Architects are increasingly using woven, embroidered and knitted fabrics. Below are four examples of Swiss fabric, rope and yarn producers who are providing sustainable impulses in the construction industry.
"Girasole" is Italian for sunflower, and it is the name that was chosen for the new headquarters of Swiss Federal Railways near Bern: the building’s colourful shutters follow the path of the sun, depending on how intensely it is shining. This kinetic facade features five different colours: gold, pearl, aluminium, chromium and copper. Each colour group can be individually regulated so that the building takes on a subtle change in appearance and its temperature can be precisely regulated. "SEFAR® Architecture VISION" is a sophisticated sun shading system from Sefar (Heiden) that is combined with a specially developed automated mechanism. It comprises black precision-woven fabric, coated on one side, partially printed and incorporated into laminated safety glass. Thanks to the black colouring on the interior, the view to the exterior is unobstructed. Sefar originally only produced technical fabrics for screen printing and filtration, but these are now being used by architects – fabrics that filter noise or light.
Sefar classifies its architecture fabrics into three categories: "fabric&weather", "fabric&light" and «fabric&glass". Its "fabric & glass" products have been used for glass facades in Bern, for example, and for the headquarters of Novartis (Holzer Kobler Architects, near Zug). In the "fabric&weather" category, textiles are used to provide shade as awnings or to protect against rain, e.g. Wimbledon Centre Court. For the foldable roof in Wimbledon, Sefar supplied 5,200 square metres of its product, “Tenara”. And at the end of next year, a further 8,000 square metres will be required for No. 1 Court.
The “fabric & light” category concerns lightweight fabrics that absorb and disseminate noise and light. Architects mainly use these fabrics for interiors, e.g. in museums. Previously, planners had to design each individual component of luminous ceilings, with fabrics and light source as separate components. “We want to make architects’ tasks easier,” says Ingo Thalhammer, who has been head of Sefar’s Architecture Division for ten years. “Cielumina”, a module measuring 90 by 90, 120 by 120 or 150 by 150 centimetres, combines light and textiles. It has a frameless appearance, is fitted with LED circuit boards and is easy to install flush-mounted. The result: soft light that protects exhibits yet enables them to be viewed in perfect conditions. Flury and Furrer Architects (Zurich) were one of the first designers to use “Cieluma” in their partial renovation of the Oskar Reinhart Museum in Winterthur.
In addition to aspects of functionality, Ingo Thalhammer also pays attention to sustainability: for example, at the Swiss Federal Railways headquarters, where Sefar’s intelligent fabrics regulate heat. “By providing quality and the resulting extension of life cycles we also want to help combat today’s throwaway society,” he explains.
We want to make architects’ tasks easier
The high-performance filaments that are ultimately woven to form durable sunshades and luminous ceilings are produced by Sefar’s subsidiary, MonoArchitects suisse, in Emmenbrücke (near Lucerne), which specialises in technical yarns. Its thinnest weavable thread is just 19 μm (i.e. 19 thousandths of a millimetre) thick, or around a third of the thickness of a human hair. "Good textiles are produced by spinning," says Markus Wanner, a long-term employee of Monosuisse. The purity of the raw material is absolutely decisive: there are very few suppliers in the world who are able to deliver the ideal polymer. "With regard to luminous ceilings, even the tiniest impurity on the surface would be visible." In addition, the lifecycle of fabrics intended for use by architects has to be longer than that of their technical counterparts:
"We often change filters once a month, but a ceiling in a museum has to still look flawless even after five years." To optimise its fibres, Monosuisse has invested a great deal of time and frequently modified its machines. Monosuisse is also involved in another textile innovation: luminous concrete from "Lucem" (Stolberg, Germany). Shimmering patterns give solid walls the appearance of soft silk. The surface appears to contain numerous tiny perforations through which light can penetrate. "This effect is possible thanks to the use of optical fibres from Monosuisse that let light through our concrete structures almost loss-free," explains CEO Andreas Roye. These fibres are embedded in the concrete and render it translucent. Lucem initially supplied companies that used concrete slabs to produce washbasins, but today it is increasingly supplying architects with products for interior design, and even for facades. Both luminants and artificial light sources are used, as well as daylight. For the new premises of the Institute for Textile Technology in Aachen, Carpus+Partner Architects integrated an interactive light transmitting wall into a facade for the first time. During the day, the unlit wall has the appearance of a natural stone facade, and at night it shines in a broad variety of colours. Each slab can be regulated individually.
Another fine example is the Al Aziz Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which comprises 500 large-format Lucem slabs over an area of 525 square metres. The calligraphy carved out of the slabs also lights up at night.
We’re currently working towards kinetic screens
Jakob Rope Systems (Trubschachen, Emmental) shows how techniques used in the textiles industry can be transferred to new materials. The company was founded in 1904 as a manufacturer of hemp rope and then focused on making cables for cable cars and use in forestry – an activity that still accounts for 25 percent of its present-day turnover of around 30 million Swiss francs. But its key products today are cables based on textile-like structures, which Jakob has been developing since the late 1980s, when architects began to knock on its door. Its highly delicate ropes were suitable for glass structures. "We didn’t even have a catalogue to send to potential customers," recalls CEO Peter Jakob. Working together with architects they quickly realised that selling individual steel cables was by no means easy. In view of this, fifteen years ago Jakob launched "Webnet", a pliable and transparent high-grade steel screen made solely of stranded wires. These are held together with tiny sleeves, or are looped together. With «Webnet», architects can design vertical and "What counts is how it is attached to the structure, says Fabian Graber, who is both an architect and engineer at Jakob. Robust attachment is essential for firmly securing the wires. The use of stainless steel means that these products can be installed both inside and outside buildings."
Jakob is continually developing its product range in order to provide sustainable solutions, "Sometimes at the suggestion of customers, but also proactively." Each screen is customised and primarily used as a support, but a standardised solution is currently in preparation. With the "Webnet ID" project the aim is to enable screens to be fitted with chromium steel or aluminium panels decorated with the customer’s own designs. "This is attractive when privacy is required," says Graber. These screens are also ideal for "green" facades, which are currently very much in demand. Different mesh dimensions within a given screen also permit flexibility for designers. And the latest developments? "We’re currently working towards kinetic screens," says Fabian Graber.
Efficiently insulated buildings reduce energy consumption and pollutant emissions. An interdisciplinary team at Lucerne University is researching a new insulation method using textiles.
"Together with HP Gasser AG Membranenbau, Lungern, we are developing a solution to efficiently renovate warehouses and sports centres dating from the 1970s and 1980s," explains Daniel Wehrli, scientific assistant at Lucerne University School of Art and Design. Most of these buildings are no longer able to meet the applicable insulation requirements.
"TexLining" is part of a project to develop a multiple layer, textile-based insulation system. It is being supported by the Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI). "We are looking for a competitive product that optimises existing methods and simultaneously utilises the advantages of textiles," says Daniel Wehrli. This project combines the tried-and-tested method of blowing insulation material into a cavity and a new concept: instead of using cladding made of wood or other materials, "TexLining" is based on a fabric sheathing that holds the insulation material. The lengthy fabric panels permit generous dimensioning, but the textile can be folded for transport to save space.
The initial concept involved a kind of enormous pillowcase directly attached to the support system, but this did not work because the insulation material could not be evenly distributed, which caused the textile to bulge at overfilled locations. So, the researchers decided to attach the material with buttons as is done with upholstered furniture. "The buttons are not only functional, but are also an attractive design feature," says Wehrli. The textile is a glass-fibre fabric produced by Tissa Glasweberei AG, while rock wool is used for insulation. "We focused on mineral materials so that recycling would be possible later on." The project also set out to reduce as many unknowns as possible. "The fewer the parameters, the better." The first trial with a prototype was successful. The next step will be to develop the product so that it can be brought onto the market.
All the above examples concern the use of textiles as auxiliary construction elements. But the researchers in Lucerne are also setting their sights on selfsupporting materials. "Construction using textiles entirely without secondary materials is the solution for the future," says general project manager Andrea Weber Marin.