Flexible Building Solutions

Nonconventional Structures Expand Your Possibilities

This year we've seen a lot of situations where temporary or nonconventional structures were utilized in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. These versatile structures were ideal for temporary medical facilities, drive-through testing sites, temporary emergency housing and more. They were cost-effective and could be designed, shipped and constructed expediently. Oftentimes, parks and rec departments, aquatics facilities, fitness clubs and sports venues also utilize various types of non-traditional structures, allowing them to provide programming year-round without having to invest in additional brick-and-mortar buildings.


Metal & Fabric Structures

Geoff Ching is director of sales for a South Windsor, Conn.-based manufacturer of metal and fabric structures that provides building solutions across many industries, including athletic and recreational buildings, indoor sports facilities, school gymnasiums and parks and rec buildings. "Our building solutions offer exceptional value by providing superior athletic environments at lower costs," said Ching, comparing their structures to more traditional buildings. "Our design flexibility allows easy customization of sidewall and peak height clearances. Climate-control options are limitless, from side openings to allow natural airflow to fully insulated structures with HVAC systems. Our speed of design and construction allows for expedited project completion as well."

There are two types of fabric cover options offered by Ching's firm: the standard 12.5-ounce polyethylene cover, and-for the harshest applications requiring maximum strength and durability-the 29-ounce architectural vinyl building cover. These covers can withstand high winds, heavy snow loads and other inclement weather. "In warmer southern climates, sidewalls and end walls can be designed open or with retractable curtains to promote natural airflow," Ching said. "In colder northern climates, R30 insulation systems can be added with heat or HVAC if needed."

The fabric building covers are recyclable and energy-efficient, allowing for monthly energy savings. The climate-sensitive polyethylene covers keep interiors cooler in summer and warmer in winter, while allowing abundant natural light to filter through. According to Ching, this provides the most natural feel possible inside an enclosure. "The natural light penetration is an incredible benefit offered by (these) systems. Fabric-covered structures have been the most popular for athletic facilities given the preference for natural daylight to enhance the playing environment. We are happy to work on the designs of metal and hybrid buildings if requested."

Besides fabric coverings, the company also offers metal buildings featuring metal cladding that's constructed with grade 80 steel. The cladding comes in several channel designs and offers numerous color options, so buildings can blend in with local surroundings or match existing structures. They also offer a hybrid building with a fabric roof and metal sidewalls.

A large assortment of cooling and watering systems are available, and to provide proper circulation there's a vast array of ceiling fans, circulation fans, duct fans, exhaust fans, vents, shutters, evaporative coolers and humidifiers to choose from. There are a multitude of lighting options available-including outdoor security lighting and temporary or portable lighting solutions-as well as a number of door and loading dock options.


Two types of building frames are available, and Ching said they'll engage with project managers to evaluate the optimal design for each installation. The truss frame is made from triple-galvanized steel and allows structures to be constructed up to 300 feet wide and at any length. The frame design requires no internal support posts, allowing for a wide open interior. For indoor sports facilities, this means no columns to obstruct players or spectators, while exceptional height and clearance means no low ceilings to interfere with games. The truss arch buildings also provide exceptional acoustics.

The I-Beam frame-constructed with grade 55 structural steel-is stronger and more durable, fully customizable and can be built to any size. Additionally, Ching said that buildings can be reconfigured. "Our designs allow for easy addition of square footage by lengthening, as the end wall columns and fabric simply need to be removed, then rebuilt once additional frame and cover sections are added."

For larger athletic facilities, 10,000 square feet and larger, Ching said foundations are typically either poured concrete or helical anchors, which drill directly into the ground and "often reduce construction costs by minimizing or eliminating concrete costs," while drastically reducing the amount of excavation and sitework as well. And while the anchoring system is 100% temporary, it provides the strength of a permanent foundation. Customers can also build on existing foundations, or choose from other options including blocks, pony walls, piers or concrete pads. For customers needing extra storage, building on durable metal containers is an ideal option.

Ching mentioned some of the athletic and entertainment facilities that they've installed nationwide, including an indoor football practice facility at James Madison University in Virginia; a horse barn and entertainment facilities at Gulfstream Park in South Florida; an insulated four-court tennis facility with full HVAC in Nashville, Tenn.; and the Welcome Center and lion buildings at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo.

If there's a pandemic, flood, hurricane or other catastrophe, the company offers disaster recovery facilities. Since they have minimal foundation requirements and feature no internal support posts, the structures can be easily relocated and deployed multiple times. The natural lighting and ventilation can provide an ideal environment. In April, the company adjusted their manufacturing facility to provide governments, medical centers and communities with these rapidly deployable structures and medical buildings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The orders could be shipped in less than 24 hours, and with the company's in-house installation services, the facilities were put into use in a matter of days.

Fresh Air & Sunshine

There's no denying that the pandemic will change the way businesses operate-some more than others-and this includes the spaces that we work and recreate in. Nancy Patterson is director of design and business development for an Ontario, Canada-based company that designs, manufactures and installs custom retractable enclosures and operable skylights. Their structures are found at aquatics facilities, health and community centers, hotels, restaurants and shopping centers. "Not only do we add to spaces that want to grow or expand, we can also renovate existing properties," said Patterson. "In fact, right now we are getting calls for all of these as facilities worry about reopening to the public."

With the touch of a button, the glass enclosures or skylights let in the sun and fresh air-commodities that suddenly seem even more relevant-while also venting trapped heat and circulating the air naturally. When weather becomes inclement, the structures close quickly and securely. Patterson gives several examples of projects where they've added structures to existing facilities, such as the Richmond Aquatic Center in California. "The pool was in a steel-roof building with a beautiful wood glulam structure. As with most aquatic centers, the steel roof had corroded and was in need of replacement. We came in and put a retractable roof over the existing structure. So the citizens of Richmond have the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, while keeping their gorgeous pool."

Other projects involve covering new construction or additions, such as the recreation center in Little Elm, Texas. "The existing facility, which had gyms, activity spaces and all other traditional municipal recreation center amenities, is getting an incredible new aquatic center and waterpark-The Cove at the Lakefront," said Patterson. "This is being added on to the side of the existing center, and sits on the side of Lewisville Lake-the location is gorgeous! One end of (our new) enclosure is actually the old wall to the rec center."

In addition to opening up the roof, Patterson said they also encourage clients to open the sidewalls when possible, to ventilate the building. "Owners don't necessarily want doors on all sides of the building for safety reasons, so we often include custom railings to meet code requirements in sliding doors so that when the door is open, the air is able to flow through, but guests don't use the door as egress."


She said there are many options for opening the walls-including motorized doors-adding that this turns the building into a natural chimney. "Air flows in from the sides of the space and pushes the hot chemical-laden air up and out of the roof."

Patterson said that while their enclosures are made of aluminum, the infill used in the structures is interchangeable. "So you can put in glass, polycarbonate, ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) or insulated metal panels. We can also leave the structure open to other materials, perhaps a concrete block wall or similar."

She said that for a rec center, clients typically prefer glass or polycarbonate. "Glass is used in the walls for the purpose of light, brightness and visibility." As an example, she cited the Ontario Racquet Club in Toronto, where one side of the aquatic center faces the parking lot. For privacy reasons, the bottom four feet of the wall is opaque concrete. "We then have a layer of frosted glass for brightness without the visibility, and above that for the height of the wall is clear glass."

They can also use glass in the roof, but glass is costlier than polycarbonate, according to Patterson, so most clients tend to use the latter, which is a multi-layered corrugated plastic. It's UV-coated, highly durable, comes in a couple of basic colors and is easy and inexpensive to install, maintain and clean. "In most of our aquatic centers, this is the material that's in the roof. It looks like a glass roof, but in fact is not."

Finally, they can also incorporate ETFE, which is a multi-layer Mylar material with air blown between the layers to create a "pillow" effect. "We can not only install this on the roof but we can make it retractable," said Patterson. "We have a project at a hotel pool in New Jersey-Grand Cascades Lodge at Crystal Springs Resort-doing exactly that."

Reducing the amount of artificial light needed at a facility can lead to substantial energy savings. "Also, when you open the roof, you turn off entirely-or way down-any air handling systems you have that are mechanically pushing air into or around the space. These systems remain off while the roof and walls are open," said Patterson, pointing out that clients have shown up to a 30% annual savings on energy bills with a retractable roof enclosure versus a traditional aquatics facility. Retractable structures are also helpful in the battle against chloramines.

"We also highly encourage clients to install large fans," said Patterson. "These have the benefit of keeping the air moving up and out on hot days when there is little or no breeze. The result is that the interior can feel a little cooler than the space around it." She points to installations in Vermont and northern Canada, as well as sticky Florida and arid California. "Each space is designed and engineered to suit the climate, and all are thermally broken. That means that we have thermal breaks in the metal channels around all infill material so that you can heat and cool the space as you need to."

Aside from aquatics facilities, Patterson discussed projects worldwide that include parks and rec facilities, entertainment and athletic complexes, and health and wellness centers. "A space that is useable year-round generates revenue. A space that is bright and utilizes daylight encourages productivity and happiness. Both of these-combined with the ability to easily clean the space, the natural ventilation, energy cost savings and the simple human desire to be outside when it's nice out-make these enclosures attractive to both owners and their guests. With the pandemic, we've seen an increase in requests in how something like this might benefit a facility," said Patterson, noting CDC guidelines that recommend, among other practices, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and opening windows to improve ventilation.

Different Destinations

Our next nonconventional structure is an adaptation of dwellings that were used by Central Asian nomads centuries ago. Yurts were large, circular tents made of wool felt stretched over a wooden frame. Alan Bair is president of a Cottage Grove, Ore.-based company manufacturing yurts since 1978, and using modern materials and technology, they've redesigned the traditional structure. Architectural-grade fabrics that are impervious to moisture are used instead of felt and animal skin coverings, and willow pole rafters have been replaced by kiln-dried Douglas fir from sustainably-managed forests.

Parks, campgrounds and resorts are places you might encounter yurts today, as they're often offered as lodging. Bair pointed out that people love how they combine the experiences of tent camping and cabin life. "When you go into that circular space there's a feeling of being close to nature; you can hear the rain on the roof and see the sky through the central dome, while remaining cozy inside. Just from a lodging perspective, when offered as either simple retreats or luxury accommodations, they provide a unique experience that guests love and return to again and again."


Yurts can be purchased as a no-frills structure or with a wide range of custom features, and Bair said that many destinations are offering upgrades. "While many parks and resorts offer yurts as simple retreats, we've seen a large shift toward larger, luxury 'glamping' accommodations complete with interior bathrooms, kitchenettes and full amenities including heating and cooling systems."

Operable dome skylights and windows allow fresh air, and ceiling fans, floor vents, through-wall AC units and screen doors are all options. For heat, customers have used wood stoves, propane stoves, pellet stoves, electric heaters and radiant floor heating. Ductwork can be installed under the floor and electricity and plumbing can come through the floor. Lofts or interior partition walls can be added, and each yurt has a solid door with residential lockset and the option to add a deadbolt.

Wood rafters lead upward into the central dome creating an open, spacious feeling with an abundance of natural light during the day, according to Bair. "At night one can stargaze from the comfort of bed. We also offer an optional 'solar arc' of translucent fabric for yurts located in heavily shaded locations where even more natural light is desired."

The company also engineered snow and wind kit upgrades, with their largest structure able to withstand snow loads up to 100 pounds per square foot and wind up to 142 mph. This makes them ideal for ski areas, where they're used as warming huts, overnight lodging and rental facilities. Some ski resorts have expanded their offerings by adding yurt-to-yurt skiing, dogsledding and snow-shoeing.

The Oregon State Park system purchased two yurts from Bair's company in 1994, looking for a way to fill empty campsites in fall and winter. They were an instant hit, and now there are nearly 200 yurts across the park system, with parks in more than 30 other states offering them as well. Additionally, business enterprises and nonprofit organizations are using them to maximize their revenue or extend their housing budgets.

Bair said their uses are limited only by the imagination. "Many parks and resorts now use them not just for year-round lodging but also for conference and meeting halls, recreation centers, meditation/fitness rooms and multi-use special event spaces. We even see them used for retail sales and ski rental shops, and for workshops, training facilities and more."

Sometimes municipalities, parks departments and private businesses and facilities need to look beyond traditional brick-and-mortar buildings to help them expand their programming and find new and innovative ways to generate revenue, while keeping their expenses and budgets down. Therefore, individuals and companies will stay busy at the drawing board, coming up with the next nonconventional structure. RM