Tension Fabric Hangars: The Green Takeoff

Oct. 30, 2012
Today’s tension fabric aircraft hangars offer sustainable, energy-efficient advantages

We live in a world that is constantly striving for improvement — better, faster, and more efficient. In recent years, that desire for “more efficient” has been supplemented with a movement toward other enhancements, broadly categorized as environmentally friendly, sustainable, or “green.” The green movement has gained considerable traction in the design of new buildings, from commercial properties and residential construction to industrial facilities and tension fabric aircraft hangars.

The hallmark of green building comes in the form of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council, which is achieved by meeting various design and operating criteria. But even for those building owners who choose not to go through the LEED process, greater energy efficiency and the subsequent reduction in operating expenses have become their highest priorities when erecting a new building.

Naturally Green Fabric

For hangars, storage structures, and other airport buildings, a certain level of energy efficiency is achieved simply by virtue of installing a building that utilizes a tension fabric roof. Both polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene (PE) fabrics continue to improve in quality, and their natural properties make fabric roofs ideal for green-conscious building users.

The primary advantage of these structures from a sustainability standpoint is that fabric offers a high solar reflectance, keeping the roof cooler and reducing the heat island effect in the area by reflecting sunlight’s heat away from the building. Along with reflectance, tension fabric’s high thermal emittance also contributes to the roof absorbing less heat. During peak summer weather, these properties can combine to keep fabric roofs about 50 to 60 degrees cooler than roofs built with conventional materials, thereby reducing the need for temperature control measures inside the building.

Although fabric roofs are reflective, they also offer up to 12-percent translucency to allow natural light to permeate the structure. Direct sunlight offers about 10,000 footcandles of illumination, so even at 5 percent translucency, a fabric roof will let approximately 500 footcandles into a building on a sunny day — well above the recommended 75 to 100 footcandle guidelines for maintenance tasks inside an aircraft hangar.

Most hangars will still need artificial lights for nighttime work and to provide adequate illumination on stormy, overcast days, but during normal daylight hours, fabric roofs effectively eliminate the need for artificial lighting. By taking advantage of natural sunlight, tension fabric goes a long way toward reducing the electricity bill and making a building more energy efficient. And, for those interested in the accolades, these benefits also help to rapidly accumulate points on the path to LEED certification.

Sustainable Engineering

Though certain green benefits of tension fabric itself have always existed, other aspects of sustainability in tension fabric hangars have come along more recently because of an important engineering upgrade introduced to the market by Legacy Building Solutions — the use of structural steel beams rather than hollow-tube, open web-truss framing. This rigid-frame engineering concept allows much more design flexibility in customizing the size and alignment of a fabric building, while also allowing builders to incorporate additional features to make the structure more operationally and energy efficient.

Because the rigid frame is a more traditional architectural design that gives a fabric building significantly more strength, it’s become easier to add items like interior fabric liners and insulation to a structure’s roof and sidewalls. A certain temperature control barrier can be achieved simply by adding a liner to the main fabric skin. For even more effectiveness, the liner can be combined with insulation material to create a system with an insulation value of up to R-40. This level is capable of meeting almost all relevant energy codes in the country, providing significant heating and cooling cost savings.

Building users interested in having insulation and natural light can get the best of both worlds by incorporating a fabric skylight. A given insulation package may dictate covering much of the structure’s translucent fabric, but building manufacturers are capable of adding the insulation required to achieve energy codes while still leaving a large enough portion of uncovered fabric as a skylight to provide ample illumination levels inside.

Another feature affecting a fabric building’s interior environment is ventilation, which can be accomplished through passive or mechanical means. Fans or heavy-duty systems can be mounted on a rigid frame structure if necessary, but users can also choose a natural gravity ventilation system that relies simply on the movement of hot air.

As hot air rises, it works with pressure intakes around the perimeter of the building at the base and a gravity ventilator at the ridge to create circulation inside the building. By providing a natural intake for fresh air and an evacuation point for fumes without the need for powered equipment, users can save on energy consumption and operating costs.

In addition to taking advantage of potential energy savings, some building owners will opt to create their own power using solar panels. This makes them even less dependent on outside power and, in some cases, even allows them to become self-sufficient by fulfilling all of their own energy needs.

An emerging trend still being tested by some industry manufacturers involves the use of a thin-filmed photovoltaic that can be adhered directly to the building’s fabric panels. A less sophisticated system for buildings looking for solar heating in the winter uses perforated metal to capture hot air in a cavity and bring it into the structure. Traditional crystalline or silicon panels can be incorporated within a building design as well.

In addition to being inherently energy-efficient, rigid-frame style tension fabric hangars also tend to make responsible use of existing resources. The structural steel I-beams in a typical rigid frame fabric building contain almost 90-percent recycled steel. Buildings can also be fitted with basic gutters and downspouts to collect rain runoff into cisterns for later use around the facility when water is needed.

Just Getting Started

Although LEED has been around in one form or another since 1998 and there’s certainly a keen awareness of green building among the general public, most industries still find themselves abiding by the 80/20 rule — where the 20-percent of building users and manufacturers who recognize the importance of energy and resource management are trying to drag the other 80-percent along for the ride.

It’s a given that many will never see the value in going through LEED certification and putting a plaque on the wall to promote their commitment to sustainability. But another virtual certainty is that as more and more airports and other fabric building owners experience the long-term energy savings that put more “green” in their pockets, the number of sustainable structure designs should really take off.

Editor's Note: This is an edited article developed by the team at Legacy Building Solutions, a fabric covered building specialist. Visit the Legacy Building Solutions website.