ETFE Architecture - Is Plastic the Future?

Aerial View Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany
Aerial View Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany. Photo by Lutz Bongarts / Bongarts / Getty Images
01
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Living in "Glass" Houses

Inside the Eden Project, pathways and gardens in bloom
Inside the Eden Project, Cornwall, England. Photo by Matt Cardy / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

What if you could live in a glass house, like the modern Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson's iconic home in Connecticut? Those mid-20th century houses were futuristic for their time, circa 1950. Today, futuristic architecture is created with a glass substitute called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene or simply ETFE.

The Eden Project in Cornwall, England was one of the first structures built with ETFE, a synthetic fluorocarbon film. The British architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and his group at Grimshaw Architects envisioned the architecture of soap bubbles to best express the organization's mission, which is this:

"The Eden Project connects people with each other and the living world."

ETFE has become an answer to sustainable building, a man-made material that respects nature and services human needs at the same time. You don't need to know polymer science to get an idea of this material's potential. Just take a look at these photographs.

Source: "Eden Project Sustainability Project" by Gordon Seabright, Managing Director edenproject.com, November 2015 (PDF) [accessed September 15, 2016]

02
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Eden Project, 2000

Technician on Rope Descends ETFE Bubbles of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England
Technician on Rope Descends ETFE Bubbles of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Photo by Matt Cardy / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

How is it that a synthetic plastic film has come to be known as the building material of sustainability?

The Full Life Cycle of Building Materials:

When choosing building products, consider the life cycle of the materials. Sure, vinyl siding may be recycled after its usefulness, but what energy was used and how was the environment polluted by its original manufacturing process? Concrete recycling is also useful, but what is its manufacturing doing to the environment? A basic ingredient in concrete is cement, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us that the manufacturing of cement is the third largest industrial source of pollution in the world.

When thinking of the life cycle of glass production, especially compared to ETFE, consider the energy used to create it and the necessary packaging to transport the product.

How Does ETFE Fit In?

Amy Wilson is "explainer-in-chief" for Architen Landrell, one of the world's leaders in tensile architecture and fabric systems. She tells us that manufacturing ETFE causes little damage to the ozone layer. "The raw material associated with ETFE is a class II substance admitted under the Montreal treaty," Wilson writes. "Unlike its class I counterparts it causes minimal damage to the ozone layer, as is the case for all materials used in the manufacturing process." Reportedly creating ETFE uses less energy than making glass.

"The production of ETFE involves the transformation of the monomer TFE in to the polymer ETFE using polymerisation; no solvents are used in this water based procedure. The material is then extruded to varying thicknesses depending on application; a process which uses minimal energy. Fabrication of the foil involves welding large sheets of the ETFE; this is relatively quick and again a low energy consumer."—Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell

Because ETFE is also recyclable, the environmental culpability is not in the polymer, but in the aluminum frames that hold the plastic layers. "The aluminium frames do require a high level of energy for production," Wilson writes, "but they also have a long life and are readily recycled when they reach their end of life."

Putting Together the Eden Project Domes:

Grimshaw Architects designed the "Biome buildings" in layers. From the outside, the visitor sees large hexagon frames holding transparent ETFE. Inside, another layer of hexagons and triangles frame the ETFE. "Each window has three layers of this incredible stuff, inflated to create a two-metre-deep pillow," the Eden Project websites describes. "Although our ETFE windows are very light (less than 1% of the equivalent area of glass) they are strong enough to take the weight of a car."  They call their ETFE "cling film with attitude." 

Sources: Cement Manufacturing Enforcement Initiative, EPA; ETFE Foil: A Guide to Design by Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell, February 11, 2013 (PDF); Types of Tensile Membrane Structures, Birdair; Architecture at Eden at edenproject.com [accessed September 12, 2016]

03
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Skyroom, 2010

ETFE Roof on Skyroom by David Kohn Architects
ETFE Roof on Skyroom by David Kohn Architects. Photo by Will Pryce / Passage / Getty Images

ETFE was first experimented with as roofing material—a safe choice. In the rooftop "Skyroom" shown here, there is little difference between the ETFE roof and the open air—unless it's raining.

Every day, architects and designers are inventing new ways to use Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene. ETFE has been used as a single layer, transparent roofing material. Perhaps more interestingly, ETFE is layered in two to five layers, like phyllo dough, welded together to create "cushions."

Sources: ETFE Foil: A Guide to Design by Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell, February 11, 2013 (PDF); Types of Tensile Membrane Structures, Birdair [accessed September 12, 2016]

04
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2008 Beijing Olympics

National Aquatics Center Being Built in Beijing, China in 2006
National Aquatics Center Being Built in Beijing, China in 2006. Photo by Pool / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The public's first look at ETFE architecture may have been the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Internationally, people got an up-close look at the crazy building being erected for the swimmers. What became known as The Water Cube was a building made with framed ETFE panels or cushions.

ETFE buildings can't collapse like the Twin Towers on 9-11. Without concrete to pancake from floor to floor, the metal structuring is more likely to blow away buoyed by ETFE sails. Rest assured, that these buildings are firmly anchored to the earth.

05
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ETFE Cushions on the Water Cube

Sagging ETFE Cushions on the Facade of the Water Cube in Beijing, China
Sagging ETFE Cushions on the Facade of the Water Cube in Beijing, China. Photo by China Photos / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images (cropped)

As The Water Cube was being built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, casual observers could see the ETFE cushions sag. That's because they are installed in layers, usually 2 to 5, and pressurized with one or more inflation units.

Adding additional layers of ETFE foil to a cushion also allows light transmission and solar gain to be controlled. Multi-layer cushions can be constructed to incorporate movable layers and intelligent (offset) printing. By alternatively pressurising individual chambers within the cushion, we can achieve maximum shading or reduced shading as and when required. Essentially this means that it is possible to create a building skin which is reactive to the environment through changes in climate.—Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell

A good example of this design flexibility is the Media-TIC building (2010) in Barcelona, Spain. Like the Water Cube, Media-TIC is also designed as a cube, but two of its non-sunny sides are glass. On the two sunny southern exposures, the designers chose an array of different types of cushions that can be adjusted as the intensity of the sun changes. Read more in What is ETFE? The New Bubble Buildings.

Sources: ETFE Foil: A Guide to Design by Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell, February 11, 2013 [accessed September 16, 2016]

06
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Outside the Beijing Water Cube

The National Aquatics Center Water Cube Illuminated at Night, Beijing, China
The National Aquatics Center Water Cube Illuminated at Night, Beijing, China. Photo by Emmanuel Wong / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The National Aquatics Center in Beijing, China showed the world that a lightweight construction material like ETFE is structurally feasible for massive interiors required for the thousands of Olympic spectators.

The Water Cube was also one of the first "whole building light shows" for the Olympic athletes and the world to see. Animated lighting is built into the design, with special surface treatments and computerized lights.

07
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Outside Germany's Allianz Arena, 2005

Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by Chan Srithaweeporn / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

The Swiss architecture team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were some of the first architects to design specifically with ETFE panels. The Allianz Arena was conceived to win a competition in 2001-2002. It was built from 2002-2005 to be the home venue of two European football (American soccer) teams. Like other sports teams, the two home teams that inhabit Allianz Arena have team colors—different colors.

Source: 205 Allianz Arena, Project, herzogdemeuron.com [accessed September 18, 2016]

08
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Why the Allianz Arena is Red Tonight

Allianz Arena Lighting System of ETFE Siding
Allianz Arena Lighting System of ETFE Siding. Photo by Lennart Preiss / Bongarts / Getty Images (cropped)

The Allianz Arena in München-Fröttmaning, Germany is red in this photo. That means FC Bayern Munich is the home team tonight, because their colors are red and white. When the TSV 1860 team plays, the colors of the stadium changes to blue and white—that team's colors.

Source: 205 Allianz Arena, Project, herzogdemeuron.com [accessed September 18, 2016]

09
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The Lights of the Allianz Arena, 2005

Close-up of red lights surrounding ETFE panels on the Allianz Arena stadium
Red Lights Surrounding ETFE Panels on the Allianz Arena Stadium. Photo by Lennart Preiss / Bongarts / Getty Images

The ETFE cusions on the Allianz Arena in Germany are diamond shaped. Each cushion can be controlled digitally to display red, blue, or white lights—depending on which home team is playing.

Source: 205 Allianz Arena, Project, herzogdemeuron.com [accessed September 18, 2016]

10
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Inside the Allianz Arena

Inside Allianz Arena Under the Roof of ETFE
Inside Allianz Arena Under the Roof of ETFE. Photo by Sandra Behne / Bongarts / Getty Images

It may not look like it from ground level, but Allianz Arena is an open air stadium with three tiers of seats. The architects claim that "each of the three tiers is as close as possible to the playing field." With  69,901 seats under the cover of ETFE shelter, the architects modeled the sports stadium after  Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre—"spectators sit right next to where the action takes place."

Source: 205 Allianz Arena, Project, herzogdemeuron.com [accessed September 18, 2016]

11
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Inside US Bank Stadium, ETFE Roof in 2016, Minneapolis, Minnesota

ETFE roof of the 2016 US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota
ETFE roof of the 2016 US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Hannah Foslien / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Most fluoropolymer materials are chemically similar. Many products are marketed as "membrane material" or "woven fabric" or "film."  Their properties and functions may be slightly different. Birdair, a contractor who specializes in tensile architecture, describes PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene as "a Teflon®-coated woven fiberglass membrane." It's been the go-to material for many tensile architecture projects, such as the Denver, CO airport and the old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Minnesota can get mighty cold during American football season, so their sports stadia are often enclosed. Way back in 1983, the Metrodome replaced the open air Metropolitan Stadium that had been built in 1950s. The Metrodome's roof was an example of tensile architecture, using a fabric that famously collapsed in 2010. The company that had installed the fabric roof in 1983, Birdair, replaced it with PTFE fiberglass after the snow and ice found its weak spot.

In 2014, that PTFE roof was brought down to make way for a brand new stadium. By this time, ETFE was being used for sports stadia, because of its greater strength than PTFE. In 2016, HKS architects completed the U.S. Bank Stadium, designed with the stronger ETFE roofing.

Sources: ETFE Foil: A Guide to Design by Amy Wilson for Architen Landrell, February 11, 2013 (PDF); Types of Tensile Membrane Structures, Birdair [accessed September 12, 2016]

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Khan Shatyr, 2010, Kazakhstan

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center designed by Norman Foster in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan
Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center designed by Norman Foster in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Photo by John Noble / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Norman Foster + Partners were commissioned to create a civic center for Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. What they created became a Guinness world record—the world's tallest tensile structure. At 492 feet (150 meters) high, the tubular steel frame and cable net grid form the shape of a tent—traditional architecture for the historically nomadic country. Khan Shatyr translates as the Tent of the Khan.

The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center is very big. The tent covers 1 million square feet (100,000 square meters). Inside, protected by three layers of ETFE, the public can shop, jog, eat at various restaurants, catch a movie, and even have some fun at a water park. The massive architecture would not have been possible without the strength and lightness of ETFE—a material not normally used in tensile architecture.

In 2013 Foster's company completed the SSE Hydro, a performance venue, in Glasgow, Scotland. Like many of the contemporary ETFE buildings, it looks very normal during the day, and is filled with lighting effects at night.

The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center is also lit at night, but its design is the first of its kind for ETFE architecture.

Source: Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre Astana, Kazakhstan 2006 - 2010, Projects, Foster + Partners [accessed September 18, 2016]

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Craven, Jackie. "ETFE Architecture - Is Plastic the Future?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/etfe-architecture-is-plastic-the-future-4089296. Craven, Jackie. (2017, March 1). ETFE Architecture - Is Plastic the Future? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/etfe-architecture-is-plastic-the-future-4089296 Craven, Jackie. "ETFE Architecture - Is Plastic the Future?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/etfe-architecture-is-plastic-the-future-4089296 (accessed December 11, 2017).