In the late 1960s, NASA’s Johnson Space Center went searching for a lightweight, non-combustible fabric durable and strong enough to protect the astronauts in an alien, zero-gravity environment. One American company, Chemical Fabrics, a specialty weaver and coater, was already experimenting with advanced composites. ChemFab wove the specially designed Owens Corning Fiberglass yarn into a fabric, and then coated it with custom Teflon formulations. The fabric was tailored for astronaut wear. Collaborating with Owens Corning and Dupont, ChemFab modified and strengthened the fabric with an eye toward construction use. Birdair, a pioneer in air-supported structures, worked with ChemFab and its suppliers on a variety of sheerfill enclosed buildings often reducing costs 30 to 40 percent below conventional construction.
Architects, engineers, and building owners are increasingly turning to fabric structures because of their aesthetic appeal, relatively low cost, low maintenance outlays, energy efficiency, and good space utilization. Typically, fabric structures are built in one of two ways. Either they are tension structures supported by a network of cables and pylons, or air-supported structures that consist of an outer membrane and an inner liner. The space between the two layers is inflated to maintain the pressure differential necessary for roof rigidity. This fabric is now often used as a permanent covering for shopping centers nationwide; for sports stadiums such as the Silverdome in Michigan, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and the Olympic Stadium in Rome; and for airport terminals in Denver, and in Saudi Arabia. With the fabric’s translucency value and reflective coatings, these structures reduce lighting needs and lower cooling costs.