Part Three – The History of Tensile Fabric Structures

To finish our three-part series on the history of tensile fabric structures, we explore the various applications of tensile architecture from Ancient Rome to modern times. We will showcase one expectational tensile structure to discuss its effect on tensile architecture design solutions. 


The History of Tensile Fabric Structures: Fabric Structure Applications

Although tensile architecture is a modern term, fabric structures using the force of tension, rather than weight, is one of the oldest, simplest methods humans have used to provide shelter. Throughout history, tensile fabric structures have been used in a variety of forms, with the origins of fabric structures traced back to simple tents designed from draping animal skins over wooden frames.

It started with the Romans….

The first major application of tensile principles in architecture began with the Romans. A common feature in Ancient Rome, fabric roofs and retractable fabric awnings were frequently used in theatres and amphitheatre providing shade for the spectators from the blistering sun and heat. Whilst providing a sunshade, the main use of the awning was to create a ventilation updraft, creating circulation and a cool breeze.

The Colosseum’s awning, or velarium (Latin for awning), consisted of Roman shades made of sailcloth, in either canvas, linen or cotton, connected together and suspended from ropes that hung from 240 masts set in sockets around the cornice of the amphitheatre. The fabric roof could be extended or retracted with ropes and pulleys according to the position of the sun. It is believed that Roman sailors were used to work the awning at the Colosseum, raising and lowering the awnings like sails on a ship.

Modern Tensile Architecture Applications 

Despite being used for thousands of years, the principle of tensile architecture didn’t take off until contemporary times. Following contributions and advancements from the likes of Frei Otto and Horst Berger, among others, tensile structures have become more common, accepted pieces of architecture all over the world. Many attribute the substantial growth to evolving consumer demand, challenges associated with compliance regulations and the need for more energy efficient buildings.

Advantages of Tensile Architecture

The versatility of fabric structures is not limited to only creating large scale fabric buildings. Rather, tensile architecture design and manufacturing applications can be applied to a variety of indoor and outdoor specifications. Tensile architecture is effective for creating covered walkways, entrance canopies, sports facilities and stadiums, outdoor dining and entertainment canopies and much more. Durable, lightweight and able to withstand even severe weather conditions, tensile architecture has amazing benefits over traditional building methods.

1. Visual Impact 

The possibilities are limitless with fabric architecture, as they can create unique, bespoke, three-dimensional forms. Fabric architecture makes an impact, a visual focus, allowing for architectures to come up with imaginative design solutions over a traditional structure. Large scale tensile architecture projects are ideal for sports stadiums and landmarks, as well as to use when updating the facade of a traditional building.

2. Versality 

This freedom and flexibility of fabric architecture allow architects and designers to create unique structures and with endless applications, fabric architecture offers unlimited design options. With indoor as well as outdoor use, fabric structures make bold, yet graceful, artistic statements, complementing existing buildings and the natural setting, whilst enhancing the space with bespoke style. 

3. Practicality

Because of their lightweight nature, tensile fabric structures are a quicker and more efficient way to cover a large area with minimal disruption compared with a rigid structure. It’s clearspan nature and capabilities, allows for the reduction in supporting, above-ground framework. Furthermore, J & J Carter’s fabric structures are built to last with the ability to withstand inclement weather, as well as providing UV protection, thermal insulation and ventilation, acoustic control and energy efficiency and sustainability. 

Millennium Dome

The Millennium Dome is the largest dome-shaped tensile structure in the world encompassing a volume of 2.2 million cubic meters. The design was inspired by time and space, as architects and designers from Richard Rogers Partnership and Imagination tracked the trajectory of stars and comets from dawn until dusk. Despite its massive size, the entire structure of the roof is ultra-efficient and relatively lightweight, so much so that the total weight of the structure weighs less than the air contained in the building. 

The canopy itself is a one-millimetre white PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) fabric with an interior lining designed to reduce thermal gain and improve thermal and acoustic performance – in essence, absorb both sound and condensation. Also, the Dome is naturally ventilated with openings at the centre of the roof allowing for hot air to escape, minimising the environmental impact. Rather than building separate pavilions, it was much more cost-effective and time-efficient to use a tensile structure to enclose the entire space. 

Tensile Architecture with J & J Carter

We believe in creating high-quality, bespoke projects that are beautiful, durable and cost-effective for our clients. We work alongside our client’s professional advisors to provide an architectural solution using only the latest in fabric developments and engineering techniques. Suitable for all applications, tensile architecture is an excellent alternative over traditional building methods. Get in touch with our friendly and professional team today to learn more.