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8 Tension fabric structures B1 Superstructure

Tension fabric structures

Summary: Tension fabric structures provide an efficient

means of spanning large spaces. This article and its refer-
ences introduce the basic principles, materials, and fabri-

cation and erection procedures utilized with tensioned fab-
ric structures, including a brief overview of historical and
contemporary precedents and fundamentals of design.

UniFormat: B1020
Caterpillar tents. Key words: cable domes, cable nets, fabrics structures, MasterFormat: 13120
large-spans, tension fabrics.

Modern fabric materials and tensioned structures combine to offer a bility from their anticlastic shape (as do contemporary tensioned fab-
new technology for spanning and enclosing large volume spaces, with ric structures). (The term anticlastic describes a surface in which the
permanent, temporary and convertible variations, developed over the principal members are opposite in sine, i.e., saddled-shaped. Its op-
past thirty years and made increasingly practical by improved analy- posite is synclastic.) Among the most influential is the first one con-
sis techniques and applications. State-of-the-art materials—typically structed in North America, the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Caro-
PTFE (Teflon)-coated fiberglass, silicone-coated fiberglass, and vi- lina, 1951, designed by architect Matthew Nowicki and engineer Fred
nyl-coated polyesters—are inherently waterproof and require very little Severud. Other early cable roofs include Eero Saarinen’s Yale Uni-
maintenance. Because these materials are lightweight, tensioned fab- versity Hockey Rink, 1957, also engineered by Severud, and the
ric structures are extremely efficient in long span applications and are Sydney Myer Music Bowl in Australia, 1958, designed by architect
easily constructed, sometimes with substantial savings in the founda- Robin Boyd and engineer Bill Irwin.
tion and supporting structure costs.
Tensioned fabric structures

Conventional structures rely on internal rigidity (stiffness) to achieve Applications of fabric structures to provide shade and shelter have
stability and to carry loads. Fabric structures, constructed of elements ancient precedents in tent and sail technology. An example is depicted
that have little or no bending or shear stiffness (cables and membrane), in mosaics at Pompeii, interpreted by scholars to depict a shade fabric
rely on their form and internal prestress alone to perform the same structure for the Roman Coliseum (See Figure 1 on following page).
functions. What makes these structures more complicated to design Familiar indigenous examples are found in the vernacular building
than their conventional counterparts is that they tend to be highly non- traditions throughout the world, such as the kibitka (conical shape),
linear in their behavior. This is a desirable quality, since if properly the yurts, and the black tent structures typical of desert nomadic tribes,
designed, tensioned fabric structures will increase their capacity to which include examples of both single and double fabrics, in the lat-
carry load as they deform. ter case with ventilation between.
The design of a tensioned fabric structure can be separated into two The era of modern tensioned fabric structures began with a small band-
distinct phases: shape determination or form finding and analysis stand designed and built by Frei Otto for the Federal Garden Exhibi-
under load. tion in Cassel, Germany in 1955 (IL Publications). Because the avail-
able fabric lacked sufficient strength, these canopies were limited in
• Shape determination involves the “design” of a structure whose span to around 80 feet (26 meters) or less. Among Frei Otto’s best
form is not known in advance; changes in internal prestress will known works are two large cable nets. With architect Rudolph Gotbrod,
change the shape of the overall structure. he designed the German Pavilion for EXPO ’67 in Montreal, Canada
• Analysis of the system requires the solution of equations for the and with architect Behnisch and Partners, the Olympic Stadium for
deformed configuration, a shape that is also unknown in advance. the 1972 Munich Olympics. From 1968 to 1983, Horst Berger and
David Geiger were partners in projects that explored different ap-

If the stresses in the elements are too high or if the deformations are proaches to tensioned fabric structures. Geiger worked mostly with
greater than acceptable, the designer is free to change the shape of the air-supported structures and Berger with tensioned fabric membranes.
structure by revising the prestress or by modifying the boundary con- In 1976 Horst Berger, working with the architectural firm of H2L2,
ditions. Once designed, the remaining steps to completion of the struc- designed two fabric structures for the Bicentennial celebration in Phila-
ture are fabrication and erection. delphia, the first of many Berger designs using a ridge-and-valley
Cable nets

TOC The forerunners of contemporary tensioned fabric structures were cable

net structures utilizing steel cables in tension and deriving their sta-
The largest fabric roof to date is the Haj Terminal Building at Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia, 1985, which receives many thousand pilgrims who make

i Authors: R. E. Shaeffer, P.E. and Craig Huntington, S.E.

Credits: This article is adapted from Chapters 1 and 2 of Shaeffer (1996) by permission of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
W References: Berger, Horst. 1996. Light Structures Structures of Light: The Art and Engineering of Tensile Architecture. Basel, Switzerland:

Shaeffer, R. E., editor. 1996. Tensioned Fabric Structures: A Practical Introduction. New York: American Society of Civil Engineers.

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B1 Superstructure B1.8 Tension fabric structures

Fig. 1. Coliseum, Rome. Hypothetical reconstruction of Roman shade

structures, called vela. Courtesy of Rainer Graefe (Berger 1996). Also see
NOVA (1996)

Fig. 2. Computer generated perspective of Haj Terminal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Berger 1996)

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B1.8 Tension fabric structures B1 Superstructure

the journey to Mecca each year (Fig. 2). It was designed by the archi-
tect-engineer firm of Skidmore-Owings-Merrill with Horst Berger as

a consultant. In 1989, Berger designed a canopy for the roof deck of
Arthur Erikson’s San Diego Convention Center. Spanning almost 330
feet (100 meters), it provides shade and rain protection for exhibits,

concerts and banquets. It consists of five ridge-and-valley modules
each having a pair of flying struts, i.e., vertical masts which do not
deliver their loads to the base level, but are suspended in the air by
cables. In 1992, the Pier Six Concert Pavilion in Baltimore Inner Har-
bor was designed by Todd Dalland of FTL Associates, providing seat-
ing for 3400 concert goers. At the stage end, the fabric attaches to a
curved concrete beam and makes a unique transition to the metal roof
of a masonry building.
At the end of 1993, the Great Hall of the Denver Airport was com-
pleted (Figs. 3–5). The fabric roof covers approximately 35 acres (14
hectares) including the enclosed landside terminal, with plan dimen-
sions of 990 feet (300 meters) by 230 feet (70 meters). C. W. Fentress
and J. H. Bradburn, Architects with Horst Berger and Ed DePaola of
Severud Associates, Engineers, created the roof structure. Its mem-
brane consists of two layers of PTFE-coated fiberglass several inches
(600 mm) apart. The inner layer provides thermal insulation and acous-
tic absorbency. The intermediary airspace is “closed,” that is, does
not allow air change in order to minimize dust laden air entrainment.
The fabric roof is otherwise not insulated, as energy analysis deter-
mined that the contribution of natural lighting and passive solar heat-
ing due to its high transmissivity outweighed any incremental im-
provement that would be gained by increasing insulation values.


W Fig. 3. Geodesic net analysis of the Denver Airport Terminal Building (Berger 1996)

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B1 Superstructure B1.8 Tension fabric structures

The south wall enclosure of the Terminal consists of a glass curtain

wall (Fig. 5) cantilevered from the main floor by a system of cables

and struts, in some cases as much as 59 feet (18 meters). The closure
system between the glass walls (having limited deformation capabil-
ity) and the fabric roof (needing to sustain large deformations under

wind and snow loading) utilizes a continuous inflated tube, more than
3 feet-4 inches (1 meter) in diameter. Many see the Denver Airport as
a test case for large tensioned fabric structures. Located in an area of
significant snowfall and other adverse weather conditions, its success
could mean the development of many large fabric enclosure schemes.
Cable domes
The latest technology for long-span roofs is the fabric-covered cable
dome, a structural system based upon R. Buckminster Fuller’s
transegrity domes of the late 1950s. The basic scheme is circular in
plan using radial trusses made of cables except for vertical compres-
sion struts. Circular hoops provide the bottom chord forces ( Fig. 6).
The first successful cable domes were constructed in Seoul, Korea
for the 1986 Asian Games, later used for the 1988 Olympics. The first
cable dome in the United States is the Geiger-designed Redbird Arena
on the campus of Illinois State University. It is elliptical, 300 by 250
feet (90 by 77 meters) in plan, heavily insulated between the outer
structural fabric and inner fabric. It has only one tension hoop be-
tween the inner tension ring and the perimeter compression ring. This
visually emphasizes the peaks created by the vertical struts and gives
the roof a more crown-like appearance. The largest cable dome to
date is the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 1992, with the roof structure
design by Matthys Levy of Weidlinger Associates. Designed for foot-
ball, it is an oval, 770 feet by 610 feet (235 by 186 meters) in plan

with a 185-foot (56-meter) truss running down the middle.

Fig. 4. Denver International Airport Terminal. W.C. Fentress and

J. H. Bradburn, Architects. 1993

Fig. 5. South wall of Denver International Airport Terminal

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B1.8 Tension fabric structures B1 Superstructure

Fig. 6. Cable dome schematic (R. E. Shaeffer 1996)

The design and construction process
Design and construction team for tensioned fabric structures
The means by which a fabric roof stands up and the way that it looks may be required, much of it unique to tensioned fabric structures.
are inseparable. Supporting masts typically are left exposed and steel This includes:
cables pass through space or lay against the fabric so that they remain
visible from either above or below the roof. Even the layout of the • A general description of the characteristics of the structure, includ-
seaming of the fabric, selected to minimize material waste and reflect ing large deflection behavior and anisotropic material properties.
predominant stress patterns, becomes a strong visual element of the • Information required to understand the methodology of shape find-
design. The seams help the observer to appreciate the shape of the ing and analysis computer programs.
roof. Depending on their orientation, seams may serve to visually • Reports on relevant fire testing.
emphasize radial, circumferential, linear, or other aspects of its ge-
ometry. Due to their slenderness, fabrics typically have negligible re- • Shape finding and analysis computer runs.
sistance to either bending or compression. Because of these limita- • Calculations for cables and steel or other supporting members.
tions in load carrying ability, the fabric must be shaped in a very pre-
• Drawings showing the layout of fabric panels, typical fabric seams,
cise manner that allows it to carry all applied loads purely in tension.
interfaces of fabric with the supporting structure, typical cable

The determination of these shapes is less commonplace and more
details, fabric tensioning details, etc.
complex than determination of the layout of a conventional concrete
or steel frame. The design typically requires the services of a struc- Tensioned fabric roof structures may be commissioned either by the
tural engineer specializing in tensioned fabric structures for assistance design/build approach or by an engineering consultant with special-
in determining the form of the roof, along with close coordination ized knowledge of the technology who is retained by the architect or
with the tensile fabric supplier. It is thus imperative that the engineer- owner. The consultant may completely design the roof (appropriate
ing designer or consultant with detailed knowledge of fabric structure for new applications) or may be retained only to provide general pa-
TOC behavior be involved at the inception of the project, so that a shape is
developed which responds to fabric and cable curvature requirements
rameters and review of the roof contractor’s detailed engineering (more
modest and repetitive applications). The design/build approach offers

and provides appropriate behavior under load. several obvious advantages due to the need for close coordination
throughout design, engineering, detailing, construction and longer term
Building department interface performance evaluation.
Lack of widespread knowledge of tensioned fabric structures and the
limited recognition of this construction type in building codes pose Performance considerations
W special problems in interfacing with building officials. Use of tensile While contemporary tensioned fabric structures have been designed
fabric technologies may require a high degree of technical validation for a wide range of loadings and for climatic conditions found through-
from the engineer in order to fulfill their obligation to assure public out the globe, the nature of membrane construction and the commonly
safety and adherence to building codes. Extensive documentation used fabric materials lead to certain generalizations about appropriate

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B1 Superstructure B1.8 Tension fabric structures

design loads and climatic applications. The load bearing characteris- cally restrained or supported by steel cabling in conjunction with air
tics of tensioned fabric structures are governed by the high pressure or rigid steel elements, so that the unsupported span of the

deformability of membranes under load, and may be generalized fabric itself is seldom greater than 50 feet (15.2 meters). While air-
as follows: supported and cable dome roofs have been sheathed in materials other
than fabric, the fabric provides a significant portion of the strength
• Dead load from the membrane is generally less than 1 lb/SF (50

and stiffness of these roofs, and is integral to their global behavior.

N/m2) and hence negligible. Because of their membrane behavior, the forms of fabric roofs can
• Roof live loads are generally intended to account for construction be manipulated only within limited bounds determined by the engi-
phase loads such as roofing materials that are not relevant to fab- neer. The exposure of structural connections in the finished struc-
ric construction. Lacking code provisions specifically tailored for ture, furthermore, makes the detailing of connections by the engineer
membrane construction, however, fabric roofs are design for the an important part of the structure’s appearance.
(larger) normal loads required by codes.
Fire safety
• Seismic loads are generally not a factor in design, because of the
Contemporary tensioned fabric structures have the ability to provide
low mass of the fabric.
fire safety far better than that of traditional non-synthetic tending
• Wind is often the predominant loading on the fabric roof. The materials. In general, contemporary fiberglass fabrics are able to
membrane must have adequate curvature and pretensioning to re- achieve non-combustible ratings.
sist wind loads without excessive flutter. The curving forms of the
roofs often make adoption of building code formulas for wind Energy use and lighting
loading problematic. Larger or more complex structures, particu- Fabrics in common use are characterized by low insulating ability,
larly those in highly variable terrain, often require wind tunnel low thermal mass, high reflectivity of light, and low-to-moderate trans-
testing for accurate prediction of wind loads. lucency. These characteristics have made them readily applicable to
use in temperate or hot climates with high solar radiation. Daylighting
• Moderate snowfall can successfully be resisted in structures that
through the white fabrics that are commonly used for permanent ar-
have prestress sufficient to prevent large deflections that will lead
chitectural applications is characteristically bright and diffused. These
to ponding, additional deflection, and eventual overload of the
features are favorable to applications such as sports facilities, exhibit
roof. Relatively high roof slopes are useful in helping the slippery
halls, and landscaped atriums or other skylight type applications. The
surface shed snow, and also aid in preventing ponding. Snow
magnitude of daylighting is often altered by varying the translucency
melting equipment, usually in the form of a furnace producing
of the fabric or adding a liner membrane or insulation. Fiberglass
forced hot air blowing under the membrane, is a useful and per-
fabrics coated with either PTFE or silicone are available with trans-

haps necessary fail-safe provision in regions subject to heavy snow

lucencies in excess of 20%, adequate to support a wide range of plant
growth. A summary of the characteristics of various conventional
• Point loads such as heavy lights, signs, or scoreboards present and fabric roofing assemblies is given in Table 1.
special design problems due to the high deformability of mem-
branes. Heavy loads must generally be supported from rigid mast Acoustic performance
or arch supports or at angle changes in cabling. The acoustical performance of structural fabrics is characterized by
high reflectivity of sound vibrations, particularly in the frequency
The characteristics of most contemporary fabrics—translucency, high range of 500 to 2000 Hertz. This reflectivity can result in poor sound
reflectivity of light, and low insulating value—are readily adapted to for musical performances and difficulty in understanding speech. The
use in temperate or hot climates with ample sunshine. In climates that focused reflection of sound due to the geometrical shape of certain
combine warmth and high humidity, caution must be taken against roofs can also hamper acoustic performance, particularly in air-sup-
the growth of mold or algae caused either by condensation or stand- ported structures or arch supported roofs that have a generally con-
ing water on the outside of the fabric. While tensioned fabric struc- cave roof profile from the interior. Sound transmission loss through
tures have traditionally provided less favorable energy use in cold fabric is another important consideration in airports or other struc-
climates, the use of liner membranes with dead air space and, more tures where it is required to shield building occupants from outside
recently, insulated fabrics have improved their performance dramati- noise. Sound reflectivity can be decreased and transmission loss in-
cally. In such climates, measures should be considered to prevent ex- creased by the installation of lightweight, porous liner fabrics. Fiber-
cessive condensation, particularly for applications such as swimming glass insulation between the two fabric layers can further increase
pools, zoos, or botanical gardens. There are dual reasons: first, to pre- transmission loss. The effects of such measures on daylighting, insu-

vent dripping on areas below, but also to minimize the visual damage lation, and fire safety must be considered in their selection, however.
due to accumulated dirt or staining. In susceptible locations, consid- Vertical banners can also be suspended at intervals under the fabric
eration should be given to venting inside air, installing condensate in order to increase sound absorption and break up the geometry of
gutters, or providing an air circulation system. the curved fabric.
Spatial considerations
Maintenance, durability, and inspection
Because of the curvature requirements of the membrane, tensioned
The durability of tensioned fabric structures and their maintenance
fabric structures typically have fairly tall profiles in elevation, and
cannot easily be adapted to the flat roof profile characteristic of con-
ventional construction. An attractive feature of tensioned fabric struc-
requirements represent the combined result of design, materials, con-
struction, and environment. Design factors that influence durability
tures is their enormous range of spanning capability. Membranes have
been used in a number of applications as an alternative to translucent
glazing, using pretensioned fabric without curvature over spans up to
about 13 feet (4 meters). Tensioned fabric supported on arches or other
and maintenance include:

• Determination of appropriate loads and accurate stress analysis

as required to prevent tears or other damage.
shaping elements is common in skylight applications with spans of • Where structures are located in an unsafe area or on an unsecured W
up to 50 feet (15.2 meters) or more. Fabric has been applied just as site, structures should be configured to knife cuts or other
effectively in stadiums and other assembly structures with spans of vandalism.
up to 820 feet (250 meters). In these applications, the fabric is typi-

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B1.8 Tension fabric structures B1 Superstructure

Table 1. Comparison of performance values of various tensioned fabric assemblies,
compared to conventional roofing, shown as Assembly 1

Assembly No.
Assembly 1 Assembly 2 Assembly 3 Assembly 4 Assembly 5 Assembly 6

Reflectance 10-50% 30-75% 65-75% 60-65% 60-70% 60-70%


Absorption 50-90% 13-68% 13-19% 12-20% 28-43% 28-35%

Transmission 0 2-12% 6-22% 15-28% 4-6% 2-5%

Summer Varies 0.75 0.81 0.81 0.45 0.08-0.14

(12 km/h)

Winter Varies 1.15 1.20 1.20 0.54 0.08.14

(24 km/h Wind)

Assembly 1: Conventional roofing

Assembly 2: PVC fabric
Assembly 3: PTFE glass fabric
Assembly 4: Silicone/glass fabric

Assembly 5: PTFE glass w/liner & 250 mm air space
Assembly 6: PTFE glass w/translucent insulation

• Cables, arches, mast peaks, and other discontinuities in the fabric Connection: Joint, usually mechanical, between two separate compo-
provide potential locations of stress concentration or abrasion. nents. for example, a wended seam, a cable fitting connected to a
weldment, or fabric clamped to a perimeter member.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from direct sunlight is the primary
environmental factor in fabric durability. Polyester based fabrics are Connection flexibility: A characteristic of a connection which
generally more susceptible to UV damage than fiberglass-based fab- allows for motion between components, such as translation (sliding)
rics, although coatings of Tedlar and other materials have improv- or rotation.
ed their durability. At certain sites, consideration must also be given Equilibrium shape: The configuration that a tensioned fabric surface
to soiling effects from air pollution, engine exhaust, or other assumes when boundary conditions, prestress level, and prestress dis-
sources, and to potential abrasion damage from wind-driven sand or tribution are defined.
other matter.
Form finding (form generation): The process of determining the equi-
Glossary librium shape of a fabric structure.
Anisotropic: The feature of fabric wherein the physical properties and

behavior are not the same in all directions. Geodesic: Of, or pertaining to circles of a sphere, or of arcs of such
circles, hence a pattern created by the intersections of great-circle
Anticlastic: A surface with positive (Gaussian) curvature in one prin- lines of arcs, or their chords.
cipal direction and negative (Gaussian) curvature in the other. A saddle
Geodesic dome: Term given by R. Buckminster Fuller in U. S. Patent
shaped surface.
2,682,235 (1954) to describe spherical structures made up of a grid of
Butt seam: Seam created when the two pieces being joined are butted polygons, typically of short lightweight bars or struts forming triangles,
diamonds or hexagons.
TOC together and joined with a strip twice the width of the seam.

Cable cuff: Edge treatment in which the fabric is folded over on itself Lap Seam: Seam created when the two pieces being joined are over-
lapped by the width of the seam.

i to form a pocket in which a catenary cable can be installed.

Catenary: The curve theoretically formed by a perfectly flexible, uni-

formly dense, inextensible “cable” suspended from each of two end
Light reflectivity: A measure of the portion of light striking a fabric
surface that rebounds from the surface without being absorbed or trans-
W points. In fabric structures experience, this shape is probably not ever
truly developed, but is commonly used to describe the shape devel- Light transmission: A measure of the portion of light striking a fabric
oped at the boundary of a uniformly stressed fabric structure attached surface that passes through the fabric and into the space to provide
to a cable which is restrained only at its end points. daylighting.

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B1 Superstructure B1.8 Tension fabric structures

Modulus of elasticity: The ratio of the change in stress to the change Warp yarn: The long straight yarns in the long direction of a piece of
in strain. Usually defined as a force per unit width of a membrane fabric.

material. (This is not identical to the definition of modulus of elastic-

ity as given for traditional structural materials.) Weft yarn: The shorter yarns of a fabric which usually run at right
angles to the warp yarns. Also called the fill yarns.
Non-developable: A characteristic of a surface that cannot be formed

using a single flat sheet of material, e.g., a doubly curved surface such Weldment: Connection component, usually steel, for the attachment
as a sphere or a saddle-shape. of cables and/or fabric. It may be free of connected to other fabrics.

Prestress: The stress state that exists in a fabric structure when it is

not acted upon by service loads; usually induced by the boundary
conditions of the fabric
Sleeve: A tube of fabric which loosely contains a structural element
such as a cable, rod, arch, etc. Additional references
ASCE. 1994. Spatial Lattice and Tension Structures. Proceedings of
Sound reflectivity: A measure of the portion that rebounds from the the IASS/ASCE Structures Symposium. John F. Abel, John W. Leonard
surface without being absorbed or transmitted. Sound reflectivity fre- and Celina U. Fenalba, editors. New York: American Society of Civil
quency range. Engineers. (also available from IFAI).
Sound transmission: A measure of the portion of sound striking a fab- Drew, Philip. 1979. Tensile Architecture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
ric surface that passes through it.
Ishii, K. 1995. Membrane Structures in Japan. Tokyo: SFS Publish-
Topping: An additional coating sometimes used on fabric for greater ing Company. (also available from IFAI).
protection against ultraviolet (UV) degradation purposes.
IFAI. Industrial Fabrics Association International. Fabrics & Archi-
Transegrity. A term given by R. Buckminster Fuller in U. S. Patent tecture. Bi-monthly trade journal. St. Paul, MN: Industrial Fabrics
2,063,521 (1962) to describe various tension-cable and compression- Association International. (1-800-225-4324).
strut truss shapes held in equilibrium by “discontinuous compression
and continuous tension,” such that its structural integrity is completed IL Publications. The work of Frei Otto and colleagues at the Insititut
by tension. für Leichte Flächentragwerke (Institute for Lightweight Structures).
Stuttgart, Germany: Universität Stuttgart. FAX 49/711 685 3789.

Turnbuckle: Threaded device used with cables or rods to allow ad-

justment. NOVA. 1996. Secrets of Lost Empires: Colosseum. Video that docu-
ments the archeological reconstruction of various Roman vela, dem-
Ultraviolet (UV) degradation: The deterioration of a fabric under long- onstrating competing hypotheses of early Roman tent and sail tech-
term exposure to sunlight. nology. South Burlington, VT: NOVA Videos. (1-800-255-9424).


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