Innovative Applications of Architectural Membranes

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Innovative Applications of Architectural Membranes
Johnston, Stacey
Gundersen, Martin ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Innovative Applications of Architectural Membranes

Stacey Johnston

:-5eearch of architectural ni.3Cerials leads to d e.eilOpn'-lenCs n Fi3ta ricat on n-ilhods3 an.3 uncO.ers OppOrtunities

for material applications. As materials are investigated, new possibilities are presented for the future or

architecture. Designers are currently faced with an increasing demand to address building efficiency and

the relationship between the constructed and the natural environment. Materials must be reconsidered to

produce and support sustainable and passive building systems. The investigation of material joints and details

allow existing materials to function in unprecedented ways. Avenues toward new development must be

encountered with an awareness and understanding of the past. The study of a material's place and use in

history guides its development and validates its potential. These principles guide the present study's review

of innovative applications of architectural membranes.

This research examines architectural membranes through a survey of the literature, travel to existing structures,

and interviews with professionals. Models were constructed to develop an understanding of the characteristics of

the material. Nylon fabrics simulated the reaction of architectural membranes to tensioning and loading. Panels

were constructed that investigated the nature of the material and suggested potential applications with

consideration to passive building systems.

Architectural membranes are thin, flexible materials with latent possibilities for innovation. These materials

possess unique characteristics that lend them to application in passive systems. Unlike most building

materials, architectural membranes are defined in form and character by the methods used to structure and

connect them. Fabric structures have existed as a form of efficient and flexible construction for thousands of

years. These attributes continue to offer possibilities for contemporary architecture. Combined with the technology

of the modern world, membrane structures can be transformed into a new kind of architecture for the future.

Archaeological discoveries indicate the existence of tent structures throughout the world and in a vast range

of climates (Burkhardt 963). Early tents were frames draped with leaves, skins, or woven fabrics. The shelter

that they created offered advantages of portability and permeability in harsh desert climates. The use of

heavier materials such as animal skins provided sufficient thermal insulation in colder regions. As societies grew,

the application of these materials expanded beyond the nomadic tent. In ancient Rome, velariums were used

in conjunction with heavy masonry structures such as the Collesium (Willmert 22). These building

components offered shade and protection, could span long distances, and could be changed to accommodate

weather and events. In 1954, Frei Otto initiated an exploration into the possibilities of membrane structures in

his dissertation on "The Suspended Roof" (Burkhardt 963). His early studies and the resulting structures indicated

the structural and spatial potential of the material.

Model 1. Tension, Light, and Shadow.

Model 2. Gossamer Structure.

Initiated by Frei Otto's work, research and experimentation into tensile structures evolved and new materials

were developed to provide greater strength and durability. The physical characteristics of these materials

suggest new avenues for research and application. Architectural membranes offer unique advantages in response

to light, media, and information. PVC coated polyester fabric and PTFE coated glass-fibre fabrics are the most

widely used (LACMA 136). PVC coated polyester fabric is ideal for structures that are transportable or

operable. Although this fabric is used for temporary structures, it has a life-span of more than 20 years

(Moritz 1050). PTFE coated glass-fiber fabric is used in permanent buildings. The brittle glass fibers can only

be tensioned once (Soni July 8). These fabrics last 25 to 30 years without showing signs of age. ETFE films are at

the cusp of new technology; they can be transparent, translucent, or printed (Moritz 1058). The Eden Project

(see Figure 1), designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, explores ETFE film's reaction to light and its ability to span

long distances.

Model 3. Diffused Light.

Figure 1. Eden Project (Keith).

Woven metal fabrics and meshes fill another category of architectural membranes. Architects have recently

begun investigating the potential of these materials and advancements in their fabrication are currently being

made (Moritz 1053). Dominique Perrault has explored the potential of this material in several building designs. In

the Olympic Velodrome and swimming pool in Berlin, the material is used as a facade and roof component (see

Figure 2).

Figure 2. Aerial View of Olympic Velodrome (Institut).

Figure 3. Metal Fabric Connections (Institut).

Membranes used in building construction are load-transmitting surfaces that have to be capable of being

tensioned and adopting three-dimensionally curved forms (Moritz 1053). The flexibility of architectural

membranes allows them to be stretched into rigid, curved forms as well as to conform to irregular forms

of armatures. The lightness of these materials allows them to span long distances with fewer supports and

less material. "When you design with 'fabric', four strokes suffice in place of the ten thousand required for

other materials" (Perrault, de Bure 20).

Building with lightweight, flexible materials becomes a means toward achieving a sustainable

architecture. Lightweight materials require less energy for material transportation and building

construction. Structures that use membrane materials can be constructed using pre-fabricated armatures onto

which membranes are attached. This permits a process of assembly that drastically reduces construction time

and cost. Lightweight materials also acknowledge the inevitability of change. In today's world, buildings must

address the changing needs of occupants and context. Building components can be designed to allow

adjustments that respond to daily or seasonal shifts in climate and use. OMA's design proposal for the new

LACMA consolidates the museum collections into one building that is covered with a five-layer membrane roof

(see Figure 4). The design to the interior layer takes advantage of the material's flexibility with scrims that could

be adjusted to provide the required light levels for collections and temporary exhibitions (LACMA 131).

Model 4. Pinched Surface.

Model 5. Flexible Edge.

Figure 4. Aerial View of LACMA Model, East to West (Arcspace).

Changeability can also pertain to a building's demolition. Excessive energy expended in tearing down or renovating

a building thirty years after its construction can be offset by smart initial construction that acknowledges time

and offers easier methods for deconstruction and eventual recycling. Architectural membranes have a long history

of association with portable buildings. These materials can be packed and rolled into spaces a small fraction of

the size of those that they will later span (Barden, Interview). The process of assembly for the portable dwelling

or pavilion can be shortened to a matter of hours or even minutes. With new technologies and innovative

designs, portable dwellings can be constructed with materials that intelligently filter the environment and

provide comfortable and habitable spaces. For example, the Japan Pavilion (see Figures 5 and 6) designed by

Shigeru Ban was constructed out of lightweight, recyclable materials. Paper tubing provided the structure,

cardboard and metal joined elements, and a paper membrane sheltered the pavilion space (Mori 32).

Acknowledging its short lifespan, the concept for the pavilion continued beyond the structure (Riiuko 1). The

design was conscious of demolition and the need for recycling of construction materials.

Figure 5. Japan Pavilion Interior View (Institut).

Figure 6. Japan Pavilion Connection Details (Institut).

Architectural membranes present new opportunities for an architecture that is sensitive to the environment that

it engages. Physical attributes of the material can support and allow for the implementation of passive systems.

The material's ability to filter light promotes its application in shading systems. Will Bruder's design of the

Phoenix Central Library (see Figure 7) incorporates fabric shades on the northern wall of glass (Kronenburg

21). These shades protect the interior space while permitting view to the exterior landscape. The project allows

the material to function as an element within the construction that acknowledges and responds to other

materials, the context, and the environment.

Model 5: View 2. Captured Shadow.

Model 6. Structure and Edge.

Figure 7. Shade sails-Phoenix Central Library (ASU).

New technologies are currently emerging that present opportunities to embed materials with data and services

that provide information and respond to stimulus. Incorporating many services into a thin layer of material

can drastically reduce construction cost and increase building efficiency. Architectural membranes have

unique attributes that lend them to this innovative technology. For example, industrial fabrics can be printed

with images, graphics, and information, allowing signage and advertising to be directly embedded into walls

and facades. Combined with the flexible, lightweight nature of the material, the experience and perception of

a building can constantly be in flux with the addition and removal of media-printed elements. This application is

also ideal for buildings that are under construction. Temporary fabric scrims can conceal construction, protect the

site from the elements, and provide surfaces for information. Fabric membranes can also serve as screens

for projected light and media. This suggests applications in exhibitions, theatres, etc.

Model 4: View 2. Illuminated Surface.

Model 7. Reflected Color.

Advances in Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) support and enhance the fabrication of "smart materials."

OLED's emit "cool light" that can be embedded into materials such as fabric without the risks of fire. Phase

change materials store heat when temperatures rise and release it when temperatures fall (Smartwrap).

These materials can be embedded in membranes to offset heating and cooling needs of interior spaces. Methods

for generating electricity can also be implanted or applied directly to thin films and fabrics. New advances

in photovoltaic cell fabrication have allowed the technology to emerge on thin films that can be integrated with

other materials (Soni, Interview). New York State hired three firms specializing in fabric architecture (FTL,

Buro Happold, and Birdair) to integrate them into fabric structures that can be implemented as shades over

parking lots that produce enough electricity to charge battery powered cars (Barden, Interview).

This technology was also incorporated in Kieran Timberlake's design of Solos: Smartwrap (see Figure 9), exhibited

at the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum in August 2003 (Smithsonian). The project featured

a composite film that integrated thin film silicon solar cells that power OLED technology (That's a wrap 1). Thin

film batteries stored excess energy, and the conductive ink provided the conduit for the activation of

these technologies (That's a wrap). Kennedy and Violich architects designed the "Give Back Curtain" as

an environmentally responsive surface. The fabric has "the capacity to conduct and deliver light through a

fabrication process that integrates photoluminescent pigments in synthetic or natural fibers (Mori 14)." The

surface absorbs sunlight or fluorescent light and emits it as colored light.

Figure 9. Smart Wrap Exhibit at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum (Smithsonian).

Research of architectural materials must address all aspects of fabrication, design, and application. Architects

must analyze materials not only for their aesthetic quality, but also for their ability to become dynamic

elements within building systems. Through their permeability and flexibility, architectural membranes are able

to evade the limitations of traditional static materials and become participants in building systems that redefine

the role of architecture. The history of fabric architecture indicates that architectural membranes have the

flexibility to be transformed to meet the shifting and evolving needs of occupants. Unique physical characteristics

of architectural membranes lend them to innovative technologies. Built and speculative projects have emerged

that begin to tap the potential of these materials. New applications ensure the continued significance of

membrane materials in the future of architecture.

Model 5: View 3. Undulating Surface.

Model 1: View 2. Arrested Motion.


Model 8. Inverted Slope.


1. 1999. arcspace. 25 February 2004

2. ASU College of Architecture and Environmental Design: Visual Collections. 2003. Visual Collections, Arizona

State University. 12 February 2004,

3. Barden, Bill. Personal interview. 14 July.

4. Burkhardt, Berthold. "History of Tent Construction" Detail 6 (2000): 960-964.

5. de Bure, Gilles. "Interview: Perrault's Architecture with Metallic Fabrics" Architecture and Urbanism 391 (03:04):


6. Institute Fur Hochbaull. H. Richter. 10 March 2004

Keith's Eden Project Web Site. Keith Martin. 2000. 11 Feb. 2004,

7. Smartwrap: The Building Envelope of the Future: A Mass Customizable Print Fagade. 1 Dec. 2003.

8. Kronenburg, Robert. FTL Todd Dalland Nicholas Goldsmith: SoLight. Architectural Monographs No 48. Great

Britain: Academy Editions. 1997.

9. "LACMA/ Los Angeles County Musem of Art": Roof Architecture and Urbanism 398 (03:11): 128-141.

10. Mori, Toshiko, ed. Immaterial/Ultramaterial: Architecture, Design, and Materials. New York: George Braziller. 2002.

11. Moritz, Karsten. "Membrane Materials in Building" Detail 6 (2000): 1050-1058.

12. Ryuko, likubo. "A Story of Construction, Demolition, and Recycling." Look Japan. 14 December 2003 http://

13. Soni, Ashish. Personal interview. 8 July. 2003.

14. Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. 1996. Cooper-Hewitt. 10 March 2004,

15. "That's a Wrap!" Art/Technology Archives. (12 Dec. 2003).

16. Willmert, Todd. "When in Rome..." Fabric Architecture Sep./Oct. 2003: 22+.


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