliable spatial envelope for public assembly that will improve (not solve) the overall performance of the development. Today, Fabric Structures have played an important role in society. We can all agree that they provide UV protection and an alternative solution to some traditional materials but it's hard to measure the satisfaction one gets out of fabric structures on a social level. Fabric structures have primarily been built for only public uses: amphitheaters, recreational centers, shopping malls, stadiums and pavilions, to name a few. These structures tend to congregate people and provide social interaction for a specific period of time but they are not used on an everyday basis for living.

Let's consider a closer look at the "soft" housing market.

Physical Performance is making something that is affordable and durable. Architecture as shelter has primarily been built of hard materials, to separate our public and private spaces and buildings from the environment. However, look at the design of some homes today. The home has gone from fabric walls (see the nomads) to heavy walls (see H.H. Richardson) to glass walls (see Mies) to fabric walls (see Shigeru Ban) to no walls at all. Fabric covered patios, gardens, garages, entries and sidewalks are being designed with structures with translucent membranes to get closer and closer to nature at an affordable price. Today, commercial tents and pre-engineered clear spans are wonderful solutions for enlarging ones living space and protecting one from the elements. In larger developments, entries, public facilities and parking garages are being developed using fabric structures to advertise, hide or protect existing or new construction and owner's personal belongings. Textile facades are providing UV protection, greater signage opportunities and provide an alternative to EIFS and other building facade treatments available in the market.

Social performance is creating a place or space where social interaction can occur. This normally occurs through the arrangement of housing units or the space created between buildings. Architects usually approach fabric structures in terms of their novelty and long span capabilities, but there are so many other features which architectural fabrics bring to improve social interaction.

Retail has learned about the potential of fabric structures and multifamily buildings and garden apartments can learn the same. Main Street or the neighborhood corridor can be covered with either retractable awnings or street wide velas. Retractable systems are getting bigger, wider and capable of being used with new and more advanced materials. Domed stadiums are no longer trends in professional sports and the multi family market can see the benefits as well. Small scale tennis and recreational facilities and public amenities like bathrooms and corner stores can be fabric structures for large scale developments and shade and shelter is needed for areas like parking, transportation, and dining.

The Environmental performance is in some ways the most complex. Although, performance can be calculated in dollars and cents and in the BTU's and Kilowatts, it can also be very subjective as every person has a different comfort level. Another issue being addressed with regards to the environmental performance is the material itself. There is past, present and future interest in the environment and sustainability. Is the material durable, recyclable, environmentally friendly, assisting in LEED certification or giving off toxic gases to the environment? You can say that about any material. Fabric structures are made of very few materials and designed and made to improve human comfort. Their benefits include the reduction of direct UV to the skin, the impact on the land thru minimal foundations and by providing natural light to areas which might otherwise require artificial lighting and electricity.

What is the future of Fabric Structures in Houses and Housing? With the rise in energy cost and real estate taxes nationwide, there may be more interest in creating temporary structures for outdoor living in single family homes. Do it yourself Pavilions, clear spans and pool enclosures are more than ever within reach. As for multifamily housing, the public spaces, roof and the parking lot are the places being considered for fabric structures. The social areas or play areas will see the greatest growth as the need for UV protection for children and elderly will increase. Today, the automobile is part of the nucleus family and it is being cared for like a child. Expect to see more covered parking. Lastly, Architects and designer are seeing the roof as a possible new source for interaction, energy and creativity. Enclosed Pools and partially covered "green roofs" are on the drawing boards as well as the use of photovoltaic on membrane structures. Ultimately, the key to any successful housing project or neighborhood development is its social performance.

Fabric Structures are coming home again!

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