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Lightweight structures survey: slow but steady

Fabric Structures, Markets | January 1, 2009 | By:

The market is challenged by a sluggish economy and rising costs.

This summary of the U.S./Canadian lightweight structures fabric market segment focuses mostly on the U.S. lightweight structures fabric marketplace, particularly as it relates to market growth, leading lightweight structures fabric applications, trends, and market outlook. Much of the information expressed in this overview was derived from a recent survey conducted by the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) with U.S./Canadian lightweight structures fabric end-product manufacturers and suppliers. Secondary research also supplemented the results presented in this summary. For the full report on the lightweight structures market, visit

State of the U.S. lightweight structures fabric market

Lightweight structures, particularly fabric architecture, have been gaining popularity over the last 30–40 years. Also called tensile membrane architecture, tension membrane architecture, fabric membrane architecture and textile architecture, lightweight structures refer to structures that are composed mainly of steel frames with fabric tent-like roofs made of material (such as the polyethylene shadecloth netting) that is held under tension.

Fabric architecture is well suited for sheltering large public areas, such as stadiums, arenas, outdoor shelters and airport terminals. In the U.S., California and Florida have led the way in the use of fabric architecture, and it continues to gain momentum throughout the country.

Steady technological progress has increased the popularity of fabric-roofed structures in recent years. The light weight of the materials makes fabric architectural construction easier and cheaper than standard building designs, especially when vast open spaces have to be covered. Fabric structures are no longer being used just for large airports and sports stadiums. Improved technology and materials with longer life spans now allow for projects of all shapes and sizes.

Applications for fabric architecture include carport structures for auto dealers, airport parking, apartment and commercial complexes, car rental companies, playgrounds, childcare centers, schools, sports facilities, public bus stops, restaurants, hotels, office buildings and boat docks.

The U.S. lightweight structures fabric market has experienced slow but steady growth of 2-3 percent per annum over the last five years. It has tapered down from 3.0 percent to 2.0 percent in 2008 due largely to a sluggish U.S. economy—unstable financial markets resulting in a tight credit crunch, runaway fuel costs (oil and gasoline prices), inexpensive imports from Southeast Asia, and a slowdown in commercial construction. Double-digit growth, 12.6 percent YTD-September 2008, in the nonresidential (aggregate of lodging, office, commercial, manufacturing, etc.) construction market has helped this market segment to maintain a slow, steady level of growth over the past few years. Commercial construction by itself has experienced flat (0 percent) growth during the same time period.

The poor U.S. economy has been the principal force behind the slow growth in this market segment in 2008, and will likely continue at a slow growth rate in 2009. Throughout 2008, the economy has been largely responsible for driving down billings at architecture firms. The turmoil in the credit markets has generated increased economic uncertainty for architecture firms. Overall, business conditions remain weak across the country. In fact, firms with an institutional specialization1, the one construction sector that had not been affected by the economic downturn, reported its first slowdown in nearly four years. On the other hand, firms still report an interest in new projects. If the U.S. economy can begin to gain traction in the second half of 2009 and attain its forecasted annual real GDP of 1.4 percent2, then IFAI Market Research Services projects the growth rate for 2009 in the U.S. lightweight structures end-product manufacturers market to be about 2.5 percent.

Outlook and changes expected for suppliers and end-product manufacturers in 2009

Suppliers expect continued economic pressure well into 2009. Until the economy does rebound, the architectural building market segment will be sluggish. Growth will continue in selected areas of the world experiencing commercial building boons, such as China and Dubai. The industry will continue to consolidate and will emphasize quality fabrics for projects based on the steady, reliable demand (and better profit margins) for these fabrics versus inexpensive, commodity-made fabrics.

End-product manufacturers anticipate slow growth for the U.S. lightweight fabric market in 2009. The slow but steady growth that end-product manufacturers expect in 2009 will be aided by the trend toward green projects and the use of fabric in building projects in lieu of traditional materials such as steel and concrete. Finally, end-product manufacturers expect that the industry will continue to realize a shortage of skilled labor. This, coupled with the increasing cost of raw materials and a slowdown in commercial and residential construction, will likely continue to drive up the cost of doing business and inhibit the end product manufacturers’ ability to expand their businesses. Yet, there are opportunities to grow and be profitable if end-product manufacturers manage their businesses closely, watch costs, and make smart decisions that focus on optimizing value (emphasize quality and innovative products) for their customers.

Jeff Rasmussen is market research manager at the Industrial Fabrics Association International. He can be reached at +1 651 225 6967 or via e-mail at

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