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Fabric Architecture Materials 101

Tensile fabric structures allow designers and architects to create wholly novel forms that either stand iconically in their own right, or augment an existing building by refreshing a tired façade. If you’re planning a fabric structure, what do you need to know? Here is an overview of the kinds of fabrics you could use.

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External Structures

For outdoor tensile structures, the two main options are PTFE-coated glass cloth and PVC-coated polyester cloth. Both of these fabrics are protected and stabilised by impermeable coatings, as opposed to the mesh-type coatings used for indoor fabric structures.

PTFE/glass fabric consists of two components: PTFE, better known as Teflon, and fibreglass. Both of these components are totally inert, making PTFE-coated glass fabric the obvious choice for permanent outdoor constructions intended to last more than 15 years. A fabric membrane of this variety could last for up to 25 or 30 years. Teflon cannot be coloured, however.

The second option, polyester cloth coated in PVC, cannot boast such an extensive service life but is more versatile in many respects. Useful performance-enhancing additives such as fire retardants, dyes, anti-fungal treatments and UV stabilisers are usually included as standard.

PVC contains plasticisers which rise to the surface of the coating over 10 to 15 years, making the finish much more difficult to clean. However, optional PVDF lacquers protect against this and can boost the service life of PVC/polyester fabric to as much as 20 years.

Internal Structures

Mesh fabrics are manufactured differently to coated varieties. Instead of simply covering the entire cloth in the coating, the thread is individually coated before manufacture. This results in a highly durable, yet breathable and permeable fabric, ideal for use indoors. You could look at companies such as spatial structures for a selection of  building designs. For such uses, you can choose from a wide variety of fabrics. including in the design of Tensile Fabric Structures

PVC-coated fibreglass mesh is particularly durable and well-suited as a sunshade or theatre gauze. Silicon-coated fibreglass mesh is recommended for its low toxicity and high fire resistance, but is notorious for attracting dust and dirt.

Cotton is the most economical cloth option and is breathable, natural and available in a huge range of colours. However, cotton stains easily and provides a very short service life due it its tendency to shrink, so should only be used for a short-term installation.

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