Portable, Durable, and Lightweight – A Brief History of Fabric Structures

June 13, 2017

Outside of a Fertilizer Fabric Building

A Brief History of Fabric Structures

Ever wonder how fabric structures came into modern use? We did. Read on for a quick history of fabric structures and how they came to be one of the best and most versatile solutions for salt storage, equipment storage, agricultural and commercial use, and much more.


How did it all start?

The history of fabric structures dates back to the last glacial period of the Ice Age. Remains of such shelters possibly 44,000 to 50,000 years-old have been unearthed. While not used for agricultural purposes then, remains found in the Siberian Steppe show they were likely constructed from animal skins draped between sticks.

Structures like these were most likely the first dwellings constructed by humans, suggesting that simple textiles were used for spatial division and shelter before they were used for clothing. The earliest and most successful type was the loosely woven black tent, associated with nomadic peoples. It was widely used during the Arab conquests of the eighth century – with some descendants still utilized today.


Shelters to Elegant Shading Solutions

These fabric structures evolved into more permanent urban shading systems for providing cover over streets and courtyards. Then the larger velum or velarium was developed mainly to provide shelter at theatres. Most recently pre-stressed versions were used as decorative shelters for special events. These toldos or envelets were popular at the end of the 19th Century in the Cataluna region of Spain. English Army Captain Godfrey Rhodes designed the standard tent field hospital in 1858.

Lightweight and portable, they drew military interest. By the 1st Century BC the Roman Legion’s leather tents were commonplace and the Byzantine armies of the 7th Century were recognized by their simple tented shelters. During the 12th Century elegant royal tents were fashionable in Western Europe, becoming larger and more ornate during the 16th Century.  In 1770 the first known circus tent made of linen was erected at Westminster and travelling circuses began using these nomadic big tops. In 1872 Stromeyer and Co. set up a company to satisfy the growing demand for circus tents, becoming the firm that had major impact on the development of fabric structures.


The First Fabric Farm Structures

While difficult to determine an exact date for the appearance of fabric structures for agricultural use, one feature on Researchgate.net notes that over the past 20 years many farming enterprises quickly grasped the usefulness of these tents to their operations. Farmers in the U.S. Midwest and Central and Western Canada liked the speedy installation, low operating costs and the often pleasant environment created within them. Insiders forecast increased usage in this industry in coming years.

The easier selling of fabric structures is attributable to two factors – quick installation and flexibility offered in length and width. Construction time is estimated at seven days for a 72′ x 150′-foot structure.

William Knight, curator, agriculture & fisheries, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation admits, while the information on fabric farm structures is somewhat limited, there are interesting comparisons to be made with usages in other sectors.

“Just look at temporary buildings, such as the wartime Nissen and Quonset huts,” he says. “Both of these were temporary shelters developed by the British (Nissen) and the Americans (Quonset) for wartime uses. They had relatively simple structures (semi-circular) that could be built quickly. A lot of the modern fabric structures have a passing resemblance to them — and thus may be the inspiration for fabric structures for agricultural use.

“The other part of this equation is fabric: when did fabrics become available that could withstand the rigours of outdoor use? My sense is that these do not become available until plastics become widely available and become integrated into fabric production. These fabrics have to withstand sun exposure and wind, and be relatively inexpensive. I believe this is a post-1945 story that combines temporary wartime buildings and modern innovation in durable, cheap fabric suited to outdoor use.”

Don Hilborn, a former environmental engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), recalls that back in 1978 the steel Quonset structure was very common. The chief reasons for improvements were the result of farmers actively looking for longevity, durability against adverse climatic conditions and the need for increased ventilation.

Around the 1990s, fabric structure design became more popular and steel trusses became widely used. Structures were originally only 30-feet wide but expanded yearly to 1999 when they hit the 160 feet mark. They were initially used for hay, straw and equipment and storage in addition to small hog and sheep barns. Over the years both the size and usages have increased substantially.

Keys to the success of fabric structures have also been the versatility and quality of the facilities that have been constructed. Since 1992, Calhoun Super Structure has served a wide range of industries including:


Major Improvements through Structural Engineering

Early fabric structures, made of tent material, were highly degradable, the prime reason there is so little physical evidence of them. Changing climates resulted in transitional changes and a wide range of composite dwellings evolved. Many of these structural forms are still used today.

During the 19th and 20th Centuries architects looked to technology breakthroughs in structural engineering. By the 1980s and ‘90s, structural design techniques were consolidated and more reliable fabrics were developed.

Today’s fabric farm structures are more versatile than the average hoop barn, manufactured to stand up to strong winds, heavy rain and unbalanced snow loads. Built with great flexibility and an open floor plan, they offer maximum space with no obstructions. Other benefits, particularly for livestock, include:

  • The ability to let in natural light
  • Providing protection against UV rays while offering safety and comfort and a healthier environment
  • Reduced lighting needs during the day also translate to energy saving costs for the producer

Fabric-covered buildings can provide a low-cost alternative for livestock that can be housed in a cold environment, provided the producer knows the limitations and how to work with them. Properly designed, they provide a bright, airy, well-ventilated environment that can be a pleasure to work in.”

Increased ventilation reduces bacteria and moisture while these structures remain cooler in the summertime and warmer in the wintertime, again an effective and efficient way of lowering energy costs.  Temporary or permanent tension fabric buildings, made of long-lasting and durable material, also satisfy a wide range of agricultural and machinery storage needs and even a low cost cold housing alternative to conventional housing.

For fabric structures, it’s been a long, eventful journey from the days of the Ice Age to current times. Great improvements have made along the way but there will be even more exciting advancements and innovations from which can all benefit just ahead of us.