Tensile architecture is ideal for multiple applications, both internal and external, from acoustic and lighting solutions to ceilings, walls, protective roofing and more. The goal with all of these types of projects is to create as light a product as possible. The membranes play a structural role and can cover huge surfaces without the necessity of many different types of supporting materials. The lightness of a membrane, combined with its transparent nature, creates an innovative avenue for environmentally-sensitive projects. For example, architectural membrane meshes can be engineered to form translucent facades, enabling infusions of light and controlling solar gains. Lightweight yet durable, high-performance membranes provide exceptional strength and flexibility and are designed to withstand the toughest elements of Canada’s climate.
No project more thoroughly incorporates the complexity of Sollertia’s specialised expertise than the firm’s commission as part of a major renovation of Montreal’s Biodome, a science museum immersing visitors in a diversity of delicate ecosystems. While the project’s demands pushed the firm to its limits, Sollertia rose to meet every challenge head-on and expand the boundaries of its discipline. The project’s scale of complexity drew on multiple areas of expertise, and Sollertia embarked on a journey to design and install membranes to form the facility’s transit corridors and transition spaces between the various ecosystems. Drawing upon past experiences working on facilities in the Biodome’s surrounding Olympic complex, the Sollertia team developed a series of different prototypes before working closely with KANVA, lead architect of the project, to select the perfect balance of materiality, flexibility and durability for the project.
“The success of a lightweight fabric structure project such as this one requires a symbiotic relationship between architecture and engineering to obtain the desired aesthetics, stability, durability and lightness as a whole,” explains Nathalie Lortie, Director of Design and Innovation at Sollertia. “This synergy must not only exist at the level of our very own multidisciplinary team but also with all of the professionals and the various trades working alongside us.”
The use of tensile structure techniques provided many advantages for designing large, undulated walls. Given the complexity of the building, the lightness and greater flexibility of this type of structure made it possible to produce a biophilic architectural gesture, a skin, which presents a multitude of shapes and geometries that envelope the different ecosystems, while adapting and integrating in a sensitive way with the original building’s exceptionally complicated structural engineering and mechanical elements. The architectural membrane used in the project is inflexible; thus, great precision in the design of all the structural elements and the membrane was of utmost importance to avoid any kinks. The tensile membrane shapes were developed to ensure that the tensile fabric surfaces never conflict with existing or projected walls, structures and mechanical elements. Additionally, this specific membrane possesses acoustical properties that minimise reverberations, thereby improving the comfort level within the space.
Each section of the tensile fabric wall is unique, with scalene triangular truss beams curving in all directions at the top of each section, shaping the textile surfaces. The non-repetitive nature of the structure called for the separate design and fabrication of each and every element of these truss beams. Raising the bar on the discipline and rendering the seemingly impossible possible, Sollertia developed a series of unprecedented membrane panels measuring up to 60 x 60", which had to be custom-formed to perfection with no room for error. Through a delicate balance of tension, cantilevering and triangular suspension beams, the Sollertia team curved and tensioned the skin across steel and curved aluminium structures, using mechanical junctions to facilitate various movements and onsite adjustments. Based on the initial design imagined by the architects, Sollertia carried out 3D modelling and researched shapes for the textile membrane panels to closely match their vision. Sollertia also performed an accurate analysis of the loads in the membrane panels to facilitate the design of adequate rigid structural systems.
Along the way, everything covered by the membrane panels came into play, requiring exact design and manufacturing specifications to accommodate ventilation systems, doorways, sprinklers, electrical outlets and more. The finished product, measuring approximately half a kilometre in length, and rising nearly four storeys in height, is a visually stimulating contribution to the unique atmosphere of the Biodome.
“We were faced with several challenges simultaneously on this project, including the very complex organic shape of the walls, the many obstacles of the original building to be integrated or bypassed, the various adjustment systems developed and the strategy of the installation sequences,” notes Claude Le Bel, Founder and President of Sollertia. “In the end, it was a tremendous success that validates our firm’s experience and expertise, and part of its legacy will be that it is one of the first major applications of interior tensile fabric in Montreal.”