Today's Architect has a tough decision to make when it comes to choosing materials. There is steel and glass and concrete and wood. What about fabric! Architectural Fabric Structures are fast becoming a very common and visible part of the built environment. No longer used for garden parties and traveling circuses, these structures come in many new forms and uses.Fabric structures are being designed for as few as one person as in a boutique resort hotel in the outback of Australia, to covering 50,000 plus at the Super Bowl in Houston, Texas. Jacquard Manufacturer Structures are now also being designed to cover animals as well like at Seaworld, Orlando where these structures cover dolphins to prevent them from sun burn (they get sun burn too?).

Is it meant to last 20 years? Do you want to see it from afar or do you want it to be dark inside at noon? These are all important questions one should answer before you even start. Fabric Structures have very few components. In most cases, it is just steel, fabric, cables and hardware. The choice for each component will most certainly affect the others. Other issues include: span, size, availability, cost, codes, etc.In most States, permanent, totally enclosed structures require a "non combustible" or Class A/B rating according to Building Codes. The most recognized and accepted material used for Architectural Applications is Teflon Coated Fiberglass or PTFE.Recognized manufacturers include Saint Gobain, Verseidag, FiberTech and Taconic.

Both PVF and PVDF claim to be "self cleaning" or provide the base material with a much cleaner and maintenance free surface but both require additional work in the shop which may be unknown to the Architect. Both top of the line PVF and PVDF require that the top coat or film where two panels are to meet be grinded off in order for them to be RF welded. This is time consuming and requires great care in order to keep the seams clear of dirt, model and mildew. There are "weldable" PVDF but their warranties are not as long as the high tech top coats.PVC Structures love graphics and provide a great backdrop for projected images.Today, more and more fabric structures are being designed for shade only. Structural mesh and perforated fabrics are being specified because of the need for shade, the need to allow the elements to go thru the material and the need for a space to "see thru and be seen". The material most often used is high density polyethylene (HDPE). Manufacturers include Multiknit, Coolaroo and Shadetex. This material is a higher grade mesh than what one would see at a home improvement warehouse or at an outdoor furniture store.

Teflon comes to the site brown like a pair of khakis but bleaches to a milky white over time (usually 4-8 weeks). The biggest problem with Teflon is that it is stiff and brittle and must be handled very carefully to avoid breaking the fibers. The best part is its life span (25+ years) and its "self cleaning" attributes.Other "non combustible" materials include Silicon Coated Fiberglass, Gore Brand Tenara Architectural Fabrics and Ethylene tetra ethylene or ETFE.Silicon has been out on the market for quite some time. Unlike Teflon coated fiberglass which can be heat welded, Silicon must be glued with a special adhesive. The advantage of silicon over Teflon is its translucency, cost and availability of colors.

Gore Brand Tenara is also in the "non combustible category". Its advantages include its high translucency, long life span and it is more pliable than silicon or Teflon so it can be used for retractable structures.ETFE is not really a fabric but a film presently being promoted as an alternative to structural glass. It is "green" friendly and is the new hot material to Architects world wide today. It is being used in FIFA Stadiums in Germany, the Olympic Games in China, being specified for commerical buildings and retail and the choice for creating artificial rainforests for zoos and Science Centers.The majority of fabric structures being considered today are for uses which do not require complete enclosure. That means, they are most likely "open air" or do not require a Class A rating. Class C is the most common rating and NFPA 701 is the most accepted certificate for most Fire Marshals. Vinyl coated polyester (PVC) is the most common material used on the market today.What's not to like. The material comes in a variety of colors, strengths, weights, thickness, perforations, translucency and textures. The material is pliable and stretches quite nicely. You can find material with 10, 12 and even 15 year warranties.

You can find material that is 50 to 100" wide so you can have few, fewer or the fewest amounts of seams.Manufacturers include Ferrari, Mehler, Naizil, Seaman and Verseidag, to name a few. These are the names most seen on Specifications, which means that these companies are directly marketing and assisting the Architect in the early stages of the design.PVC comes in a variety of top finishes: acrylic, PVDF and PVF film. There is much debate about top finishes but all manufacturers agree that they are needed to protect the base fabric from UV degradation, water and wind. Frankly, it's all about the coatings. PVF is a film applied to the main fabric while acrylic and PVDF are coatings.