Middle East has long history of using membrane structures

People living in the Middle East have used membrane structures for centuries. Construction Week speaks to Gunther De Graeve, the general manager of Taiyo Membrane Corporation Middle East, to find out how membranes can be used for the most modern of applications.

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By  Colin Foreman Published  February 5, 2005

Middle East has long history of using membrane structures |~|58 Vis Body.jpg|~||~|People living in the Middle East have used membrane structures for centuries.

Construction Week speaks to Gunther De Graeve, the
general manager of Taiyo Membrane Corporation Middle East, to find out how membranes can be used for the most modern of applications.

How long has Taiyo Membrane Corporation been in business?
Taiyo’s parent company began trading in 1922. Back then it traded under a different name, then it was renamed after the Second World War.

What did the company manufacture when it started operations back in 1922?
Ordinary tents like the ones
you see today. Shortly after that, the company introduced other applications that made use of
membrane structures.

How has the technology used for membrane structures developed over the years?
A lot of people are not aware of the fact that it was Taiyo and its daughter companies that developed most of the technology that is used today. For example, the group was the very first to make a fibreglass membrane structure some 30 years ago in the USA. It’s quite funny because a lot of people ask whether the company does
fibreglass structures, and it actually invented them.

How do these improve the performance of membrane structures?
Basically it extends the lifespan. The new systems are what we call welded instead of being knitted or stitched. The welding process requires special machinery so Taiyo also develops its own machines. Machines designed for other industries can be used, but our specially designed machines are up to 20 times more productive.
The company was also involved in putting the regional specifications together for Japan. A lot of other countries
followed the Japanese because they have led the way in this
industry.

What type of applications are membranes most commonly used for?
The first designs were a mixture of tents and zeppelins. The first architect to design something using membranes was Otto Frey when he was working on the World Expo in Germany. Very shortly after that Taiyo decided it could perfect the idea and develop it as an industry in its own right. You wouldn’t necessarily think that Japan is a country where you would make buildings out of tent material because it’s a pretty cold country in the winter.

Why are membrane structures so popular with modern architects?
The advantage of a membrane structure is that it can cover an enormously long span without any supports underneath it because it is just a membrane skin. It is also a very light structure both in terms of its weight and appearance, which is very pleasing architecturally.

The other thing is that a membrane acts like a lampshade
so if you put a spotlight on it, it will illuminate the membrane which allows the architect to create wonderful colours and shapes using lighting.

A good example of this is the Millennium Dome in London, which is very impressive when it is illuminated at night. Another example is Denver Airport where the whole roof is a membrane that when illuminated at night really makes the airport stand out.

If you tried to create similar structures with other materials, it simply would not work, so it gives architects a tremendous degree of flexibility. In Europe there are a lot of old castles with open courtyards, which are enclosed with lightweight membranes. In India Taiyo supplied a membrane system for a hotel courtyard 18m in diameter without using a single column because it is all suspended from cables.
Membranes are very fast to construct which means that a project becomes fast tracked because the installation process is rapid. To give you an idea we did the roof for the Olympic Stadium in Athens (which was way behind schedule) but in just six months we managed to get the whole roof installed. We even managed to finish two weeks ahead of schedule, and in Greece that is quite a fantastic achievement.

The company is able to achieve this because it has so many facilities and it doesn’t have to rely on one factory. This means that if one factory can’t do it in four months then it can be sourced out to another project, which is a great strength for the very large projects.

What projects has the company supplied in the Gulf?
We have done quite a few projects in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East, including Sharjah Mega Mall; Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi; a car showroom on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai; Adnoc petrol stations; the Wedding Hall in Abu Dhabi; and a number of stadia in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

There is also a range of fully wind-rated architectural umbrellas that are used that cover areas of up to 12 m2. They are used mainly for hotels and resorts and other leisure facilities like golf courses.

What do you think about the prospects for this region?
There are two main reasons why I believe the Middle East is prosperous. The first is the strength of the sun because membrane structures provide vast areas of shading.
The second is that the Middle East has a cultural affection
with this product. That is why the membrane wedding halls that resemble the form of a tent are so successful, because it is a modern application that can be air-conditioned and have other modern fittings but still be a tent.

The company has been working in this region for some time now but from a distance. The first project it was involved with was the Haj Terminal in Saudi Arabia in 1981. Now the company has set up a regional office in Dubai so it’s closer to its clients.

This is important because as a market develops, its clients
become far more demanding and want to have technical expertise close by. This comes from the end-clients, architects and engineers alike.

We will also begin production locally because we believe
the market here is big enough to sustain a local production facility as well as a design facility with an engineering department, design department and full fabrication department.

Has the company been involved in any particularly interesting applications in the region?
A while ago we did a Ramadan tent that was quite interesting. It was for the Intercontinental Hotel in Beirut that has a courtyard with a swimming pool, which isn’t used during the winter. They came up with the idea of covering the whole area with a Ramadan tent and putting a stage in the middle of the pool. This transformed what was a useless space into an area that can sit 2000 people.

The tent is now installed each year and is then taken away
after Ramadan and put into storage. It’s not a normal Ramadan tent because that would just blow away in a storm; instead, it’s a proper structure across the whole courtyard area and pool. It’s tested and can withstand winds of up to 200 km/h, so there can be a heavy storm without inflicting any real damage to the tent.||**||

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