Feature Article - October 2004
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Got it Covered

Adding the right outdoor elements, including shelters, gazebos and building structures

By Kelli Anderson


Like yurts, fabric architecture also has struck a chord with the American public over the last 10 years. Fabric architecture comes in two basic forms: a frame structure and a post-and-sail structure. The frame structure typically has four posts with cross pieces forming the top over which the fabric is stretched. Post and sail is more of a free-form style in which multiple triangular "sails" are attached to the metal framed structure. Think Sydney Opera House meets canvas.

In either case, the airiness, the soft, diffused light and the eye-popping designs—not to mention the affordability of being 35 percent to 45 percent less than their solid-roofed counterparts—are catching on. Whether for cabanas, pool-side coverings, or shade structures for bleachers and golf courses, fabric architecture is made for the shade.

Once thought a lightweight for durability, synthetic materials like polyethylene are used in most fabric structures today, making them fade- and tatter-resistant, strong beyond belief and able to block out 90 percent of the sun's UV rays. Latest materials also boast a waterproof feature, while creative engineering has designed them to bear significant wind loads with quick-release mechanisms for hurricane conditions so covers can be easily removed and then replaced when better weather returns.

And they do something solid-roofed structures cannot: They breathe. Fabric is permeable so as hot air rises through it, it creates a movement of air that reduces the temperatures beneath the structures by as much as 15 degrees. Fabric architecture, pioneered in Australia and South Africa as much as 40 years ago, are a natural air-conditioning system for brutal climates.

As Americans are now discovering, with precedent-setting structures like the Millennial Dome in London or the Denver International Airport, fabric architecture is able to hold its own. The recreation industry now is applying the innovative strengths of these structures to everything from fanning the fans on bleachers at a ball game to providing UV protection at playgrounds, waterparks and band shells.

For Weston Regional Community Park in Weston, Fla., deciding on what kind of structure would be best for the stage area wasn't too difficult. After getting estimates for the cost of building a solid-roof structure and a fabric one, and after considering the success of other fabric structures throughout its park system, the municipality decided to go with the fabric roof.

"The cost of the metal roof was approximately twice as much as the fabric roof," says Jeff Skidmore, director of parks and recreation for the city of Weston. "I also felt that metal would not provide very good acoustics for musical performances on stage."

So far, the new structure has been well received.

"Our July 4th celebration was the first event that actually made use of the stage and cover," Skidmore says. "The response was very positive by the performers who were on stage during the heat, and the people in attendance were also impressed with the appearance of the entire structure. I think each user has to evaluate their own situation in terms of cost, appearance, type of use, etc., but in our case, the fabric cover was definitely the way to go."