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Accessories that work

Fabric Structures, Feature | November 1, 2010 | By:

Leading-edge accessories attract customers to fabric structures—and LED lighting leads the charge.

Check out some of the more sophisticated fabric structures gracing events and adorning buildings and you might be impressed at the kinds and technical sophistication of the add-ons that are making them stand out to customers. From lighting to heating, from projection technology to cooling systems; fabric structures, from awnings and canopies to tents and tensile structures, are increasingly offering the same kinds of amenities that traditional structures offer, but with greater flexibility and economy.

In today’s market, specialty fabric product manufacturers, distributors and manufacturers have been finding that customers are looking for “a little bit of everything” in their accessories, especially those that are high tech, eco-friendly, and cost efficient. Any manufacturer, perhaps, can distribute or install amenities for its fabric structures, given the right arrangements and the right experience. But some industry players are zeroing in on niche accessories targets, such as LED technology, cashing in on the preferences of their demographics and geographics to bring the right products to the right customer at the right time, in the right place.

What does the customer want, and how do you deliver it? That’s where the partnership between fabric manufacturers, production companies and rental providers can be paramount. Your company may not have done or have access to much market data or analysis on these products, but there are companies that do, along with the equipment and amenities to put it into practice.

What’s hot, what’s cool

“We use a lot of different accessories,” says Anita Marten, design coordinator at Miami Awning Co., Miami, Fla., which specializes in awnings, patio covers, canopies, cabanas, shade canopies and retractable awnings. “Some of these include cooling, lighting and ventilation, including fans and venting in the framework.” Other items Miami Awning uses include ceiling fans, misters, flat screen monitors, speakers, light projection systems, mesh or fabric ceiling liners, draping fabric in loops from above, curtains or drapes in sheers or solids, privacy drapes for changing, signage, graphics, solar collectors for charging, roll-down screens and drop-down curtains, as well as gutters that drain water.

When it comes to the role the chosen fabric plays in the accessory selection, Steve Fredrickson, architectural market manager at Ferrari Textile Corp. in Pompano Beach, Fla., says that Ferrari’s clients are interested in anything that can be used to reduce energy consumption in a project. “This has been of great interest to our clients and architectural partners around the world,” Fredrickson says. “Currently some of the more popular products being used by clients are low emissivity textiles, which reduce the amount of heat radiating through a textile.”

Ferrari is a vertically integrated company that does its own fabric weaving and coating, prior to shipping to six stocking locations worldwide. In the Précontraint® manufacturing process, Ferrari uses tension in the warp and the fill direction when coating. Because the Précontraint textiles are maintained under tension throughout the entire coating process, the fabric is dimensionally stable, allowing it to be used in a variety of applications, including backdrops for illumination or display screens.

It’s the heat conductivity of these fabrics that is key for many end users, however. The type of fabric chosen for a particular application can dictate the type and level of heating, cooling and illumination accessories chosen. For example, lowering the total heat flow through the material with the use of low-e coatings is paramount when using these textiles with both heating and cooling accessory components. The low-e coating reduces the heat gained through absorption and limits the amount of heat that can radiate through the material.

“You will see a lot more involvement with low-e coatings in the future,” Fredrickson says, “especially when wanting to reduce heat gain and prevent heat loss in wintertime applications.”

Heat retention is often top-of-mind for many awning installers that want to provide warmth as well as shelter to those underneath. Somfy Systems Inc. in Dayton, N.J., offers a line of Radio Technology Somfy® (RTS) controls very popular with customers demanding control, convenience and environmental sensitivity. The Sunis WireFree™ RTS is a wireless sun sensor powered with an integral solar cell that uses RTS to extend a motorized awning automatically based on the sun’s intensity. The Eolis 3D WireFree model retracts a motorized awning automatically when wind velocity reaches a certain level, protecting the awning from wind-related damage. The units install in minutes, helping not only to offer shelter from sun or rain but to extend outdoor living spaces in a variety of climates.

“We’re continuing to extend our product line to offer users more options to control their motorized awnings,” says marketing manager Tracy Christmann. “We’re gearing up to launch our new Telis 16 RTS handheld remote, which provides control of up to 16 individual or groups of motorized products, and offers an onscreen display for easy organization and navigation. We’re also launching our newest outdoor heater that has adjustable heat settings, so users can enjoy their motorized awning outdoors well into the evenings and cooler months.”

Technology and user convenience are definite drivers of this trend. “We’re seeing a higher interest in controlling both motorized interior shades and motorized awnings with the same device,” says Christmann. “We’re also getting encouraging feedback regarding our systems that offer control via the Internet, remotely. It seems that people really like the option of being able to log on from virtually anywhere and operate products in their homes.”

Miami Awning’s Marten agrees that adding heaters would most likely extend the use of fabric structures in northern climates. In contrast, for warmer climates, “Other items that cool are misters; they work well around pool areas and in dry climates,” Marten says. “Portable air conditioning units work well to cool a space if drop-down curtains or panels are used to enclose the space.”

Let there be light

Lighting is a big part of today’s fabric structures, and getting bigger. Jon Weingarten, president of Dazian Creative Fabric Environments in S. Hackensack, N.J., says that there is a growing trend in using LED lighting to create dramatic theatrical effects without the need for onsite technicians. Dazian supplies fabrics and fabric products used with lighting to create unique visual and mood effects for events, theater, worship, architectural and brand marketing applications. The company also provides LED scenic products and services to complement their fabric lines, custom sewing and digital printing offerings.

“The application of LEDs and fiber optics for dynamic scenery, signage and unique décor elements has redefined the use of lighting in both event and architectural applications,” Weingarten says. “Because LEDs produce minimal heat, they are ideal for interior applications where lighting may be used for extended periods of time in areas with minimal ventilation.”

In brand marketing, Weingarten sees LED lighting used both in lighting events and backlighting signage—creating a sense of theater and highlighting the brand. “In architectural applications, we see it used in restaurants and clubs to create mood shadow, themes and unique visual effects. LEDs and traditional theatrical lighting has become a major trend for events. Tents offer a unique palette for lighting because of the large expanse of white walls and ceilings to project images, color, create mood and coordinate with the décor of the event. In the worship market, lighting and structure provide a very special vehicle for creating dynamic scenery to create a sense of theater and drama that provide a contemporary atmosphere for attracting young worshippers and families.”

Making events special

Doc Waldrop, marketing manager of Full Circle Lighting and Productions in Atlanta, Ga., is a recognized expert in the field of special events. “Mostly we are involved in producing the lighting on a rigging for a variety of corporate events such as sales meetings, product unveilings, general sessions, annual meetings and private events including society balls and fundraisers, weddings and receptions,” he says. Full Circle Lighting serves a variety of clients from large corporations to private individuals, and also provides theatrical lighting for movies, tradeshows and conventions.

According to Waldrop, stretched fabric pieces (such as those provided by Moss Inc. or Pink Powered by Moss) are still very popular for the exhibit industry, as are “soft” sets made with spandex or fabric panels and shapes.

“We especially like that ‘hard’ foam core panels are gradually disappearing, as these are hard to light without getting glare from the lighting fixtures,” Waldrop says. “Matte finishes are a necessity if there are applied graphics.”

And in the world of lighting fabric structures, Waldrop again points to LEDs as being “all the rage” because of their low power consumption, ability to render thousands of colors at the touch of a button, and low heat signature.

Because LEDs are small, robust, energy-efficient light sources with long lifetimes, they offer fabric structure suppliers a unique opportunity to reduce the energy and maintenance costs of their equipment and become a better steward of the environment.

“The low heat signature is very important because fixtures are normally placed in close proximity to the fabric, and the low heat considerably reduces possible fire hazards,” Waldrop says.

From a durability standpoint, LEDs are solid-state devices containing no moving parts, no filaments or fragile glass to break—greatly reducing the risk of damage during transportation, installation and operation, even in the toughest environments. And unlike conventional light sources, LED sources are not typically subject to sudden failure or burnout.

They also have a very long life, which significantly reduces maintenance costs from lamp changes. They deliver excellent color quality and performance. They don’t generate heat, staying cool to the touch. There is no warm-up period with a LED fixture—the light comes on instantly when turned on. LED lighting is also environmentally friendly, contains no mercury or other toxins, and emits no ultra violet (UV) light.

Fabric or light?

When implementing lighting accessories within the fabric structure industry, the biggest mistake Waldrop sees people make is that instead of using the LEDs to color the fabric virtually any color imaginable at the touch of a button, people use colored fabric and expect the same result. “The more neutral the fabric (white, silver, buff) the better, which is why most fabric pieces we see being offered are white and silver,” he says. “Texture in fabric is somewhat important as well. Scalloped pieces such as Austrian curtains or gathered columns of fabric light very well, and can provide a nice surface that can be textured with lights to great effect.”

Dazian uses many different suppliers for its LED, fiber optic and traditional theatrical lighting, because both technologies and costs are changing rapidly. When it comes to fire-retardancy issues relating to lighting accessories, Weingarten says that all permanently flame-retardant (FR) or inherently flame-retardant (IFR) fabrics should always be used in interior applications using either theatrical lighting or LEDs. “Typically these fabrics are 100 percent polyester, as they provide the best long-term flame-retardant properties,” he says. “ASTM E84, NFPA 701 and CA Title 19 are the standards in the U.S. for flame-retardant fabrics.”

Fabric structures using LED lighting are seen as a major new growth area for dividing space as well as defining space. “Whether for the purpose of creating soft sculptural effects or to enhance brand images or create a designed environment, lighting transforms a structure into something that is both organic and pleasurable to those who interact with that space,” Weingarten says.

Lighting may be a major marketing thrust right now, but that isn’t the only fabric structure add-on being improved upon; solar power is becoming more affordable and more popular, with a bright future as well. “We are seeing charging stations for electronics, ceiling fans and other items being incorporated into the power grid, as well as for charging cars,” Marten says. “Solar power collection is definitely something that’s in the works.”

Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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