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Chapter 7


Markus Balz, Mike Dencher


7.1 Lightweight Structures Subject to External Loading

By the very nature of lightweight structures, the ratio of applied loading to self-weight is usu-
ally many times larger than that of conventional building structures. Changes in the magni-
tude of wind and snow loading are therefore likely to have a proportionately larger impact
on the size of the structural members required and the scale of deflections experienced.

Consequently the selection of suitable loading patterns for the design of membrane struc-
tures has to be carefully considered. Furthermore the codes are written for standardised
building shapes and building behaviour, usually making the application of a single code very
difficult. As a consequence more time and effort needs to be spent in defining load cases.

As described in the previous chapter, due to the flexibility of membrane forms the design
of such structures needs to vary from the new European Codes.

7.2 Prestress

The level of prestress in a membrane surface affects all the elements within the supporting
structure (masts, frames, cables etc.). Prestress is an inherent part of its structural behaviour.
The prestress levels are chosen as a result of the “form finding” process, and have to be
achieved and sustained during the erection and life of the structure. These forces have to be
included in all other load cases.

The prestress of membrane structures is a fundamental part of the shape and structural
behaviour. This is explained in more detail in Chapter 2.

Long term effects, such as creep of the membrane material may alter prestress levels.
Foundation settlement may also, though rarely, be an influence. These effects must be con-
sidered and appropriate measures taken to ensure the retention of sufficient prestress.

Generally the minimum required prestress of membrane surfaces depends on the stiffness
and strength of the material and the efficiency of the membrane surface (i.e. curvature).
Furthermore prestress levels lower than those given may lead to an uneven or wrinkly
appearance as not all fibres in the surface may be sufficiently stretched.

For PVC coated Polyester membrane structures, a ‘rule of thumb’ is that the prestress should
not be less than 1.3% of the average tensile strip capacity of the material in both the warp
and weft directions. This value can be applied to satisfy the minimum requirement for
prestress of permanent membrane structures made of the following PVC types

Minimum Prestress Levels for PVC coated Polyester membrane structures

Type I 0.70 KN/m
Type II 0.90 KN/m
Type III 1.30 KN/m
Type IV 1.60 KN/m
Type V 2.00 KN/m

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The prestress can be chosen with higher values to minimise deflections of inefficient curved
membrane forms, with the increased prestress marginally reducing the allowable working stress
range. Temporary or special case membrane structures might be designed using lower prestress.

The prestress values for PTFE coated glass fibre membrane structures tend to be higher as
the material is stiffer. The prestress should not be lower then 2.0kN/m and the strongest
currently available membrane PTFE coated glassfibre membrane is often prestressed at
typically 5.0kN/m (and for very flat surfaces perhaps up to 10kN/m).

A “rule of thumb” is that the prestress should not be less than 2.5% nor greater than 6%
of the average tensile strip capacity of the material in both warp and fill directions.

The above values can be applied to satisfy the basic requirement for prestress of permanent
membrane structures.

The level of prestress in the membrane surface affects the support structures (e.g. mast,
frames and cables) and is an inherent part of the structural behaviour. Prestress ratios are
selected during the form finding process and their levels are validated during analysis of the
design loadcases. The prestress forces have, of course, to be included in all load cases.

Different prestress levels between warp and weft may alter the shape to a certain degree and
may improve the structural behaviour. This strategy is in effect a fine-tuning for structures
that have a “design-dictating” imposed load in one direction and a moderate load in the
other opposite direction. However choosing more suitable geometric boundary conditions
and more curvature will always be a more successful way of improving structural behaviour.

For conical membrane shapes varying prestress levels are a necessity, as the membrane
shape would “neck-in” around the ring support.

Generally the prestress ratios should not vary by more than 1:4 or 4:1.


Membrane structures are usually ‘compensated’ so that the

fabric will achieve the predefined prestress levels at the cor-
rect geometry once the creep of the membrane has occurred.
The compensation process accounts for the elastic stretch of
membrane and cables, and for the creep of the membrane.

A “force-controlled” prestress regime is one in which all ele-

ments including the membrane reach their pre-defined pre-
stress values, but will need to be subjected to re-tensioning
after the early creep has occurred, see Fig. 7.1. Alternatively, a
“geometrically controlled” prestress regime will slightly over
stress the membrane until sufficient creep has occurred. Highly
Fig. 7.1 Force-controlled pre stress
prestressed membranes may reach their working capacity for regime of membrane structure
a short period of time while they are stretched into position using hydraulic jacks © Landrell
Fabric Engineering

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without time to creep and should therefore be installed in a force-controlled manner or using a
“time stepped” geometrically-controlled prestress regime. The structure does not have to be
re-tensioned after installation provided appropriate compensation values are applied and account
has been taken of likely long-term movements such as foundation settlement and drift.

Using a geometrically-controlled prestress regime requires detailed analysis to avoid overstres-

sing the membrane should it be subjected to high external loading shortly after installation.


The procedures for membrane renewal and maintenance need to be considered during the
design stage. Where for instance a panel of the membrane may need to be replaced the
consequential effects on the remaining structure, in terms of changes to membrane stres-
ses, element forces and movements, should be considered.

In such circumstances lower levels of imposed load may be satisfying when judged in rela-
tion to a reduced period of exposure to such load.

7.3 Selfweight

The selfweight of the membrane is commonly between 0.7 and 2.0 kg/m2.

It is not usual to include the self-weight in the form finding process because this may intro-
duce some additional mechanical freedom into the response of the membrane to wind uplift
loadings. Although this is usually a trivial effect, in some cases it may be significant – for
example in relatively lightly stressed membrane surfaces using heavier grade fabrics.

Whether or not self-weight is included in the form finding process (to define an initial geo-
metrical state) it must be included in all applied load cases.

7.4 Wind

Wind, especially in the form of uplift, is regularly the critical case for membrane and cable
stresses in lightweight membrane structures. It is generally considered as a static load case,
defined by a dynamic pressure multiplied by a pressure coefficient (Cp). It is also assumed
that the membrane undergoes only slight changes to its geometry such that changes to Cp
factors are small enough to be safely ignored.

This approach may not be appropriate if the membrane form is deflection sensitive and/or
large deflections are the case. This case is discussed in more detail later in 7.4.5.


The site wind speed and dynamic pressure can be derived as described in EC1, part 2.4.

I 194 I European Design Guide for Tensile Surface Structures

Markus Balz, Mike Dencher

7.4.2 Cp VALUES

Membrane structures are single layer elements with wind load often exerted on both faces
simultaneously. The local Cp values for both internal and external surfaces can be derived
using appropriate codes and papers. The summed effects of the internal and external Cp
values used are to be applied to the analysis model. Pressures need to be applied normal
to the deflected surface.

Membrane structures that enclose buildings behave differently to open canopies since only
the external side of the fabric is exposed directly to the dynamic wind pressure. However
the internal pressure / internal suction has also to be taken into account. This will be sig-
nificant when large openings in wall or roof are present. Consequently high internal Cp fac-
tors can be expected.

With air-inflated structures the dynamic wind pressure due to wind loading acts only on one
side of the membrane, as the inflation equipment controls the internal pressure.


The building form described in the relevant codes will not usually match the form-found
shape of the membrane structure. Therefore when using these sources conservative assump-
tions need to be made when considering the various possible configurations of Cp’s.
Literature available for guidance includes:
a) EC1 – Part 2.4
b) BS 6399 Part 2
c) DIN 1055 Part 4
d) N J Cook, ‘The Designers Guide to Wind Loading of Building Structures – Part 2’ publ.
e) Zuranski, Windeinflüsse auf Baukonstruktionen.

Examples of pressure distributions for typical tensile shapes are provided in Appendix A1.


Examples of pressure distributions for a variety of Open Stadium Roofs are given in
Appendix A2.



Wind Tunnel tests need to be used to derive Cp values when:

1. The membrane shape and form is sufficiently different from those described in the codes
and available literature that a reliable estimate of the Cp values cannot be made.


2. The conservative approach renders a complex structure too expensive to construct.

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Fig. 7.2 Wind tunnel model stadium, © Wacker Ingenieure

A wind tunnel test can investigate the local pressure coefficients and improve the reliability
of the design loading. The majority of wind tunnel tests are carried out on rigid models that
do not take into account changes in the applied pressure distribution due to deflection of
the membrane surface. Hence rigid model tests are not the most suitable type for deflection-
sensitive membrane surfaces, but generally the only option.

A more complex “aero-elastic” wind tunnel test to investigate dynamic effects, such as gal-
loping and flutter, could be more suitable for such a structure. This would incorporate in the
model a surface that deflects in a similar way to the full size structure. However, these models
are very complex to build and do not always provide very consistent answers. Current
research is attempting to assess the aerodynamic stability using coupled numerical analysis
for wind flow (Computational Fluid Dynamics CFD analysis) and structural interaction (Finite
Element Modelling FEM). However, their application to prove the feasibility of very soft mem-
brane structures responding to wind will be an aspect for future research.

The wind tunnel should represent the appropriate atmospheric boundary layer to accom-
modate gust effects including those resulting from dominant buildings and other obstruc-
tions in the surrounding area.

Generally the wind tunnel is able to provide local pressure loads including Cp values,
dynamic amplification factors and size effects. Their results are based on the following infor-
mation provided by the structural engineer:

a) the structurally important mode shapes and their natural frequencies

b) maximum deflections based on established loads
c) load application areas (overall, secondary elements, cladding etc.)
d) specific areas of interest for loads.

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The test results need to be filtered appropriately to find the most critical load cases for the
structure. The most critical wind load case for a membrane structure will not necessarily be
related to the mode shapes, which is often the case for more standard structures.


Typically the structural calculations will be undertaken using statically applied loads.
However in rare cases dynamic effects of the wind may need to be considered.

In relation to “global resonant behaviour” membrane structures have low natural frequencies
(Nf ) and values of 1.5 to 0.5 are typical. However, due to their very low weight and their well
damped behaviour, negative effects like dynamic amplifications are very small and can be
neglected in most cases. They are also commonly seen as lightly damped structures in terms
of their structural damping ratio. However, tests on aero-elastic wind tunnel models1 parti-
cularly for enclosed membrane structures illustrate a highly damped behaviour that does not
cause aerodynamic instability. Similarly, for open sided structures it seems that a large degree
of damping is provided by the moving air volumes. For the estimation of dynamic amplifi-
cation factors the wind tunnel experts assume damping ratios between 1.5% and 3%
– neglecting aerodynamic damping. However, within the membrane structure industry higher
values of damping are thought to be appropriate as the composite nature of the material and
the crimp interchange between the yarns will naturally cause high damping due to friction.

Free membrane edges are susceptible to local

dynamic issues. Care shall be taken with front
edges and membrane boundaries lying parallel
with the leeward exposed airflow, because the Cp
factors on these edges can change dramatically
with only a small change in the flow’s “angle of
attack”. This effect is called “flutter” (figure 7.3)
and occurs particularly in the naturally flat bound-
ary areas or in edge areas with low tension in the
The increased movement of the fabric surface
reduces the lifespan of the membrane and may
well disconcert the observer. To minimise these
effects it is recommended to limit the free spans
of boundary edge cables to not greater than 20m.

Fig. 7.3 Flutter along a free

membrane edge

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Similar to all major design load cases, sufficient curvature of the membrane surface is the
key to minimising wind excited flutter, though high prestress values to stabilise flat mem-
brane surfaces are sometimes an alternative. The following equation provides a good indi-
cation of the stiffness available to react against applied pressure loads D measured off an
equilibrated form-found model.

Nwarp = Prestress in Warp Direction (kN/m)

Nwarp Nweft Nweft = Prestress in Weft Direction (kN/m)
D≈ + Rwarp = positive Radius in Warp Direction (m)
Rwarp Rweft
Rweft = positive Radius in Weft Direction (m)
D = Stiffness of Surface (kN/m2)

Membrane structures with sound structural behaviour were typically found to have D greater
than 0.3kN/m2. On some membrane surfaces, with D of around 0.15kN/m2 and less, it has
been observed that small travelling waves were excited on the surface by wind. Membrane
structures having D < 0.2kN/m2 over large areas can show deflection-sensitive behaviour and
may require detailed investigation into the structural behaviour under environmental loads.

On pneumatic structures, such as air halls2, 3, 4, having low positive gaussian curvature and
relatively flat membrane surfaces, travelling waves can occur even under steady winds as
the internal pressure is often set low to reduce running costs. The stiffness of the surface
D is for air halls equivalent to the internal pressure.

7.5 Snow

Ground snow load should be investigated using guidance from EC1. For long-span structures,
it is recommended that the ground snow load be investigated using available data from the
local meteorological office.

In areas not subjected to snow loads, a nominal uniformly distributed load of 0.3kN/m2
should nevertheless be considered. This figure may be reduced for structures with spans
over 50m by applying a detailed statistical investigation accounting for loading by rain,
fallen leaves, sand/dirt etc.

I 198 I European Design Guide for Tensile Surface Structures

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Snow can be deposited upon

roofs under calm or windy

Under calm conditions an

even layer will tend to be
deposited over the entire
roof. EC1 gives guidance on
the value of the coefficients
to be used.

Under windy conditions the

snow will tend to drift apply-
ing an uneven loading to the
roof. The nature of this
uneven loading depends on
the roof profile in the direc- Fig. 7.4 Snow load distribution on conical membrane structure (foreground) and acrylic
glass clad cable net roof (background) © Atelier Kinold
tion of the wind.

In the case of a roof consisting of a series of ridges and valleys under windy conditions the
snow will drift away from the ridges into the valleys. EC1 gives coefficients for the peak
amount of snow at the valley base and for the minimum amount of snow at the ridge. This
effect is difficult to predict and care must be taken.

Alternative possible load distributions need to be considered and design undertaken for the
most onerous. The likelihood of numerous snowfalls compounding the load case also needs
to be considered. In EC1 the concept of “single snow events” and “multiple snow events” are
used. “Single snow events” occur in regions where there is a reasonable expectation that the
snow deposited on roofs will thaw between the arrival of one weather system and the next.

The wind blown snow loading to large wide-span structures can be modelled in a wind tun-
nel or flume to predict the redistribution of the snow on the roof. It is generally assumed that
the total snow load on the roof would remain the same but that under wind action snow may
drift in the valleys of the roof increasing the loading to those areas.


The effects of snow sliding over smooth surfaces into the valleys shall be considered. The
risk of snow falling from the roof and endangering people shall also be considered. There
is a higher perceived risk with fabric structures since their smooth surfaces can effectively
be lubricated by melting snow.

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As explained above, snow will drift and slide

into the valleys and towards the boun-
daries. With a large snow load, the structure
may develop deflections such that a down-
ward slope becomes reversed.

Fig. 7.5 Ponding Snow on Membrane Roof, Pennsylvania

(by courtesy of Geiger Engineers5)

This can produce what is generally referred to as ‘ponding’ since the slope no longer allows
the runoff of rain and melting snow. Due to the flexibility of the membrane, the retention of
rainwater and snow leads to larger deflections. This then leads to the further attraction of
rainwater and snow. Large loads are experienced and for this reason, ponding must be
avoided in membrane structures. It should be demonstrated that the application of snow
loads will not result in ponding. It is not sufficient to consider surface slopes purely in the
prestress state since the geometry of the surface may change significantly under loading.


The procedures for snow clearance must be considered. Reduced snow loads can only be
applied where a “limiting depth” can be assured by a practical means of snow removal.
Additional access loads may be larger than the snow load, but smaller structures allow alter-
native means of clearing the snow.

One method is to use a hosepipe to wash down the snow after a snowfall. Another, which is
often used to clear the snow round smooth surface air halls, is to heat the internal surface
of the membrane as the snow is able to slide off easily in all directions. All other methods
of trying to melt the snow have been found to be unsuccessful and unreliable.

7.6 Temperature

Temperature effects in respect of overall structural behaviour and load analysis are usually
found to be less significant on fabric structures when compared with rigid construction.
Temperature change manifests itself in relatively small ± variation in prestress levels. However,
temperature effects are more important for steel cable nets.

I 200 I European Design Guide for Tensile Surface Structures

Markus Balz, Mike Dencher

7.7 Seismic Loading

In general seismic loads are not a problem as membrane structures weigh so little and so
will not pick up substantial acceleration forces under seismic action. Should the structure
contain relatively massive components such as struts or connections, then these will be sub-
ject to accelerations under seismic loading.

7.8 Construction Tolerance

The European codes for construction tolerances vary, but generally it can be said that the
tolerances provided by standard concrete works are by no means sufficient to erect statically
indeterminate structures upon. Therefore the tightest tolerances have to be chosen or struc-
tural adjustment measures have to be taken to ensure the connection points (i.e. base plates,
mast footing or wall connection) are accurate. Stiff structures or highly pretensioned elements
may require high fabrication tolerances especially in the axial force direction, to ensure that
predefined prestress forces and geometry of the structure can be confirmed. Sensitivity ana-
lysis involving shortening or lengthening crucial structural elements can be used to define
the required construction tolerances for the base. The bases (i.e. grouted up base plates etc.)
should be surveyed prior to installation of a membrane structure.

Further tolerances have to be expected within the membrane structure and cables. The
membrane surface, being less stiff, is usually more forgiving to small dimensional inaccura-
cies than the cables.

In general the tension members of a cable structure do not allow adjustment of their length
to compensate for fabrication tolerance. Hence the fabrication tolerance on the length of the
complete assembly with end fittings is critical. Any error in cable length will result in diffe-
rences between actual and design prestress forces within the cables once fully erected.

If the cables are generally shorter than designed then the prestress forces will be larger,
resulting in:

a) possible overloading of cables when the structure is loaded

b) larger jacking forces required to connect the cables as the latter must be ‘stretched’ into
position. The larger the diameter of the cable the greater will be the extra jacking load
required to stretch the cable by a given proportion of its length – hence the tolerance on
length of larger diameter short cables is more critical than smaller long cables.

Alternatively if the cables are generally longer than designed the forces will be smaller,
resulting in:

c) cables may go slack when structure is loaded (or even in prestress-only state) giving a
lack of structural stiffness.

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A typical tolerance on a cable cut under preload and with end fittings attached is:

Tolerance = ± (‹(L/1000) + 5 mm) where L is cable length in mm.

To achieve these construction tolerances the cables are typically cut to length under their
design prestress load. It is therefore important that the design prestress loads used are
accurate to the loads that will be in the cables in the erected prestressed state.

Not all cable manufacturers are able to manufacture to these tolerances and a structural sen-
sitivity study would need to be done.

7.9 Load Combinations

To take account of the large deflections of membrane structures, analysis has to be made
using unfactored loads. It is very important that the results of a load combination are found
by adding loads and then analysing, rather than analysing each load separately and then
adding the results.

The prestress and self-weight loads should be part of all load cases. This is a deviation from
the EC Codes as the self-weight of the membrane need not be reduced for wind uplift cases
as it is negligible.

Example load cases to be considered:

a) self weight + prestress

b) self weight + prestress + snow
c) self weight + prestress + wind
d) self weight + prestress + wind (downward pressures) + snow
e) etc.

The load combinations should generally be applied in accordance with the national appli-
cation document of EC1 neglecting the partial safety factors on the loading as described in
Chapter 6. However, for load combinations including multiple imposed live loads (i.e. wind
downward + snow) one of the applied loads might reasonably be reduced.

7.10 Disproportionate Collapse

The design of membrane structures to avoid disproportionate collapse should be considered.

Once the likely failure modes have been identified the membrane structure will need to be
modelled in the partially failed state in order to prove that further failure and collapse will
not occur. This situation can be considered to be an additional load case although the
analysed models will obviously be of the variously identified partial collapse states. In these
loadcases, the Factor of Safety (F.o.S.) on the materials may be reduced from those used in
the main loadcases.

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7.11 References:

(1) H.P.A.H Irwin R.L. Wardlaw – “A Wind Tunnel Investigation of a Retractable Roof
For The Montreal Olympic Stadium”, The Second Canadian Workshop for Wind
Engineering, Varennes, Quebec, Sept. 1978.

(2) British Standards Institution BS 6661: 1986 Guide for the design, construction
and maintenance of single skin air-supported structures, (withdrawn 1997).

(3) L. Mabon and C.J.K. Williams – Proceedings of conference on “Wind-Over-Wave

Couplings: Perspectives and Prospects”, Salford, April 1997.

(4) IL University Stuttgart and School of Arch. And Build. Engineering University
Bath – IL 15 Air Hall Handbook, August 1983 ISBN 3-7828-2015-0.

(5) D.M. Campbell, “Snow induced ponding of Textile Membrane Roof Structures”,
TensiNet Symposium Designing Tensile Architecture, sept. 2003,
ISBN 9-789090-173443.

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