Tension membrane structures, sometimes referred to as fabric structures, originated as far back as nomadic peoples from the Ice Age and have continued to the present. Early fabric shelters were made of tree branches and animal hides or less frequently, birch bark pieces or latticed leaves. Fabric structures have evolved throughout history by many diverse groups of people around the world living in all types of environments. Through the advancement of materials and technology, tensile membrane structures have transitioned over the years and can be seen on every continent, including Antarctica.
Tensioned membrane structures can be built in many different shapes and sizes. There are also many types including permanent, temporary, large, small, air-supported, or tensioned to name a few. Examples include open-air structures such as amphitheaters and entrance canopies or enclosed roofing systems, such as an airport facility (i.e. Denver International Airport), convention centers (i.e. the San Diego Convention Center), and even a domed stadium roof (i.e. the Georgia Dome).
Many types of membranes or fabric materials are considered when designing and building a tensile membrane structure. The range includes PTFE fiberglass, PVC, ETFE foil or film, high translucency PTFE (ePTFE), as well as insulated membrane systems. Each type of membrane has unique performance qualities which will determine which material is best to use in a specific application and region. A membrane could have an open weave or could be constructed of woven base cloths of varying strength; and, it is protected from outdoor elements by a coating which provides thermal, fire, water and ultraviolet (UV)-light resistance.
Architects appreciate tensile architecture for its ability to offer unusual as well as iconic shapes and forms while engineers take enjoyment in “pure” structural expression. Fabric structures have come a long way since the first modern cable-net was built fifty years ago. The technology continues to evolve. As a result more and more buildings including both new construction and retrofits are using tensile membrane as a viable and visually appealing option.