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Tension Fabric Buildings’ Close Relative Sets the Standard for Fabric Structures

worm's eye view of tensile fabric structure covering in plazaAllsite’s tension fabric structures have a lot in common with the related architectural technology, tensile fabric structures. While Allsite provides tension fabric buildings, the basic principles of tensile fabric architecture apply, and both forms share many commonalities.

Tensile architecture is both an ancient and a modern technology. It is making more of an impact in the world of architecture every year. Because of its low cost, eco-friendly characteristics, and inherent flexibility, structures utilizing tensile fabrics will continue to grow in use and popularity into the future. This unique and innovative form of architecture is appearing more frequently in our cityscapes, adding dramatic texture to the landscape, providing protection from the elements, and adding shade and beauty to buildings, walkways, parks, stadiums, concert halls, and other structures. Let’s see how they work and how they are related to Allsite’s highly versatile tension fabric structures.

Here is what we cover:

How Tensile Fabric Structures Work

Side view of towering tensile fabric structure showcasing architectural twist.Traditional buildings are based on compression, which is piling materials one on top of the other to provide support to sustain a building structure. Tension, i.e., creating strength by pulling material taut, as opposed to compression or bending used in traditional building, is what gives the tensile structure its strength.

The concept of the tensile structure is based on a principle as simple as what sustains a soap bubble. The soap bubble’s form allows it to use the least amount of material to achieve its rounded shape and provide the tension needed to sustain the bubble. While natural bubbles don’t last long, the concept is the basis for tensile structure design. This same concept is also seen in crystals and microscopic plant life.

Visual comparison between tensile force (stretching) and compressive force (compression) in structural elements.

The simplicity of the elegant soap bubble is misleading; however, as the design phase of the architectural form of tensile structure requires complex mathematics to achieve the right design-function balance of each structure. Tensile structures must be able to withstand time and the elements to be useful and safe additions to our landscapes.

The key to achieving the remarkable strength and lasting beauty of these tensile fabric structures is in pre-stressing the fabric. By calculating and applying the maximum load the structure needs to bear during its service, the fabric is prepared for use. Pre-stressing allows the structure to handle winds, rain, snow, and other pressures. If properly pre-stressed, the structure can stand immovably in place for a long time, while also requiring the minimum amount of fabric to achieve this performance.

Tensile Structure Forms

All tensile structures adhere to a fundamental rule—they must possess a three-dimensional shape. This characteristic enables the tension to effectively manage loads, such as wind, where necessary. Two distinct types of tensile structures are distinguished by their shape. Anticlastic shapes, featuring opposing curvature at each end of the fabric, redistribute tension dynamically and are inherently self-sustaining. Synclastic structures, characterized by curvature on the same side of the fabric, necessitate internal pressure, typically from an air-supported structure. In contrast, tension fabric structures, like those from Allsite, rely on the support of an aluminum or steel frame to uphold the building’s form.

Tensile structure fabric may be made of different materials, each with its characteristics and advantages. For example, ETFE is transparent, lightweight, durable, and affordable, making it ideal for large span projects such as roofing. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) fabric is the most common fabric for both tensile and tension fabric structures. It is waterproof, flexible, reflects solar radiation, and is cost-effective. It is also durable, lasting 15-30 years, with more heavy-duty fabric having a longer lifespan. These fabric roof structures provide reliable protection against weather elements, making them a popular choice for roofing solutions in industrial and commercial settings.

Tensile Fabric Structures in History

Historical teepee structures at dusk, showcasing early examples of tensile architecture.

Traditional american indian tipis in the field at sunset, First Nations tipis on the open prairies of North America, AI Generated

Tensile structures have a long history, with sails being among the earliest examples, designed to harness the power of the wind. This technology was subsequently adapted for various purposes, including simple forms like shades and awnings for sun protection. Historical structures like the Roman Colosseum utilized sailcloth for shading, managed by Roman sailors to adjust awnings as needed. Tents, employing the principles of tensile design, have provided shelter for millennia, including yurts in Asia and beyond, as well as the sturdy Native American tipi.

Early applications of tensile structures encompassed diverse forms such as kites and cable span bridges. The Wright brothers’ pioneering aircraft capitalized on lightweight and aerodynamic tensile structures for their historic human flights. Additionally, circus tents have delighted generations of children, serving as easily transportable, erectable, and dismantlable structures. These tents provide expansive indoor arena spaces for spectators and circus performers to gather and experience the spectacle

The modern surge in architectural tensile design occurred later. During the architectural design boom of the 20th century, self-sustaining tensile structures were of interest to architects exploring new forms of expressive and architectural innovation. Engineers and architects Frei Otto and Horst Berger delved into the mathematics of crystals and bubbles to replicate these forms in tensile fabric structures. Their pioneering work laid the foundation for architects to explore numerous new designs and applications for dramatic, practical, and cost-effective tensile structures. Otto’s cable net stadium roof for the 1972 Munich Olympics remains a defining architectural achievement of the 20th century.

Recent prominent examples of tensile structures include the Millennium Dome in London, the Sydney Opera House, and the Denver Airport. These structures exemplify the advancements in tensile design. The modern revolution in tensile and tension fabric has reshaped the architectural landscape, offering an affordable, eco-friendly building solution for various applications.

The Role of Tensile Fabric Structures Today

Crowds gathered under the tensile fabric overhangs at the Gavin Wanganeen Stand, an AFL stadiumAdvancements in structural design and a growing emphasis on creative solutions, particularly in addressing climate change, have made modern tensile structures possible. Energy-efficient and heat-reducing, tensile structures are playing an increasing role in meeting goals for cooling the planet. Lightweight and modular, they use minimal material and are easily transportable, thereby conserving energy during production and installation. Their translucent properties, reflecting up to 80% of solar radiation, reduce the need for interior lighting, further cutting energy costs. Deployed as shade structures in parks, along walkways, in stadiums, and other locations, they contribute to combating the urban heat island effect worldwide.

In addition to energy efficiency, the fabric used in these structures is safer than many traditional materials. It is fire resistant and it is not dangerous like glass, which may shatter and injure people nearby. These structures are in use in office buildings, airports, car parks and other locations not imagined in the past.

Exploring Tension Fabric Buildings

Aluminum frames laid out in preparation for TFS (Tension Fabric Structure) installation.Drawing from similar principles as tensile structures, tension fabric buildings offer exceptionally stable and practical building space. Supported by an aluminum or steel frame, these structures boast greater durability and strength compared to traditional tensile structures. While tensile fabric tends to be thinner and translucent, tension fabric buildings utilize opaque industrial-grade PVC fabric, ensuring resilience against harsh conditions. Suited for demanding industrial applications such as mining, environmental remediation, aviation, and construction, these buildings excel in handling challenging climates and terrains. Installation of modular fabric panels mirrors that of tensile structures, quick and straightforward, making tension fabric buildings an ideal choice for both temporary and long-term installations, including situations where relocation is necessary.

Allsite Tension Fabric Structures: a Modern, Cost-Effective, Flexible Building Solution

Head-on view of aircraft in aviation hangar, housed in TFS fabric structure for aircraft storage.Allsite’s tension fabric structures offer numerous advantages over traditional tents or buildings. Reinforced by a highly engineered, high-strength extruded aluminum frame, these structures provide comparable stability and fully enclosed interior space to traditional brick and mortar buildings, while requiring less material, reducing costs, and minimizing construction waste. Unlike tents, tension fabric structures rely on the tensile strength of heavy-duty fabric panels stretched over the frame, eliminating the need for interior supports. The fabric is fed into keder tracks built into the frame and then tensioned horizontally. Our horizontal tension design is a major differentiator from other tents, including steel buildings. These run fabric over the top of the structure and use very large sheets rather than sheets that feed in at each bay. This gives our structure extra strength and stability and is easier to install.

Using fabric akin to tensile structures, the tension fabric building’s covering not only resists sun and wind but also provides excellent weather protection, shedding snow and rain. This makes Allsite Tension Fabric buildings an excellent choice for construction, mining, oil and gas, remediation, utility shelter, transit, rail, and industrial applications. With spacious interiors reaching up to 156 feet in width, they serve as excellent aviation hangars for aircraft storage or servicing. Offering comfortable temperatures and expansive, well-ventilated spaces, these buildings are also suitable for warehouses, manufacturing facilities, sports venues, corporate, church, or school auditoriums, homeless shelters, film and TV production spaces, conventions, and events. Additionally, the fabric roof structure ensures durability and reliability in various weather conditions.

Tensile fabric structures represent a significant advancement in construction technology and structural engineering, offering a versatile and eco-friendly alternative to traditional building methods. These structures utilize innovative building materials that are lightweight yet incredibly strong, providing a durable and cost-effective solution for various applications. By leveraging advanced structural engineering principles, tensile fabric buildings can withstand extreme weather conditions while minimizing environmental impact.

Tensile fabric structures epitomize the principles of sustainable design, offering a greener alternative to conventional building methods. The use of sustainable building materials further enhances their appeal, aligning with modern architectural trends and sustainability goals. Whether for temporary installations or permanent structures, tensile fabric buildings offer unparalleled flexibility and adaptability, making them an attractive choice for a wide range of projects.

Fabric structure nestled in lush green valley, movie set for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Similar to tensile architecture, the potential applications for tension fabric buildings are expanding as eco-friendly, cost-effective, convenient, and adaptable solutions gain popularity. Learn more about Allsite Structures tension fabric solutions at

Author Peter Milligan

Peter Milligan is a Business Development Manager at Allsite, with degree in Psychology from Lafayette College and 14 years experience in matching customers with Tension Fabric Structure solutions. Read more about Peter and the rest of our team at

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