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J. Sánchez, M.A Serna

Mechanical Engineering Department- Tecnun-University of Navarra. Manuel de Lardizabal 13. 20018
San Sebastian. Spain.
jsanchez@tecnun.es, maserna@tecnun.es
P. Morer
Industrial Engineering Department II- University of La Coruña. Mendizabal s/n. 15403 Ferrol. A
Coruña. Spain.


The aim of this paper is to introduce a method for the conceptual design of membrane structures.
Actually, there is a lack of computer based tools for the people involved in these first stages of the
design process, in which the shape of the membrane is being defined. Not many parameters are needed
at this stage for the designer. An easy graphic interface is needed, in which the designer had the
possibility of varying in real time the shape of the membrane, and the environment around it, to achieve
the desired shapes. A hybrid algorithm, based on a structural analysis and a surface fitting approach has
been carried out to meet all the requirements.

1 Tensile membranes design process, from conception to realization

This paper deals with the design of membrane structures. In this section, a description of the tensile
membranes design process will be shown, from the preliminary sketches to the realization of the
structure. As example, Figure 1 shows the initial sketch of a membrane structure, and a picture of the
finished structure. Many tasks need to be completed to achieve the final structure.

Figure 1. Tensile Membrane. San Sebastián. Spain. From conception to realization.

Architects and Engineers are involved in the study of tensile membranes. It is widely know that
architects are focused on the geometric shape of the membrane, while engineers are concerned with the
internal stress distribution of the membrane. Both approaches are directly related, since the geometric
shape of the membrane depends on the given initial pre-stress of the membrane.
In Figure 2, a diagram with the tensile membrane design process is shown. Architects and Engineers
have to work together, to meet the proposed requirements.
The initial steps of the process are defined by the architect or the designer. At these stages, the initial
ideas and sketches are drawn, to comply with the shape and space requirements. Many objects and
volumes are located into the same space, and different iterations are needed until the desired layout and
shape is achieved.
These preliminary steps are really the most important stages of the process, because the initial
conditions are being defined, and will be the base for the next stages. Once the project has started, a
change in these initial specifications could result in the change of the whole project.
Formfinding is a common technique used to obtain the initial shape of a structure membrane. There are
different computer tools based on this technique, which help the designer to obtain the desired shape.
Although the use of this kind of tools is indicated for the designers, the majority of the applications
need to be used by advanced users, and many task need to be completed to achieve the final shape.

It is important to have into account that using the formfinding method, the shape of the structure is
obtained, as a collection of nodes and elements linking these nodes. We have to consider also, that the
membrane is located into a scene with more objects around it, like trees, buildings, beams, persons, etc.
So, a design tool in which the complete scene is shown while modifications are introduced, could be a
very useful tool for the designers. Actually, there is a lack of design tools for covering this design stage,
and actual formfinding tools solve it partially. The aim of this paper is to introduce a new approach for
tensile membranes design, to cover the conception stage, in which the shape of the structure is defined.

Requeriments lack of design tools

Construction, elevation Conception

Membrane cutting &
Detailing Cutting pattern
Engineers (Computer based tools)

Constructors, others

Figure 2. Tensile membrane design process

Once the conception stage has been completed, a static analysis of the structure is carried out. Material
properties are assigned to the membrane and stress distribution is obtained under different loads and
boundary conditions.
The next step in the design process is called cutting pattern generation. This method allows us to
calculate the optimum way of cutting the membrane. Based on a geometrical process, flat strips are
obtained, to comply with the desired shape.
Many computer based tools covering static analysis and pattern generation can be found, but
specialized users are required to complete both tasks. In the majority of the existing software for
analysis and cutting pattern generation, many parameters need to be defined to complete the study, and
the interface with the user is not always as friendly as desired.
Finally, detailing of the structure is carried out. Those details concerning foundation, structure supports,
masts, connections, clamps, cable selection, drawings and many others are defined in this stage.
After detailing is completed, membrane cutting is carried out, according to the previous cutting pattern.
Once the strips are joined, the completed membrane is prepared for the construction of the structure
and the elevation of the membrane.
Figure 2 shows a diagram with the different stages of the membrane design process and the people
involved in each of these stages. The following sections of this paper will cover the stage related with
the membrane shape conception.

2 Design tools for tensile membranes

Most of the existing software tools for membrane design and analysis are oriented to advanced users,
and require a detailed knowledge of the analysis method. Even those tools focused on the form-finding
process require specialized users, and many tasks need to be carried out to complete the analysis. It is
very common to come across with complex and non intuitive software for these tasks.
There is clearly a lack of specialized tools to cover the initial design stage of the process, where
geometric shapes are being defined according to several specifications. Many shapes are generated at
this stage, until the final shape is reached.

Figure 3 shows some pictures in which tensile membranes are combined with other shapes and objects
in the same scene. In this example, a space needs to be covered using tensile membranes structures.
Two rectangular shapes represent the buildings. On the left side, a row of columns delimit the central
space. This could be a usual statement of a project, and many layouts can be obtained until the final
shape is reached. One or more membranes could be used to cover the space. So, it is not only necessary
to calculate each of the shapes, but also to orient and place them in the appropriate position. The shape
of any membrane should be recalculated in real time, as the position of the vertex is modified by the
designer. A flexible tool is required to achieve all these requirements, and a complete view of the scene
is needed to obtain an appropriate solution.
In the left side of Figure 3, an initial sketch of the desired layout is drawn. In the right side, using
computer based techniques, a solution has been reached to comply with the initial requirements. Two
possible layouts are shown, with three (a) and four (b) membranes.


Figure 3 Example of design tool scene for tensile membranes.
(a) three membranes layout (b) four membranes layout.

We will use this example to enumerate different features that a software tool should offer to the
designer. The application should allow the designer the possibility of drag and drop any object of the
scene, and obtain the new shape of the membrane in real-time. Each membrane has different material
properties, boundary conditions and applied loads. In the same environment, many membranes shapes
are evaluated in real-time and the complete scene offers the designer a whole integration of the
structure with the objects around it. So, formfinding is only a stage in the design process.
Other features of interest could be: easy to use, flexible enough to modify any object in the scene,
material library, predefined objects with various shapes and sizes, open to CAD systems (neutral
formats like dxf, iges or step), and Windows based controls to obtain a user-friendly environment.
These could be the requirements for most of the designers. In the next section, a computational method
is described, that would cover the described requirements for the design tool.

3 Hybrid method for tensile membrane design

As described before, a combined method for membrane calculation has been performed. The method
combines structural behavior (formfinding) and geometry (surface fitting) to offer a robust and fast
method for tensile membrane design and analysis.
Basically, the method consists in the representation of the membrane structure using a parametric
surface. This surface is based on the results of the previous structural analysis.
The process diagram of the hybrid method proposed is shown in Figure 4.

The membrane structure has been modeled by means of a cable network. The first task consists in the
generation of an initial grid, with nodes and elements connecting these nodes.
In the next step, the equilibrium shape of the membrane is calculated using a formfinding method or a
non linear approach. More details about these equilibrium methods are given later. A new position for
the nodes is obtained, that satisfy this equilibrium shape.

Grid Generation Form-finding Surface fitting Render

Figure 4.- Hybrid method proposed for tensile membrane design

Once the nodes have reached the equilibrium state, a parametric surface that passes through the given
nodes is generated. This process is called surface fitting, and will be described later.
Finally, a render representation of the membrane can be obtained from the previous parametric surface.
Figure 5 shows graphically and example of the steps described for the proposed method. In this
example, a 3x3 grid (a) has been used to obtain the equilibrium shape (b) of the membrane. From this
equilibrium shape, a parametric surface is obtained (c) and a render representation of the membrane has
been generated (d).

(a) (b)

(c ) (d)
Figure 5. Hybrid method for tensile membrane design. (a) Grid Generation,
(b) formfinding, (c) Surface fitting, (d) render representation

The analysis of tensile structures is a geometrically non-linear problem, and consists on finding the
equilibrium shape compatible with the given prestress conditions. The process of determining this
initial equilibrium shape is known as formfinding.
In computer analysis, the membrane is divided in a discrete number of elements, joined at nodes.
Material properties and loads are defined at a discrete number of locations. Some nodes may be
restrained, and others are free to translate and rotate.

Form finding Methods for tensile membranes analysis

Many methods of analysis have been implemented in the last years, in order to study tensile
membranes behavior. Force Density Method [SHE74], Surface Stress Density Method [MAU98] and
Dynamic Relaxation [BAR99] are the most common ones used for the form-finding process.
Force Density Method uses an analytic technique to linearize the form finding equations for a tension
net. This linearization makes the method independent of the material properties of the membrane. Force
density ratios (cable force divided by cable length) need to be specified for each element, and different
ratios give different equilibrium shapes. The method is numerically robust, independent of the initial
locations of the nodes, and the equilibrium shape is found easily. The force density solution to applied
loads is non-linear, and requires iteration.
Surface Stress Density Method can be considered as a generalization of linear force density method to
the bidimensional case, and takes into account the shear stress. In this case, the surface stress density
ratio is given by the stress divided by the area of the element.
Dinamic Relaxation method solves the geometric non-linear problem by equating it to a dynamic
problem. Principles of dynamic are used to solve the analysis. Appropriate dynamic properties need to
be defined, like the mass and damping characteristics of the membrane. A balance of forces is made at
each node, giving a residual force that produces the movement of the node in the direction of this force,
according to the dynamic behavior of the net. New positions for the nodes are calculated until the final
equilibrium shape is reached. At this point the residual forces are sufficiently small.

Non linear approach for tensile membranes analysis

As described before, the analysis of tensile structures is a geometrically non-linear problem. The
stiffness method solves a set of equations (1) that represents the translational and rotational equilibrium
at each node of the structure.
[P ] = [K ]⋅ [U ] (1)

where [P] is the applied nodal loads vector; [K] is the Stiffness Matrix; and [U] is the Nodal
displacement vector.
This method required an iterative process, until equilibrium shape compatible with the given prestress
conditions is reached. At each step, a global stiffness matrix is recalculated, according to the new
position of the nodes, and the material properties of the membrane. Applied loads are considered in the

Surface fitting approach

Once the equilibrium shape has been reached by any of the method described before, the surface fitting
approach is carried out. The geometry of a membrane structure can be easily represented using a
parametric surface. Once the nodes have reached the equilibrium state, a parametric surface that passes
through the given nodes is generated. This process is called surface fitting.
At this stage, the control net is calculated from the position of the nodes at the equilibrium state. The
shape of the parametric surface depends on this control net. Final shape of the surface is given after
evaluating the expression (2), for Non-uniform Rational B-Splines (NURBS).
n +1 m +1
Q(u , w) = ∑∑ Bih, j N i , k (u ) M j , l ( w) (2)
i =1 j =1

Bih, j s are the four-dimensional homogeneous control net vertices.

N i , k (u ) and M j , l ( w) are the nonrational B-spline basis functions.


Many methods for surface fitting are implemented to obtain the control net from a cloud of points.
[ROG89] and [PIE00] describe in detail the technique.
Once the parametric surface is calculated, the designer can obtain the position at any point of the
membrane surface, not only at the nodes used for calculating the equilibrium shape.
Not many points are needed to generate a smooth surface. In the example shown in Figure 5, a smooth
surface is obtained from an initial grid of 3x3 by interpolation. The designer that manipulates the model
can easily drag and drop a vertex of the membrane in real time. Many shapes can be obtained, and the
user has the feeling that the membrane is being moving in real time while dragging any point of the
structure by means of the mouse.
In Table 1 and Figure 6, computational times for calculating the equilibrium shape and surface fitting
are shown.

Grid Size Method Time (seconds) Nodes Bars

3x3 Force Density 0.033 16 24

5x5 Force Density 0.049 36 60

7x7 Force Density 0.061 64 112

9x9 Force Density 0.100 100 180

3x3 Non-Linear 0.039 16 24

5x5 Non-Linear 0.078 36 60

7x7 Non-Linear 0.152 64 112

9x9 Non-Linear 0.402 100 180

Table 1. Computational times for different grid sizes and formfinding methods.






Force Density
Non Linear



3x3 5x5 7x7 9x9
Grid Size

Figure 6. Computational times for different grid sizes and formfinding methods.

Computational times for Force Density and Non-Linear method have been calculated. In both methods,
the time needed to complete the equilibrium shape and surface fitting grows with the size of the grid.
Common shapes used in membrane structures can be represented with precision by means of
parametric surfaces from a discrete model of one hundred nodes. Figure 7 shows another example, in
which a membrane is represented with a grid size of 5x5. In this case, a nodal load is applied.
According to table 1, thirty six nodes from the equilibrium shape have been used for creating the
parametric surface.
It can be seen that the designer needs to reach a compromise between two facts: computational time
needed to complete the calculation, or the precision obtained. The designer has the criteria to decide
which of these statements is more important during the design of a membrane structure. In some cases,
fast calculation could be more important that the precision achieved. In any case, the designer has the
possibility of increase or decrease easily the number of nodes needed, depending on the criteria adopted.

Figure 7 Representation of a membrane structure with a nodal force using a 5x5 grid. (a)
Grid Generation, (b) formfinding, (c) Surface fitting, (d) render representation

4 Application implemented

Figure 8 shows a snapshot of the application implemented to test the proposed method. In the working
area, the membrane is being displayed in wireframe or shaded style. The user can dynamically translate
and rotate the model, or apply a zoom. The position of the membrane vertex can be modified by the
user with the mouse or by means of a slider control, and the new shape of the membrane is calculated
in real-time.
Internal prestress values are defined independently in warp and weft direction of the membrane and
internal forces are given for each of the edges. Formfinding method can be chosen as indicated

Figure 8. Snapshot of the application


Other details, regarding surface fitting parameters, material properties, applied forces, visualization of
normal vectors, can be defined.

The external distributed forces applied can also vary, and the new membrane shape is calculated in
real-time. Figure 9 shows several membrane shapes obtained for different external applied loads,
without changing the boundary conditions.

Figure 9.- Load Sequence, using the same boundary conditions

5 Conclusions

The proposed combined method complies with the requirements given for the design process. It is quite
simple to generate and modify shapes in real-time, assign material, loads or modify the boundary
conditions of the model. A non specialized designer can get used to the application in a short time.
As said before, membrane structures shapes are easy to represent using parametric surfaces, and not
many points are needed to obtain a smooth surface. Geometry of common membranes structures is not
subject to important changes in curvature or local applied loads as shown in figure 7.
Finally, we should highlight again the existing compromise between computation time and precision
needed. The designer should have enough criteria to decide in which cases each is required.


[SHE74] H.J. Sheck, (1974) “The force density method for form-finding and computations of general
networks,Mahadevan”, Computer Methods in Applied. Mechanics and Engineering, p.115,134.

[MAU98] B. Maurin & R. Motro (1998) “The surface stress density method as a form-finding tool for
tensile membranes”, Engineering Structures, Vol 20, nº8, p.712-719.

[BAR97] M.R. Barnes (1999) “Form Finding and Analysis of Tension Structures by Dinamic
Relaxation”, International Journal of Space Structures, Vol 14, nº2.

[ROG89] D.F.Rogers, N.G.Fog (1989) “Constrained B-spline curve and surface fitting”, Computer
Aided Design, Vol 21, No 10, p.641-648

[PIE00] L.Piegl, W. Tiller. (2000) “Curve Interpolation with Arbitrary End Derivatives”, Engineering
with Computers, Vol 16, p.73-79

[ROG01] D.F.Rogers (2001) “An Introduction to Nurbs”, Academic Press.

[PIE97] L.Piegl, W. Tiller. (1997) “The Nurbs Book”. Second Edition. Springer-Verlag, New York

[PIE91] L.Piegl. (1991) “On Nurbs: A survey”, IEEE Computer Graphics & Applications, Vol 11,
No 1, p.55-71