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Playing with Fabric

By Shannon Humbert,  Legacy Building Solutions

Rigid-frame fabric buildings offer a permanent solution for athletic facilities.

For many entities, both public and private, the need for an athletics and recreation facility comes down to two options: A permanent brick and mortar building, or a lower-cost fabric bubble. In reality, there is another solution–the modern tension fabric building–that takes the known benefits of fabric cladding and applies them to a permanent facility.

Fabric buildings have become increasingly popular in the sports world because of their ability to fulfill the need for large open spaces, in combination with aesthetic appeal, fast delivery times, and relatively modest prices. Universities, communities and clubs alike have recognized fabric facilities as an ideal project fit.

Rigid-Frame Design

A turning point for fabric buildings came 13 years ago when Legacy Building Solutions first introduced fabric structures that featured a structural steel I-beam frame. Prior to this, tension fabric structures had typically relied upon hollow-tube, web truss framing systems.

This innovation allowed fabric buildings to be designed in the same fashion as conventional construction projects. The engineering credibility of this rigid-frame approach was unquestioned, whereas web truss designs had often been viewed as subjective among engineers. With known and proven I-beam frames providing the backbone, buildings using fabric cladding were now in a better position to succeed.

Space to Play

Web truss structures had another serious limitation in that they were typically supplied only in predetermined sizes. This basically forced organizations into picking the standard offering that most closely matched the dimensions that were actually desired. The price may have been right, but it came along with needing to make certain sacrifices if the structure was oversized or undersized in any way.

With a structural steel frame, end users have far more design flexibility. Facilities can always be engineered to the optimal specifications since every project begins with a clean sheet design. In effect, rigid-frame engineering was able to advance tension fabric buildings to a place where a facility can be constructed exactly as desired for its intended uses.

There’s no getting around the fact that turf sports like football and soccer take up a lot of space, especially if you want a full-size regulation field. Rigid-frame design allows fabric buildings to have long clear spans without any need for support beams that would interfere with the playing area. For indoor facilities where a track is also needed, it isn’t a problem to go wider and longer with the building dimensions.

From an engineering standpoint, brick-and-mortar buildings are obviously structurally sound as well. Where fabric becomes advantageous by comparison, however, is that the cost to clad a building with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabric walls is much less than constructing masonry walls or using other “conventional” materials. And the larger a building design becomes, the more that price differential is amplified.

Optimized for the Sport

Court sports like tennis, pickleball, basketball, and volleyball often come with defined guidelines for building peak height and roof slope to allow for the necessary space around the playing surface boundaries.

Older style fabric structures commonly featured curved frames that created unusable space near the building’s sidewalls. With I-beam framing, straight sidewalls allow for maximum utilization of the full building footprint. And because all building measurements can be customized from the beginning of the design process, engineers can easily account for specific sports and activities when determining the proper building dimensions.

Depending on the facility, support equipment such as scoreboards, video platforms, court dividers, netting, or batting cages could be required. The most efficient use of space often requires these types of items to be suspended from above or affixed to the walls. Likewise, features like fire suppression systems, lighting and HVAC must be accounted for from the very beginning of a project. With an I-beam design, engineers can accommodate any hanging or collateral loads that may need to be supported by the structural frame within the original plans.

Interior Environment

PVC has been the primary cladding choice for sports facilities for many years because it is more durable than polyethylene (PE) alternatives. Legacy Building Solutions offers a product called ExxoTec™ PVC that delivers a longer life expectancy, due to the added layers of primer and lacquer that surround its high-strength woven fabric.

The combination of improved fabric with the rigid-frame structural approach also allows for suppliers to apply appropriate insulation to meet energy codes or individual user requirements. Insulation is secured and protected by a liner, which is actually the same type of PVC used to clad the building exterior. The result is an airtight structure designed for maximum energy efficiency and reduced operating costs. When equipped with the proper HVAC system to control temperatures and humidity levels, these buildings can accommodate any athletic application, from hockey arenas to swimming pools and beyond.

The fabric liner also provides aesthetic benefits with a softer feel, better acoustics (especially compared to steel structures), and improved lighting due to the fabric’s reflective nature. Players and spectators who step into a fabric sports structure for the first time frequently walk away very impressed with the overall atmosphere inside. 

It’s worth noting also that PVC fabric comes in a variety of colors, so the interior and exterior could be made to match the colors of a team, organization, school, or community. If additional aesthetic touches are desired, it’s also possible to include a brick façade or other architectural features to the exterior walls.

Fast Construction, Long-Term Value

It’s important to examine the construction approach with fabric. I-beam fabric buildings utilize individual fabric panels, rather than a looser one-piece monocover like those seen on fabric structures of the past. Legacy’s patented fabric attachment system uses half-inch diameter bolts to clamp a keder rail to the top flange of the structural steel frame. Fabric panels are then slid through the keder channel to connect to each beam. This process allows fabric panels to be tightly pulled into place at the proper horizontal and vertical tensions.

The composition of rigid-frame fabric buildings allows them to be completed much faster than brick-and-mortar and other construction methods. A key reason for the shorter lead time is that companies like Legacy are full-service suppliers that can handle every step of the project from design to manufacturing to installation. This one-stop-shop philosophy also helps ensure higher quality control and avoid unexpected delays from waiting on outside vendors.

When considering project timelines, the lower investment to build, and the reduced cost to maintain–while acknowledging that the ideal playing conditions can be readily achieved–it’s easy to see why tension fabric buildings have become a desirable permanent facility solution for athletics and recreation organizations everywhere.