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‘Membranes’ in Light weight and Membrane Structures.

Suvarna Lele,Rizvi College Of Architecture,Mumbai,Maharashtra,India

Shireesh Patil,Chaugule Patil and Consultants,Sangli,Maharashtra,India.


The aim of this paper is to take an overview of the ‘membranes’ in cable and
membrane structures. Before installation on site a membrane has to go through
several stages right from design including the steps as form finding, load analysis
and design of fabric geometry. The paper also talks about several shapes and forms
a membrane can achieve and the principle behind the design of these shapes.
Important aspect of membrane structure is availability of membranes in market.
This paper accounts various available covering materials in the market and the
criteria have to be considered before their installations on the site. Joinery plays a
significant role in attaining the required shape and equilibrium. This paper takes a
review of significant junctions in a membrane structure.


Tensile structures are Light weight as their structural stability is derived from their
pre stressed shape rather than the mass of material used. Tensile structures allow
larger spans with easier and cheaper constructions and they cover vast expanse of
spaces. Membranes are uniform in thickness with a capacity to support imposed
loads due to their designed shapes and deflections.
Membrane structures being more flexible than wood and steel find a wider
applicability and varied shapes. Membrane structures require form finding and
cutting pattern generation. There should be a proper predesign analysis before
installation of the structures on the site. The design analysis should include
principles of design, function of the structure, structural analysis, adjacent
structures, loads on the buildings, atmospheric conditions and last but not lease the
budget. The actual design process may be complicated and may be completed with
help of computer modeling.
The important steps in the process would include conceptual design, load analysis,
actual or computer modeling, form finding and cutting pattern analysis which need
to be exact for the safety purpose.

Canopies fall into two main types

1] The structures that transfer the loads into adjoining structures .They
generate lateral loads which may require the reinforcement within the
2] The structures which contain the tensile loads within their boundaries.
These structures need significant concrete foundations or screw
anchors to resist tensile loads. The prestresses in two main directions decide
the shape of membrane surface.The prestresses on membrane surfaces are
calculated with help of computers which have software necessary for design
and fabrication of tension structure specifically those utilizing stressed
membranes and cables.
The exact values of prestress are calculated to enable to keep all parts of
membrane in tension in case of maximum loading condition.

Design of membrane structures

1] Form finding: An appropriate form can be generated to establish
equilibrium where in the stresses are balanced by forces in supporting
structure. The form generation does not consider the weight of the structure.
The form generally depends on force, length or the stress value. The
material plays a significant role in form where its integral properties may
affect the form.
2] Load analysis: The load analysis can be done by elastically controlled model
with realistic material properties. The aim is to gain a state of equilibrium
by determining stresses and deformations under different loading conditions.
3] Fabrication Geometry: The exact geometric form of the structure needs to
be calculated from about computer and software. An exact calculation is
required as the structures are prefabricated away from structure. Some
readymade softwares contain modules to schedule membrane cutting
patterns, cable system lengths and geometric data necessary for support
structure components.

Basic shapes and forms:

Membrane structure depends on double curvature to resist the imposed loads. The
shapes can be deciding factor of resistance of loads. The surfaces can be categories
in synclastic and anticlastic surfaces.
1] Synclastic surface: Upward loads are resisted by a stress increase about both
axes of the fabric while downward loads are neutralized by internal pressure.
Inflatable fabric structures are simplistic forms.( fig 1)
2] Anticlastic surface: Fibers with convex curvature. One surface resists the
upward load by increasing tension, while fibers with concave surface
increase their tension to resist downward loads.(fig 2)

Fig 1: Synclastic surface Fig 2: Anticlastic surface:

So the basic forms of all curvatures are hyperbolic paraboloids, cones or arches. All
the tensile canopies are derived from these forms or combination of them.(fig 3,4,5)
Designers can create their own forms by exploring the development of these basic
forms and work out on the structural requirements for their equilibrium.(fig 6 )

fig3: Hyperbolic paraboloids fig4: Cones fig 5: Arches.

6 point membrane Chinese hat

Center arch Rectangular pneu 3D node

Custom1 Custom2 Rhino design

fig 6 :Evolution of several shapes from the basic shapes

The most commonly observed shapes and forms can be categorized as following:
1] Mast supported: A very commonly used form with a tent like form with
central pole and perimeter cables. There might be one or several peaks
depending on the design. These systems use compressing rings or bale rings
for their support.
( fig 7)
2] Point supported: These structures have clear spans avoiding the control
mass. They are often hyper shaped with two high and two low point
connections and usually utilize an exterior frame. (fig 8)
3] Arch supported: In these types of structures arches act as main support to
membrane where cross arches are often used. A curved from compression
member is introduced n structural. (fig 9)
4] Frame supported: Here the load is especially taken by the space frames and
the structural components carry forces. Fabric is only for external cladding.
( fig 10)
5] Simple saddle shaped: This is simple saddle membrane with linear perimeter
support. It has double curvature with two high points and two low points.(fig
Mast Point supported Arch supported Frame supported Simple saddle
supported supported
Fig 7, 8, 9, 10, 11: Most commonly used shapes and forms for membrane structures

Design Principles:
The study of fabric behavior will enable designer to understand constraint on his
design and achieve key design goals and structure which achieve equilibrium as well
as economy. A fabric has a considerable strength when pulled due to its slenderness
but negligible strength when pushed on ends (compression). Similarly a flat sheet of
fabric is strong when pulled along opposing edges (placed in tension) but weak when
either compressed or bend. Taking advantage of these characteristic and a tensile
fabric structure can be designer. A designer can provide other conventional
materials provide bending resistance.(fig 12)
A fabric roof has large exposed ‘sail’ area and minimal weight, therefore it has to
resist wind loads in addition to dead and live loads that act vertically downwards.
The fabric structure curves outwards forming a dome like form are synclastic
structures. The tension in fabric takes care of suction forces while as the downward
loads are resisted by internal air pressure in the building enclosure.
A common way of giving stability to a fabric structure is to provide a curvature
both inward and outward at all points of fabric surface. This is done by curving the
fabric fibers about one axis of the fabric a convex manner and these about other
axis in concave manner. These are said to be anticlastic shapes.
A widely dramatic and wide range of forms can be involved by taking advantage of
anticlastic forms where the support elements as cables arches, masts, trusses and rig
beams can be designed according to the forms and load conditions. The skillful
manipulation of support condition can create interesting forms that are stable
aesthetically satisfactory, economical and carry the adequate loads.

A thread in tension changes Other conventional materials Curvature provides

its geometry when in under tension and resistance to out of
Compression. Compression. plane forces.

fig 12: Tension conditions between tensile and conventional materials

Equilibrium considerations-In tensile structures loads are always resisted by planar

axial force. Section at any point can be identified with having two equal and
opposite pull. There is a surface deformation due to application of force in one
particular point. It increases the pressure on one surface and decreases the pressure
on other. Every point on a stable surface must satisfy axial equilibrium. (fig 13)
fig 13 : axial equilibrium

Physical Models Building of physical model plays a significant part in design of

structure. The limitations and possibilities can be worked out by experimenting on
the physical models. The miniature model must carry or be identical with the actual
structure in properties. The structures are to be designed to be in equilibrium
conditions for applied loading conditions. The structures mostly are designed to
carry uniform pre stress in their membranes. (fig 14)

fig 14: Experimenting on physical models for evolution of different forms

Soap and liquid plastic films –soap and liquids are excellent mediums to experiment
with as they exhibit excellent tensile capacity but lack shear capacity. Wire or
strings can act as cables and liquid as well as soap films will form anticlastic shapes
of pre stressed structures. The film or bubble can be stretched to the limits till it
breaks. Various shapes which are formed after stressing the film can be noted and
applied for further design.
Detailed study and study of connections-Connections are very significant part of
design of tensile structures. These structures are very hard to visualise on drawings
due to their un conventional forms. Simple models can be useful in anylysing the
connection problems, studying welding, bolting and pinning the joints. The prior
built up model can also throw a light on procedures to be carried out in actual
construction and the co-ordination of all structural members as cables, connectors,
and various supports along with the membrane by a strict project management.
Use of stretchy fibers, wire mesh-a model with stretchable fabric may act as a
membrane, a string can act as a cable and dowels and metal wires can be used to
show struts and mast to a lower scale. After deciding the form, a wire mesh can be
used to define the prestress or structural behaviour under prescribed conditions.
Wire loops as well as threads can be used in models to analyse the structural
Various fabrics used as covering membranes (fig11):
The other significant aspect of the membrane structure is the material used which
generally consists of woven fabrics coated by with polymeric resin. Technically
woven fabrics are usually composed of a square weave and two principle directions
(wrap and weft). The strength of yarn decides the strength of coated fabric. The
proper fabric is selected considering its size, form span, function, availability,
economics and sustainability. The description of variety of materials available in
market is given below.
1] Polyvinyl Chloride covered mesh: This is a very durable fabric membrane
produced with polyester, fiber glass and other types of reinforcement. It is a
versatile material which can be stitched welded or glued to form the
membrane. These systems can be used in wide range of climates. It is mostly
used for flat surface applications. Interesting graphic images can be printed
over the surface and the material can be recycled.
2] Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): This material is available in woven or non woven
material. The combination of basic elements as carbon, hydrogen and
chloride results in single ply membrane that is simple to manufacture. This
fabric can be softened into semisolid state and infused with UV light
inhibitors and anti-soiling fungicides. It is a cost effective and used in
temporary as well as permanent structures. It is soft, pliable and easy to
bundle and comes in various colours, weights, textures and topcoats. It is a
fire resistant structure and can be fused together in a process known as weld
able seam technology.
3] Polyvinyl Tetra Fluro Ethylene (PTFE): This is a non flammable material
using 100% fluro polymer coating and can offer up to 40% high
transmission. It is highly usable in spaces like malls, offices, big complexes.
It can be coated and acquires a highly reflectable surface which can be used
in interior lighting. It is waterproof; inert, resists rays, stain resistance
which reduces the maintenance cost. It can be sewn and spot welded .It is
crack as well as crease proof.
4] Ethyl Tetra Fluro Ethylene (ETFE): This is a very durable and recyclable
membrane. It can be laid in single at multilayer with 97% transparency
level. It is light weight and highly transparent to UV light and has better
insulation properties than glass. It can take 400 times of its run weight.
5] Photo luminescent and tensotherm fabrics: A membrane is made photo
luminescent by addition of pigments which gives protection from UV rays
and also because of its luminescent properties, glows at night.
Stenotherm is an innovative material created from PTFE tensile fabric along
with some insulation material. This is a new generation fabric material
providing the building with a light weight, translucent making it heat and
sound proof. They are widely used in awning industry, tents and external
shading devices as they are available in variety of styles, colours and
6] Theatrical Draperies and Strength fibers: These fabrics are used for interior
applications and lighting fixtures. They are fire resistant, self supporting,
tensioned or draped. They have a low tensile strength and used mostly in
interiors. They are also available in variety of styles, colours, patterns and

Teflon Coated Silicone, TiO2, Woven PTFE Laminates, Lycra and Theatrical
Fiberglass (PTFE) draperies

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene (ETFE)

Vinyl Coated Polyester (PVC/PVDF)

fig (12,
13, 14, 15, 16, 17): Variety of fabrics used for covering the structures
Selection of the fabric will depend upon the function of the structures. It is very
important to consider the following factors while selection of the materials which
include size, form, function, availability and sustainability. The budget of the
structure depends on to surface area of the structure along with its cost.
Area (Length & width) x shape factor (H) = Surface area
Surface area x Cost / Sq.ft. = budget.
The various stages from inception to installation of a structure would include the
stages as design, engineering, project Management, steel Fabrication, membrane
fabrication, installation and shipping.
Technically woven fabrics are usually composed of a square weave and consist of 2
principle fiber directions (wrap and weft) coated by PVC or PTFE. Many often the
thread nets are made of polyester or glass fabrics. Varieties of materials are
available in the market and a designer has to make his choice as per his requirement
considering his budget and quality of membrane to be used. The laboratory tests are
performed on the membranes to ascertain their properties.
Some Typical joineries For Membranes: Joineries provided for stretching,
connecting and transmitting the loads to supports.

Boundry line
fig 18: fig 19:
Typical details of junction between membrane, cable and supports

woven fabric

Stretch nut

Boundry line

Vertical support

fig 20 : fig 21:

Edge detail Extruded section with membrane plate and catenary

fig 23 : Typical details at the edges fig 24 : Tensioner

fig 14 : fig 25:
Typical details of connection of membranes

As the design process for tensile structures differs greatly from the traditional
building structure, it needs to be thoroughly understood by the several agencies
working on it. This paper overviews various aspects of the membrane in Light
weight membrane structures. It covers the design principles, different shapes and
forms which can be attained by a membrane, different types of membranes with
their properties and applications, general types of structures commonly used and
some of their important joinery details. This paper also talks about material
selection and pre design study and analysis for form finding with the help of several
techniques (Ex-small scale models, soap films, liquid films etc).

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