Tensile Surface Structures: Emerging Construction Technology for the Smart City

Architecture Dated:  April 22, 2015
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Tensile structure, Source: wikipedia

Smart cities is an emerging trend across the globe, and is also fast upcoming in India. According to the smart cities council of India, “The dramatic growth in urbanism also provides impetus for the creation of smart cities which leverage information and communications technology (ICT) to greatly improve the productivity, lifestyle and the prosperity of our people. Additionally, green growth strategies can build environmentally sustainable cities”.

In the context of architecture and construction technology, it can be interpreted as an approach to building which not only uses hi-tech construction, but also a suitable technology and style of architecture. For our smart cities, we need a new language of architecture which is global in nature. Tensile structures are one such very relevant style of architecture for our smart cities.  This article incorporates the author’s personal experience of design, study and research in the field of tensile surface structures, in India and Germany.

With the changing needs of architecture, and the advancing technology, tensile surface structures have come a long way. With research and experimentation in construction technology, the world saw a start of large, wide span structures which were more permanent in nature. The modern structures were not just a marvel of engineering feat, they also created a new language of architecture with their highly aesthetic, and at the same time functional, free flowing forms. As they caught the fancy of the architects and the general public, their usage has been constantly increasing. 

Globally, the building of Tensile Structures has grown considerably in the last 20 years. More and more architects are using tensile fabric structures as a solution to roofing as well as façade requirements. This is because of the manifold advantages and application of fabric structures particularly.

The retractable structures like the folding umbrellas at the Prophet’s holy Mosque, Medina, on which the author worked in 1990, are an appropriate option for multi-use spaces and for climatic differences. The umbrellas which shade the courtyards during the day, close at night to cool them.

Folding Umbrellas, Prophetas Holy Mosque, Medina Folding UmbrellasFolding Umbrellas, Prophet’s Holy Mosque, Medina (Buero SL Rasch), 1990

There has been a metamorphosis in the Indian construction industry since economic liberalization started in India in the early 1990s.  The construction professionals too have witnessed its impact.  In order for the Indian real estate market to compete globally, it became a necessity to create state of the art structures in the Indian cities.  With the current extensive usage of tensile structures in the developed countries, India has also embraced them with open arms. For the smart cities of the near future, they will find more and more application for various spatial needs.

Tensile structures at Mumbai airportTensile structures at Mumbai airport

Tensile architecture is a very relevant technology today as it enables large free spans to be covered in addition to creating aesthetically pleasing environs. Tensile structures have been used at various scales especially in large span public buildings. They have been very successfully used in airports all over the world, including the Mumbai Airport.

Tensile Structures have a very promising future in India and elsewhere in the world. The technology is very useful because of several reasons. The structures are light weight, and due to a minimal self-weight, not only do they save material but they also give us large free spans. The aesthetic appeal of these structures is unmatched and they are successfully used for iconic structures where special effects are required, as we can see at the Alliance Arena in Munich, Germany. The ETFE cushion construction has dramatic LED lighting incorporated in the roof structure.

Allianz Arena a Football stadium, Munich, GermanyAllianz Arena – Football stadium, Munich, Germany

The tensile structures have been used for sports stadia not only everywhere else in the world but also at home, like the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. When the roofing of the stands was refurbished in 2010 for the Commonwealth Games, this was found to be the best solution.

Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium, New DelhiJawahar Lal Nehru stadium, New Delhi, 2010

Today, tensile surface structures are a very important type of architecture across the globe. The Expo pavilion of Venezuela at Hamburg, Germany, 2000 which was designed as a blossoming flower- literally- is an example of how architecture can be dynamic rather than static. In addition, its complex structural mechanism breaks all conventional limitations and gives an opportunity full expression of architectural creativity.

Expo pavilion of Venezuela at HamburgExpo pavilion of Venezuela at Hamburg, Germany, 2008

Even at a smaller scale, they can be used to create a very special architecture by achieving the required ambience by the use of unique elements. This is illustrated very beautifully in the entrance to the Sikkim Flower Show, 2008, designed by the author.

Entrance to the Sikkim Flower ShowEntrance to the Sikkim Flower Show, 2008

Quick erection time and light weight of these structures makes them useful as a solution for emergency space requirements, and these aspects need to be researched more especially in the field of disaster management.

Much work and research is being done in this field by tensile engineers around the world, including the author who is personally enthused by the manifold applications and advantages of this hi-tech, eco-friendly, architectural language of the present and the future. Especially in relevance to the energy solutions of the green smart cities the author designs eco-friendly fabric bio gas domes which are light weight and collapsible, and therefore can be transported quite easily to all areas, thereby making the bio fuel technology more accessible. The author is also involved in research and designing of collapsible portable tanks made of fabric which are very useful for special needs of storage of water and other fluids.

Fabric Biogas domesFabric Biogas domes
Collapsible fabric tanks for storage of fluidsCollapsible fabric tanks for storage of fluids

Light weight architecture suggests an attitude towards the environment that is needed in our smart cities, as it is concerned with optimal and parsimonious use of materials and effort. Their various advantages make tensile structure technology an appropriate choice for the upcoming smart cities.

Most of the tensile fabrics are recyclable and therefore eco-friendly, making them an appropriate choice for the pertinent issue of sustainability to be addressed. Future fabric structures will harness energy from the wind as well as the sun. Fabric will not only harvest energy, but also utilize energy to transmit light and visual effects. This added advantage of energy creation and efficiency is a much needed requirement of our future green smart cities.

Special fabrics to harvest wind energySpecial fabrics to harvest wind energy

This is still only the beginning; and lots of learning and research awaits. Tensile architecture is still in its nascent stages in India. As already explained, the technology is undoubtedly the relevant technology for smart cities because of several reasons: the structures are light weight thus allowing for large free spans that are comparatively quick and easy to erect and may be collapsible/foldable besides being eco-friendly by saving material, being recyclable, and also causing minimal disruption to sites and surroundings during construction processes. Considering the emerging requirements of smart cities, it only a matter of time before the world of tensile architecture find firm feet in the Indian architectural and urban landscape, and we may see large scale deployment of such structures of world standard in our smart cities.

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