Textiles as a Building Material Beyond That of a Passive Skin


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The functional character of textiles: textiles as a building material beyond that of a passive skin.

Much of the Interior Architects work consist of the adaptive re-use of concrete, steel and brick buildings. In a world where resources are scarce and buildings have to be demolished to make way for new ones, textiles could become an attractive alternative to traditional building materials. Could textiles serve building needs beyond that of a passive skin, beyond that of a decorative feature?

Table of Contents: Page number:

List of Figures………………………………………………………………………………………………………..………………ii

  1. Introduction: Buildings beyond passive shelter.........................................................................1
  2. Textiles as a passive skin [shelter]………………………………………………........................................2
  3. Curtain as architecture [the interior skin]…………………………………………………………………………….….3
  4. More than a skin………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..….4
  5. Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………………………….………..………..7
  6. List of references……………………………..…………………………………………………………………………….………8

List of Figures:

FIGURE 1: Curtain Wall House, Shigeru Ban [pg.2]

FIGURE 2: Axonometric view indicating curtain as exterior façade [pg.2]

FIGURE 3: Section through concert hall [pg.3]

FIGURE 4: Large window with functional curtain [pg.3]

FIGURE 5: Textile façade [pg.4]

FIGURE 6: Responsive photovoltaic textile strips [pg.4]

FIGURE 7: Diagram indicating response energy harvesting façade elements [pg.5]

FIGURE 8: Curtain as divider and lighting system [pg.6]

FIGURE 9: UV-resistant plastic insulation [pg.6]

FIGURE 10: Multi layered membrane structure [pg.6]

  1. Introduction: Buildings beyond passive shelter

ALL BUILDINGS, ONCE HANDED OVER by the builders to the client, have three possible fates, namely to remain unchanged, to be altered or to be demolished. The price for remaining unchanged is eventual loss of occupation, the threat of alteration is the entropic skid, the promise of demolition is of a new building.”

-Fred Scott (SCOTT 2007:1)

Current construction rates and techniques could be seen as a response to society’s demands for a particular standard of living (ADDIS 2006: 5). Within our current predominantly industrialised society, it is usual practice to deal with unwanted buildings by removing those things with immediate value, demolishing what is left over and disposing of it by depositing it into the ground (CROWTHER 1999: 1). This has a great impact on our environment, and can be seen in the depletion of non-renewable natural resources, air pollution and the degradation of the natural landscape to name a few (ADDIS 2006: 5). These practices with their detrimental environmental effects cannot be sustained, either environmentally or economically, and bring on a need for newer and more efficient construction techniques and material uses (CROWTHER 1999: 1).

According to Guy and Shell, Design for deconstruction and materials reuse (2001)

The overall goal with Design for Deconstruction… “…is to reduce pollution impacts and increase resource and economic efficiency in the adaptation and eventual removal of buildings, and recovery of components and materials for reuse, re-manufacturing and recycling.”

Design for deconstruction starts to question traditional building methods and ways of thinking merely by investigating the manner in which things connect and disconnect. With predictions such as energy scarcity and resource depletion architects in various fields should no longer be designing buildings simply to serve as reusable shelter. Therefore, for a building to simply be demountable and adaptable is no longer enough. Buildings should rather have the potential of harnessing the sustainable resources that are available.

In this essay, the functional use of textiles as an architectural material will be questioned. Firstly, the rediscovery of textiles as an architectural material will be considered. Secondly, the use of textile curtains as a functional architectural material within Casa da Musica will be briefly investigated and lastly, functional applications of textiles as a passive skin within the architectural envelope will be discussed in short.

  1. Textiles as a passive skin [shelter]

Textiles being one of the nimblest and lightest building materials, serve as a prime choice in the construction of demountable and adaptable buildings. They are easy to transport and install and have a relatively low embodied energy and carbon footprint. Developing technologies also demonstrate the extent to which textiles are adaptive as well as multifunctional as a building material, making the material capable of addressing a variety of human needs (BROWNELL 2011).

While much of the current textile technologies are highly advanced, the basic principles of fabrics have ancient roots. The earliest evidence of woven textiles goes back approximately 7000 years, placing it almost immediately after the last ice age. Textiles were also found in the Palaeolithic settlements in the form of portable tent-like huts clad with animal skins, attributing it with a long history as an architectural material (McQUAID 2005: 106) (QUINN 2006: 23). This ancient system displays the careful consideration of resource use as well as allowing for components to be disassembled and relocated, replaced and maintained. The typical compressive frames and tensile membranes used within the structures could be easily taken apart by the user as it was lightweight (CROWTHER 1999:5).

With time textiles were replaced with timber, stone, concrete and masonry structures, deteriorating the use of textiles as building material in architecture. Consequently, textiles are perceived as vulnerable to water, flammable, temporary and weak whereas architecture is associated with mass and density. Therefore, textiles are often limited to decorative elements (QUINN 2006: 23). The incorporation of soft cladding materials as an integral component of built spaces challenges this assumption (KLASSEN 2008: 1). Shigeru Ban’s Curtain-wall house (see FIGURE 1) serves as an innovative contemporary example of the use of lightweight textiles in construction.

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The textile is incorporated as a layer of the exterior building envelope acting as a shade provider; divider and enclosure in a domestic context (see FIGURE 2). By using a textile in place of a structural wall, Shigeru creates paradoxes between the ideas of openness and separation, permeability and enclosure, as well as working with the idea of movement across interior and exterior spaces. This design offers credibility to textiles as a construction material hinting to the rediscovery of textiles as a significant architectural material (KLASSEN 2008: 3) (QUINN 2006: 23).

  1. Curtain as architecture [the interior skin]

“We soon forgot about decorations and colours and began to interpret the curtain as walls, facades, integral parts of the architecture, structures that complete a room.” -Petra Blaisse (WIENTHAL 2011:274)

The Casa da Musica created by Rem Koolhaas, with interior spaces shaped by Petra Blaisse reiterates Shigeru’s use of textiles. Even more so than the Curtain house, the Casa da Musica reappropriates textiles as a functional architectural material within the interior. (This example serves only to strengthen the case for textiles as a functional architectural material beyond decoration but does not look at the application beyond a passive skin).

Contrary to conventional performance halls, the Casa da Musica consists of large voids impinging the building perimeter. This is mainly because the halls were ‘excavated from the massive volume’ that forms the buildings shell (see FIGURE 3 and FIGURE 4 below). Initially the notion of curtains served a purely visual function within the architect’s model and was represented as scraps of textile inserted as place holders (WIENTHAL 2011:272).

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The requirements and expectations of the curtains changed as the design team realized that even the slightest alteration of scale, materials, position or structure significantly impacted on the performance and potential of the rooms. Eventually the use of blackout curtains mediated between the light and acoustic performance within the halls in order to enhance the visual and auditory quality of the spaces (see FIGURE 4 on pg.3) (WIENTHAL 2011:274, 275). The collaboration between Rem Koolhaas and Petra Blaisse exemplifies the ability of a textile curtain to surpass the mere decorative and enter the realm of the functional. The acoustic and atmospheric definition that the textile curtains bring to the interior spaces of the Casa da Musica exceeded even those initial expectations of the architect. The textile performs a specific function that could be considered architectural in nature and challenges the typical assumption that fabric serves only as a decorative add-on.

  1. More than a skin [the functional character of textiles]

A new paradigm in architecture is emerging which includes meshwork skins, flexible skeletons and lightweight interwoven textile structures that replace traditional views of architecture as solid gravity bound structures. Dense compression based buildings can be replaced with more efficient tensile systems that also has the capacity to respond to the natural environment (McQUAID 2005: 104) (QUINN 2006: 23). This shift enables architects as well as interior architects to create structures that act beyond the boundaries of a passive skin.

Buildings that harness their own power from renewable sources.

Architecture firm KVA Matx recently published an article in the Energy Future Journal (Spring edition) about their soft house concept. This concept aims to create an active architecture that responds to environmental conditions. It includes the use of a movable textile infrastructure that harvests solar energy by means of a responsive photovoltaic textile[1] façade on the exterior of the building that adjusts to follow the sun (KOEPPE 201: 378) (STAUFFER 2013:21).

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The row of housing units share the energy harvesting façade as indicated in FIGURE 5 and FIGURE 6. These are equipped with integrated flexible solar cells. The façade consists of individual strips that change position to track the seasonal movements of the sun (See 4 diagrams on the right of FIGURE 7). The textile photovoltaic’s are made up of textile strips with a pliable, spring-like structure of fibre-reinforced composite boards that bend to form flexible[2] PV’s. See FIGURE 6 (BROWNELL 2011). Here the incorporation of textiles in architecture is vital in order to allow for the skin of the building to harvest solar energy. Different shade patterns are also created in the interior when the façade responds to the sun (STAUFFER 2013:20).

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The Soft House responsive façade demonstrates how traditional ‘hard’ architectural materials (such as non-renewable energy, glass-based solar panels and sun tracking machinery) can be replaced by low carbon, lightweight materials such as textiles that allow for easy deconstruction and reuse.

Here textiles are used as a soft cladding material on the exterior façade of the building, however becomes a substantially essential component of the built space. The textile performs a specific function that surpasses that of mere passive skin and challenges the typical assumptions that it serves only as decorative add-on.

K:\University_2014\CPD_710\Images for essay\soft6.jpg.492x0_q85_crop-smart.jpgWithin the interior of the row housing units a set of textile ‘smart curtains’ provide movable lighting. Reflective strips and LED’s provide an energy-efficient lighting system that allows for adjustable interior spaces. See FIGURE 8. According to Kennedy, personal microclimates can be created…When you [enclose] small spaces, the reflective elements in the curtains reflect the heat from the radiant floor in winter or collect cooled air if it’s summertime…” (STAUFFER 2013:20).

The uses of technical or smart textiles expand beyond that of textile photovoltaic panels and LED lighting curtains. The Polar bear pavilion is the first building to implement ground-breaking technology to efficiently absorb and store heat (See FIGURE 9)(www.business.highbeam.com). The multi-layered structure comprises of a heat insulating membrane on a textile basis. The outer layer is composed of a transparent UV-resistant plastic that provides heat insulation. Below this layer is a black absorbent textile which is warmed by the sun. Collecting tracks form an integrated system of modules oriented toward the sun. This heated air is then guided to the energy stores (see FIGURE 10). Here the heat is transformed into chemical energy within the energy stores by means of silica (www.bio-pro.de)(www. techtextil.messefrankfurt.com). This highly advanced system is still in the development phases but suggests countless opportunities for textiles in the future. This innovation goes beyond that of textiles as mere skin and touches on the functional character of textiles.

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  1. Conclusion

Designers are continually forced to revaluate current design approaches due to pressing environmental concerns and technological advancements. Despite the current development in textiles and as discussed, the innovative use of textiles in architecture, the applications thereof beyond a passive skin are still in their infancy. I believe that textiles could potentially become an environmentally sustainable design solution to that of traditional construction materials. Therefore, not only acting as a passive skin, but also creating opportunity for interaction with the environment and that we could potentially benefit from the functional character of textiles. This premise derives from the precedents that focus on the development of responsive textiles and their applications in the built environment. The various innovations within the architectural textile sphere is increasing and growing toward an environmentally sustainable solution.

  1. List of References

ADDIS, B. 2006. Building with reclaimed components and materials: A design handbook for reuse and recycling. United Kingdom: Earthscan.

Biopro baden. 2013. A warm house thanks to polar bear principle: News. Found online at: http://www.bio-pro.de/magazin/index.html?lang=en&artikelid=/artikel/09100/index.html. [accessed: 24 February 2014].

BONNELMAISON, S. & Macy, C. 2007. Responsive textile environments. Canada: Canadian design research network.

Brownell, B. 2011. Driving the future of fabric structures: Specialty fabrics review. Found online at: http://specialtyfabricsreview.com/articles/0611_f1_fabric_structures.html. [accessed: 17 February 2014].

Butler, N. 2013. Textile roof captures energy for long-term storage: Advances in textiles technology. Found online at: http://business.highbeam.com/3840/article-1G1-342770882/textile-roof- captures-energy-longterm-storage. [accessed: 24 February 2014].

CROWTHER, P. 2001. Developing and Inclusive Model for Design for Deconstruction. InChini, Abdol(Ed.)CIB Task Group 39 - Deconstruction, Annual Meeting, 2001, April 2001, Wellington, New Zealand. Found online at: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/2884/. [accessed: 22 February 2014].

GUY, B. & Shell, S. 2001. Designing for Deconstruction and Materials reuse. Environmental design guide. InChini, Abdol(Ed.)CIB Task Group 39 - Deconstruction, Annual Meeting, 2001, April 2001, Wellington, New Zealand. Found online at: http://www.deconstructioninstitute.com/files/downloads/75508728_DesignforDeconstructionPaper. pdf. [accessed: 21 February 2014].

Inside Outside. 2004. Casa da Musica: Inside Outside, Petra Blaisse. Internet: http://www.insideoutside.nl/en/casa-da-musica.htm. [accessed: 20 February 2014].

KLASSEN, F. 2008. From the bazaar to space Architecture: Fabrics reshape the human habitat. Ryerson University: Faculty of communication and design, school of interior design. Canada: Toronto Ontario. Found online at: http://www.ryerson.ca/malleablematter/images/publications/Bazaar_to_SpaceArchitecture.pdf. [accessed: 22 February 2014].

KOEPPE, R., Demir, A., & Bozkurt, Y. 2010. Development of Energy Generating Photovoltaic textile structures for smart applications. Fibres and Polymers. 11(3): 378383.

McQUAiD, M. 2005. Extreme textiles: Designing for high performance. New York: Thames and Hudson.

MILLER, G.T, & Spoolman, S.E. 2009. Living in the environment: Concepts, connections and solutions. 16th edition. USA: Brooks/Cole.

PALUSKI, M., Hewitt, C., Horman, M. & Guy, B. 2004. Design for deconstruction: Materials reuse and constructability. Pennsylvania State university: Department of Architectural Engineering. Found online at: http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/Archive/MediaArchive/204_Pulaski_PA466.pdf. [accessed: 21 February 2014].

QUINN, B. 2006. Textiles in Archicture. Eco Redux. 76(6):22-26

SCOTT, F. 2007. On Altering Architecture. New York: Routledge.

STAUFFER, N.W. 2013. Building facades that move, textiles that illuminate: A pathway to flexible, resilient architecture. Energy Futures. Spring 2013. Found online at: http://mitei.mit.edu/publications/energy-futures-magazine/energy-futures-spring-2013. [accessed: 24 February 2014].

Techtextil. 2014. Innovations prize winners: News. Found online at: http://techtextil.messefrankfurt.com/frankfurt/en/besucher/news/techtextil-newsletter/3-top- thema--innovationspreisgewinner.html. [accessed: 24 February 2014].

Volume: 2012. Chance and control, Interview with Petra Blaisse. Internet: http://volumeproject.org/2012/10/chance-and-control-interview-with-petra-blaisse/. [accessed: 20 February 2014].

WIENTHAL, L. 2011. Toward a new interior: An anthology of interior design theory. New York: Princeton Architectural press.


[1] Photovoltaic textiles: “devices like solar cells that can generate electricity by converting photon energy integrated into a textile fabric” (KOEPPE 2010: 378)

[2]Unlike most solar cells, Photovoltaic textiles have to be flexible and lightweight so that they can be used in any form and applied onto various surfaces.” (KOEPPE 2010: 378).

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