What Is a Tension Structure? 5 Facts An Architect Needs To Know

A lot of people – perhaps many of your clients — don’t know what a tension structure is. They may have seen one without knowing what it was, in which case they undoubtedly remarked on its distinctive appearance.

These fabric covers are an original and eye-catching attraction. Along with exceptional visual appeal, a tension structure provides simple open-air protection from the sun, or even year-round shelter. Not surprisingly, they’re sometimes aptly referred to as sails.

What is a tension structure?

It’s a canopy-like construction whose components are held together by tension rather than through bending or compression. The fabric covering is held taught with wire or cable, so the structure is well-supported and stable even though it might appear ethereal.

Tension structures are commonly used as a roof. Their light weight makes them especially valuable for covering large areas, economically and handsomely. They represent the latest and most innovative design thinking, and they are amazingly versatile.

You can use a tension structure almost anywhere.

They’re practical and decorative, so tension structures lend themselves to a vast array of outdoor and indoor applications for any size business, facility or campus, even private homes. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Entries
  • Passageways
  • Patios or terraces
  • Atriums or courtyards
  • Meeting, classroom or performance spaces
  • Office buildings
  • Outdoor eating areas
  • Pools or sports courts
  • Store-fronts
  • Lawns

A tension structure opens new design doors.

It allows a more creative use of space, producing nicely diffused natural light during daytime and a luminous effect from outside when used at night. It’s ideal for identifying or emphasizing a special area.

Tensioning provides structural stability based on its pre-stressed shape, so the structure has less mass, both physically and visually. It’s simply a membrane of fabric and steel. You can cover spaces in unconventional ways without being tied to the usual structural limitations.

That’s a tremendous advantage for any architect looking to expand their repertoire of interesting recommendations for clients.

The lighter weight and simpler construction of tension structures also facilitate faster installation. Structures can be quickly and easily incorporated into existing facilities and grounds, or for new building projects, installation isn’t necessarily tied to other construction scheduling.

The structures are a budget-friendly alternative as well, another plus for both architects and clients. Yet they’re an investment that’s as valuable as better-known types of awnings, canopies or umbrellas.

A tension structure offers plenty of practical options.

It’s entirely different – physically and visually – from a traditional canopy or awning. You can design these structures as squares or rectangles but also in triangular shapes, either symmetrical or asymmetrical. And you can design them in virtually any size, creating a free-span roof for any purpose that blends beautifully into its surroundings.

Heavy-duty hardware and fastenings combine with the latest in high-tech tensionable fabrics to provide excellent stability and durability, making these structures entirely appropriate for long-term outdoor use.

Tensioning cables are usually an integral part of the structure, made of stainless or galvanized steel. Since they’re pre-stressed to support the necessary load, they keep the covering fabric from flapping or creeping. And fabrics come in a wide range of choices. Woven mesh offers excellent UV protection, and vinyl fabrics are nearly 100% UV-resistant.

You can add decorative fittings to the tension structure, and even the functional connectors can become artistic elements.

Team up with a tension structure pro.

It’s a good idea to spend some time with a professional who’s well-established in the awning business, to explore your strongest opportunities for using tension structures, either in place of a traditional canopy or in instances where traditional structures would have been inappropriate or impossible. Learning about all about the practicalities will help you put your unique architectural design style and skills to work in new ways for your clients.


Photo Credit: 5 by Squidish