Feature Article - February 2018
Find a printable version here

All-Season Structures

Innovative, Nonconventional Structures for Recreation, Sports & Fitness

By Rick Dandes

Advances in architectural design and engineering, and the evolving technology of moveable building materials, have made less conventional structures, meant to enclose year-round sports programs such as soccer, tennis and swimming events, a viable, cost-effective alternative to a bricks-and-mortar build-out, for private and public clubs, municipalities, and even larger universities and state projects.

"Conventional construction is generally thought of as bricks-and-mortar," explained Jim Avery, vice president of a West Jordan, Utah-based international builder of structures that utilize their own unique fabric membrane. "Everyone would like a brick-and-mortar arena as their sports facility," he said. "We'd all like it."

But the reality is, it's not always financially feasible. Whether the structure material is fabric, plastic or metal, the cost is generally less than funding a brick-and-mortar structure.

So, yes, there is a definite cost benefit to these structures, Avery continued, "but there is more to it than that. It's a faster speed to market. And the structures today are also high-performance. I wouldn't even call them nonconventional any longer."

One solution for those wanting to expand are fabric building structures, said Nathan Stobbe, general manager of an Easton, Pa.-based manufacturer. These buildings, also known as tension fabric structures (TFS), which can be used as either temporary or permanent facilities, have many of the qualities of regular buildings, but are available much faster and for a fraction of the cost.

The first type of fabric structures is a bubble, or an air dome, Stobbe explained. "They tend to be the least expensive way to span a wider width and to give you fields of play inside the facility. Air domes tend to be popular because they are the cheapest way to get into a large span facility, where you can play sports."

The challenge with an air dome, Stobbe said, "is they have high, ongoing operating costs, both from an electricity standpoint, to keep the dome inflated, and secondly, from a heating and cooling aspect because there is no insulation at that dome. Since the facility is pressurized, you lose a tremendous amount of heating and cooling just through escape through the fabric and through any penetration, holes."

The other challenge with the air facilities is, because they are pressurized, they create an environment where people inside might not feel 100 percent comfortable, "just because it has that pressurized feel to it," Stobbe said. "There is a human comfort aspect that is lacking a bit."

The third challenge with the air domes is they are held up by air, so if the power goes out or if there is a big storm or snowfall, they tend to go down, Stobbe said. Then, you have to re-inflate them. One of the reasons why people have indoor sporting facilities is to function during bad weather. And the problem with the air domes is when the weather is really bad, and you need them the most, you could have problems.

That's the reason why some people have chosen to move on from the air dome, and many operators who have built an air dome in the past, in the second round go to a more permanent type structure, Stobbe said.

Fantastic Fabrics

A fabric building is basically a metal frame, either steel or aluminum, with fabric cover, Stobbe said. Often, in athletic facilities, they are lined and insulated to create an ideal plain surface. Such structures are generally much more air-tight, and the fabric has thermally non-conductive properties, so it does not transfer hot and cold through the insulation as much as other building materials.

"This kind of structure is efficient because of lower air leakage and better thermal properties." Stobbe said. "The other benefit is it creates a very clean, smooth, interior finish to the building. It gives it a nice appearance … and the interior liner aids in providing soft and continuous lighting throughout the structure." For applications where the players need to look up, what you don't want is for players to be looking directly into a light and losing sight of the ball.

Fabric structures have been around for 40 years, so there has been a lot of innovation and modifications. "The first fabric structures were in Canada," explained Geoffrey Ching, sales manager for a structures manufacturer based in Windsor, Conn. "Obviously the weather there is very harsh all year long," he said. "If they hadn't been able to come up with something that was incredibly strong and adaptable to four seasons then the concept would have never taken off. There are different fabrics that are used. We suggest a polyethylene because pound-for-pound we think it is as effective, but less expensive than vinyls. With fabrics, there is always the option of flame-retardant additive to it, which allows it to be in compliance with any fire building code requirement. I wouldn't say there is anything revolutionary or new in the past few years in fabrics. I'm seeing the standards even better through advanced testing and understanding how they can make the fabric stronger. For instance, if there is a little hole in the fabric, it doesn't rip ... rip stop is the term. It is very easy to patch up if there is an issue there."

Ching illustrated the adaptability of fabric structures to various climates. "We have a structure down in South Florida where we have a pavilion covered. We have open sides, and open ends promoting natural ventilation, reducing the amount of energy used for HVAC systems. We want nature and natural breezes to take over as much as possible. If condensation becomes a concern, there are ways to design the structure to ensure that the user is getting exactly the environment they desire."

Avery suggested products that are aluminum-frame-supported so there is no air support requirement. "It is a building, per se."

This type of structure might have translucent daylight panels. "Since they are translucent, they add a lot more natural light inside," he said.

"If you put a little bit of glazing or glass on the side of it, you can really drive the 'wow' factor. Brighter, quieter, acoustics are great, and it is more energy-efficient because it is more airtight than a conventional building. We don't have any definition between roof and walls. It is consistent from top to bottom. They are completely re-configurable and relocatable."