Taking the heat: thermal factors in fabric architecture

If you mention fabric architecture, many people are still likely to think first of camping or the circus big top. However, striking tensile architecture has been with us now for at least 40 years, dating back to Otto Frei’s pioneering designs in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Taking the heat

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Outdoor enclosed spaces

Much of the lack of familiarity the public has with tensile structures is possibly down to their widespread use in canopies, shade sails, walkways, and similar items. People see tensile fabric structures as providing temporary shelter from the elements rather than places where they might spend more time, like their homes or offices; perhaps they hold the mistaken belief that buildings using architectural fabric are difficult to keep at a steady temperature and inevitably uncomfortable.

Thermal design

In conventional architecture, stable temperatures are maintained by a combination of thermal mass (essentially the quality of the building material to absorb and release heat) and thermal insulation (the ability to separate the inside temperature from the outside) – a balance that is easily achieved with traditional materials.

In contrast, fabric offers neither thermal mass nor insulation. Fabric’s low mass reduces its thermal resistance practically to zero. On a sunny day, the surface temperature of a fabric roof can well exceed external the air temperature. In addition, the poor insulation offered by the material will transmit any heat or cold more or less immediately to the interior.

Thermal designers must also consider the strong effect of solar radiation. Gregor Harvie’s 1996 thesis concludes that although the impact of solar absorption on heat transference is complex, it is entirely influenced by the angle at which the sun hits the membrane.

Overcoming challenges

Thermal factors clearly present a challenge for architects. However, a quick look at recent architectural projects soon demonstrates how designers such as those at http://fabricarchitecture.com/ have embraced that challenge, overcome the difficulties and created some truly beautiful free-form building designs in locations around the world.

Advances in coatings and fabric structure, as set out in Di Tian’s 2011 masters thesis, together with progress in computational modelling, have resulted in solutions to many of the thermal design problems of fabric architecture.

Add to that the kinetic architecture engineered to respond dynamically to its environment, and it becomes quite clear that fabric architecture has a bright future.

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