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Volvo Ocean Race participants enjoy inflatable venue

Fabric Structures, Markets, Projects | April 1, 2012 | By:

An inflatable venue by AirClad offers the Volvo Ocean Race followers a place to hang out.

PUMA®, the sport and lifestyle company, wanted a practical and high profile venue when it enlisted Inflate Products Ltd., a U.K.-based manufacturer of inflatable fabric pods, cubes and domes, to design a temporary structure for use at the Volvo Ocean Race. PUMA sponsors an entry in the round-the-world sailboat competition and sets up temporary brand venues in each of the 10 pit stop port cities. This project, dubbed the PUMA Social Club, “was supposed to be a casual and chill place to hang out,” explains Nick Crosbie, founder of Inflate. “There would be a bar and other activities to attract the young and the hip.”

Another requirement was portability. PUMA already toured with container pods outfitted as a retail shop and VIP bar. “People think containers are a cheap way to create portable buildings, but that isn’t always the case,” Crosbie says. Sea freight charges to ship each container can run $4,500, with land transport and craning extra.

“[PUMA] wanted the design to complement what they had,” he says. “They wanted something big enough but also something that could be packed down smaller than the containers.” PUMA settled on a structure that can be set up in four days, taken down in two to three, and once down, all components fit into three open-top, 40-foot containers.

It’s in the air

Inflate had worked with PUMA before, supplying temporary structures at a number of events in the U.S. and U.K. PUMA initially expressed interest in the Airflow line of stitched-together inflatables, constructed of PVC and ripstop nylon that require continually running inflation fans because air leaks through the seams—hence the name Airflow, Crosbie explains. It’s one of several pneumatic systems offered by Inflate.

The company’s newer AirClad design, produced by a division of the same name, is a sealed system intended for more permanent installations. The fabric is high frequency welded, and fans run only when necessary—typically about 10 seconds every 20–30 minutes, depending on the weather, he says.

Form and function

When designing PUMA’s project, Crosbie and his team had to consider the frequent setups and takedowns that would be required. They knew the fabric had to be flexible. “Most architects would have requested ETFE, but that wouldn’t work because it’s hard to store and ship without scratches or other damage,” he says. The fabric also needed to “reflect the look of the building we wanted to convey,” he says.

Instead of the sport/garment-grade material supplied to Inflate by factories in China and Malaysia for Airflow structures, the design team chose France-based Ferrari® Textiles’ 501 Polyester PVC for the AirClad project. Because of the more technical, architectural nature of the fabric, “it was ideal,” Crosbie says. “Able to withstand high-tension, high-pressure inflation, and it’s longer wearing.”

Inflated fabric cells, constructed out of 2,500 square feet of the rain- and dirt-repellent material, stretch down the sides of the PUMA Social Club’s steel subframe. “Inflation gives the structure extra tension and lateral strength, as well as increased insulation,” Crosbie says. Gray-tinted glass panels adorn the front and rear exterior walls. The panels, juxtaposed with the inflatable cells, make the building “look sort of like an iPad®,” Crosbie notes.

Withstanding weight and weather

The club measures 1,500 square feet and can comfortably accommodate about 100 people. A rooftop terrace of the same dimensions, accessible by an exterior staircase, offers visitors a great view of all the port-side race happenings.

Engineering the terrace and fabric roof cells to ensure roof stability was one of the most difficult aspects of the project, according to Crosbie. “We had to be certain it could take the loads,” he says, “and that the structure could withstand potential hurricane-force winds for use in Miami,” a later stop on the tour.

The frame weighs about 20 tons, and the design is a “monocoque system, transferring all the forces around the frame,” he says. “It’s only in Miami where we need extra footings, which are basically three-foot stakes to stop the structure from sliding if a huge wind occurs.”

Inflatable fabric future

The PUMA project took about a year from design to completion; sketches and computer visuals were complete in about three weeks. “We had to convince PUMA that the building would be creatively stimulating and that we could do it in the allotted time,” Crosbie says. PUMA liked what it saw and—with four weeks’ notice—commissioned AirClad to build a slightly smaller prototype structure at the company’s headquarters in Germany.

The structure’s unveiling took place at the Volvo Ocean Race kickoff in October in Alicante, Spain—the first time both design team and client saw the building completely put together. “Everyone was pleased,” Crosbie says. “A lot of passersby were surprised to see that it was a soft building. When they found out, they seemed to enjoy running and jumping at it.”

Designing inflatable fabric buildings, “with architectural merit,” that also can be assembled and dismantled quickly, is an ongoing challenge for Inflate Products, Crosbie says, noting that this structure, while specifically for PUMA, will drive future AirClad designs. “The basic DNA of the concept is from AirClad,” he says, “but this was always developed with the knowledge that we needed a system that would offer flexibility for projects going forward.”

Jan Brenny is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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