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Sat 27 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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10 reasons to use fabric membranes

Fabric membranes have been around for ages but have only, in recent years, become increasingly popular in the Middle East.

Fabric membranes have been around for ages but have only, in recent years, become increasingly popular in the Middle East.

Large-scale tensile structures have only become popular in the latter part of the 20th century, but have long been used in tents, where guy ropes are used to provide pre-tension to the fabric membrane, which ultimately, allows it to withstand structural loads.

In fact, since the 1960s, tensile structures have been championed by designers and engineers the world over including Ove Arup, Buro Happold, Walter Bird and Frei Otto.

Often considered the ‘fifth dimension' in building materials, experts in the industry insist architectural membrane rivals concrete, glass, timber and steel in terms of its effectiveness and value as a building and design material. Barry Patten's design for Melbourne's Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1956 represents perhaps the earliest use of architectural membrane on a tensile structure.

In fact, Frei Otto's renowned designd for the West German pavilion at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, Canada, and the Olympic Park at the 1972 Olympic Games borrowed heavily from the Patten design.

In the Middle East, however, well-known examples of architectural membranes are limited but they exist. Two small applications for the Movenpick and Grand Hyatt hotels in Jordan, Al Jabber Stadium in Kuwait, the large cricket stadium at Dubai Sports City, the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah Airport and, of course, the Burj Al Arab-the world's tallest structure that features a membrane façade. They're limited in number, but industry officials think that's going to change.

Architectural membrane could easily become the region's most popular architectural material-especially given its aesthetic similarity to the material used in Bedouin tents and the unparalleled forms achieved by its use-but, for that to happen, architects need to understand the benefits of using it.

To that end, experts at Taiyo MakMax, SKYShades and Shade Art revelaed what's available and how architectural membranes can change the way structures are designed and built in the Middle East.

A Fool’s guide to membrane materialsMesh membraneMesh is the most afforable of the membrane family and is predominantly used on car park structures. Not known for its aesthetic properties, mesh provides a cost effective solution for large-scale area structures where price and weather resistance are key.


A very popular fabric, PVC has been used in structural membrane structures for more than 30 years. It has durability properties that are usually guaranteed for more than 20 years and needs very little maintenance over that period. Owing to its proven versatility and flexibility, PVC is generally considered the most popular membrane. PVC is usually used on umbrella structures and custom membrane structures where aesthetics and lightweight properties are particularly important.


Ethyltetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) is lightweight (it weighs 1% of the equivalent-sized glass panel), highly transparent to UV light, weather resistant, has better insulation properties than glass, is completely recyclable and can support up to 400 times its own weight. Available as either a single layer tension membrane or as a two-or three-layer cushion, ETFE can decrease energy consumption by 30% compared to glass.

ETFE can be inflated, to provide superior insulation properties or for aesthetic effect-as on the Allianz Arena in Munich and the Watercube in Beijing. ETFE cushions can also be etched with patterns in order to let different levels of light through when inflated to different levels.

They are most often supported by a structural frame and maintain transparency and strength for approximately 20 years. ETFE is also highly resistant to fire and heat.


Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a versatile, hydrophobic membrane available laminated to various support materials or unsupported. PTFE membrane has broad chemical compatibility, excellent particle retention, and easy handling and sealing. The PTFE coating is chemically inert, capable of withstanding temperatures from -73˚C to +232˚C (-100˚F to +450˚F). The low surface free energy of the material creates a surface which is readily cleaned by rainwater. It is also completely immune to UV radiation.

This unique combination of inertness, thermal stability and surface properties make PTFE fluoropolymer coatings ideal for products requiring superior weather and fire resistance.

#10 Outdoor lighting, indoor comfort

Architectural membrane enables the construction of buildings with a stunning architectural profile, but the true beauty lies in its ability to transmit light. Membrane brings the open, airy feelings of colour-correct light indoors, filling even large sports complexes and industrial facilities with diffuse, natural daylight. The backlit luminosity at night creates a unique and dramatic architectural signature on the skyline.

#9 Proven long-term durability

In contrast to traditional roofing materials that require replacement, tests prove that membrane structures provide up to 25 years of reliable service. Products are available that do not relax from their original shape, even after years of withstanding high loads, heavy snow and strong winds.

#8 Stain resistant

The translucent characteristics and visual appeal of membrane are unaffected by age, climate, pollutants or discolouration. Teflon coating is used in some membrane material to ensure a high resistance to staining. Some membrane materials can also repel airborne particulates and chemicals that have been show to adhere to other materials. The natural action of rain keeps the surface clean and white.

#7 Energy efficiency

Membrane transmits up to 15% of daylight without thermal bridging and heat gain of traditional glazings. Shaded areas remain bright, yet cool, even on the hottest days. Reduced lighting requirements during the day also results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption.

#6 Greater versatility and building utility

Owing to its unique versatility, architectural membrane meets fire code requirements for virtually all types of construction and remains in tact in temperatures that range from -73˚C to +232˚C (-100˚F to +450˚F). From airports in Jeddah (KSA) to Hyderabad (India) to Denver (USA), architectural membrane is able to withstand severe levels of sun, rain, wind and snow.

#5 Design Creativity

The long list of attributes of architectural membrane includes offering architects unprecedented flexibility in design. In an era where "star architecture" is synonymous with structures that perform seemingly impossible feats of structural physics, a variety of panel shapes can be combined into almost endless geometric configurations. This allows architects to address complex aesthetic and functional challenges while creating buildings of aesthetic significance.

#4 Lightweight

Architectural membranes are considerably lighter in weight than traditional structures, which ultimately reduces compressive loads on walls and columns. Because of the weight of membrane material, using it actually adds to the life-cycle of buildings in a region where build quality and severe temperatures detract from it.

New developmentsTiO2TiO2 is a new creation from MakMax (Taiyo Group). TiO2 fabric is an innovative self-cleaning and heat preventive material that is functional for all types of structures and areas. Its self-cleaning properties work through the sun's UV rays that create a chemical reaction with the material.

This reaction stimulates the development of active oxygen species which results in decomposition of the stain through oxidation. Rain streaking is also eliminated as the chemical reaction causes moisture to be absorbed from the air, forming hydrophilic radicals. As a result, the membrane surface becomes hydrophilic, allowing rain to be swept away from the material.


The newest development from MakMax Australia (Taiyo Group), Kenafine is an attempt to address challenges like global warming, waste, recycling, and chemical substances disruptors through the use of membrane. Kenafine is an annual herb that absorbs CO2 better than any plant or tree.

The Kenafine product is made by weaving plant fibres and polyester fibres into a base fabric and coating it with thermo-plastic resin. Kenafine membrane contains no PVC and does not release toxic substances when burnt. In fact, recycled Kenafine can be used to make recycled paper.

Providing lightweight additions to conventional buildings for weather protection at entries and walkways, architectural membranes protect users and increase the usable space in outdoor cafes, bars, restaurants and courtyards.

The ratio of surface area spanned to weight of material is unparalleled with any other building material.

#3 Cost effective

In roofing applications where a translucent finish is required or desired, architectural membranes cost a fraction of their glass or polycarbonate counterparts.

In addition to being able to create unparalleled forms, membrane materials allow those forms to be achieved with sizeable reductions in initial client investment and subsequent maintenance. During the design or tender process, these qualities offers a competitive advantage to architects choosing to use them.

#2 Meet deadlines

Construction and erection times with architectural membranes are significantly less than with traditional materials, which allows architects and developers to keep delivery promises to consumers. Both glass and polycarbonate are often damaged or significantly obscured after installation due to harsh climates, but most membranes available are also equipped with a self-cleaning function, which requires less maintenance throughout the building process and in pre-delivery phase.

#1 Sustainable

The main aim of sustainable design is to produce places, products and services in a way that reduces use of non-renewable resources and to minimises environmental impact. Some of the current products on the market are 100% recyclable; some products are made partly from organic material; some products create convection currents, which considerably reduce ambient temperatures in outdoor or ‘al fresco' situations.

Sustainability in design is designing physical objects and the built environment to comply with the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

The very nature of architectural membranes allow structures to more easily be constructed, and also, deconstructed. Fewer man-hours means a small energy expenditure for a particular project. Malleable material means less construction waste and a level of reuse that few materials can achieve.

In terms of embodied energy, architectural membrane has few competitors.

Its ability to be manufactured anywhere and its low relative weight means that if it needs to be transported, less energy is expended in getting it from point A to point B and that more of the material can be transported per square metre of transport space.

Regardless of whether the structure is guided by Leed, Breeam, Green Star, Estidama or Mandatory Progression, all of them give points for using innovative materials to achieve a level of eco-friendliness-architectural membrane certainly qualifies.

Popular membrane structuresHajj Terminal, Jeddah Airport (KSA):418,000m²

Al Jabber Stadium (Kuwait):47,000m² Zayed University Atrium Roof (UAE):11,000m²

Marina Mall (UAE):16,500m²

Munich Airport Centre (Germany):7,875m² PTFE coated Fibreglass fabric

Alexandra Palace (UK):10,000m² Silicon/Glass fabric

Edo Tokyo Museum (Japan):500m² PTFE/glass fabric

Singapore Turf Club Kranji Racecourse (Singapore):6,500m² PTFE

Bukit Jalil Sports Complex (Malaysia):10,000m² PVC/Polyester fabric Modern Land Country Club (Indonesia):9,000m² PVC/Polyester fabric

Split Airport Entrance (Croatia):2,000m²

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