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Sticks, Stones, Fabric: The Evolution of Sustainable Building Materials


The very earliest buildings we have archaeological record of were formed primarily out of mud and straw — but we have come a long way since then. Our long, impressive history of construction demonstrates that humans are abundantly capable of creating structures from all sorts of materials, natural and otherwise. Unfortunately, for millennia, humankind has relied on natural elements like wood and stone as building resources, and as a result, the Earth has suffered tremendously. Yet, with a modern eye toward sustainability, more and more architects are using lighter-weight and stronger materials to build.

Impact of Traditional Materials

At first, the impact of utilizing traditional construction materials like wood and stone seems obvious: We must destroy natural habitats in order to obtain the resources we need to build. However, the extent of that destruction is likely much worse than many people think.

To build a small single-family home requires the equivalent number of trees as an acre of dense forest and more than 50 percent of all the wood consumption in the U.S. is devoted entirely to construction. Considering that more than 600,000 new single-family houses were constructed last year alone, we have lost several thousand square miles of vital forest in just one year due to traditional construction, releasing excess greenhouse gases, disrupting regional climates, and forcing thousands of species out of their homes.

What's more, even homes that are stone-free rely on mines for minerals essential in foundations, plumbing, insulation, and more. Mines are well-known for their deleterious effects on surrounding ecosystems, from the release of natural, toxic elements trapped within rocks to the reliance on harsh man-made chemicals for excavating and processing the desired resources. The result is an environment denuded of nutrients and suffused with poisons.

Traditional building consumes the majority of our nation's material resources: roughly 75 percent, not counting industrial minerals like those necessary in cement. Thus, it should not be surprising that forward-thinking builders are looking for alternatives to tradition that cost less in terms of both environmental drain and financial strain. Fortunately, a suitable solution has quickly presented itself: fabric.

Benefits of Fabrics

There are a number of reasons green builders are enthusiastic about the opportunities of fabric in construction. For one, fabric is almost 12 percent translucent, allowing natural light to flood into structures that otherwise might rely on consumable energy for illumination. For another, fabric offers a high albedo, reflecting light and heat to keep structures significantly cooler than traditional building materials do. Additionally, perhaps most important, the creation of fabric does not require environmental devastation.

It is important to note that fabrics intended for use in buildings is not the light, breathable cotton or stretchy spandex used in clothing. In truth, to create tension membranes suitable for use in long-lasting fabric structures, builders have developed unique blends of materials to ensure durability, strength, flame and water resistance, and more. The best building fabrics are polyethylene (PE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both of which are made of at least 89.5 percent recycled material and are considered low-emitting for superior air quality.

Additionally, fabric building materials allow for complete flexibility when it comes to design. Unlike heavy brick and rigid wood, fabric is light and supple, which means builders can form a building into virtually any size and shape. As a result, plenty of industrial builders now design custom fabric buildings to meet individual needs — without paying the exorbitant price of personalization using traditional building materials and methods. For certain uses, like housing highly corrosive supplies, fabric will even last longer than steel, saving owners money in the short and long term.

Examples of Real Use

Perhaps best of all, fabric is not some imaginary, science-fiction building material of the far-off future; there are thousands of structures around the world that already utilize fabric for safe, sustainable shelter. Currently, fabric is most common amongst industries that require abundant space for recreation and storage, including athletics arenas, airplane hangars, agriculture sheds, and others. Here are some examples of fabric put to use in the real world:

·         Equestrian Competitions Building, Maple Plain, Minnesota. Horses need special care — especially those in equine competitions — and this tall, enclosed fabric structure (with covered staging area and attached barn) is absolutely perfect.

·         Discovery Lodge, Highmount, New York. A building devoted to ski services for the nearby resort, this lodge boasts fabric that keeps out the ice and snow while eager skiers prepare for their weekend adventures.

·         Entertainment and Concert Venue, Syracuse, New York.The flame- and water-resistant fabric surrounding this venue ensures visitors will be comfortable and safe for the duration of their night out.