Air-supported fabric structures – also known as sports domes or sports bubbles – are a tempting solution for indoor sports arenas. Bubbles are available with a large free span area and with a lower price than traditional sports arenas.
Sports domes have the advantages of fabric buildings, including natural light, rapid construction and a relatively lower cost. But in a head-to-head comparison with steel-framed fabric structures, sports bubbles fall flat.
Similarities Between Frame-Supported and Air-Supported Buildings
Sports bubbles and frame-supported fabric buildings are constructed of the same structural fabric, typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PE). The fabric is treated with plasticizers that extend their life and prevent degradation from UV rays, wind and snow. The fabric itself is also treated to prevent the growth of mold, fungus and mildew, supporting a longer life and better environment in your rigid frame fabric building.
Fabric as a building material is easy to work with. Though trained crews are required for the highest-quality installation, the fabric installs more quickly than traditional building materials, allowing the building to open sooner and saving on construction costs. You can read more on structural fabric here.
The fabric used in both frame-supported and air-supported buildings is available in multiple colors. Translucent or opaque fabric allows the building owner to control the natural light inside the building. Insulation can be added, along with climate-control systems to create the best environment for year-round use. Flame-retardant fabric is available to help meet building codes and safety requirements.
Both types of fabric structures are available in wide free spans, with no supporting columns needed to support the fabric. This makes them especially popular for sports and other applications where interior columns would interfere with daily use.
Disadvantages of Air-Supported Fabric Buildings
Air-supported buildings are often designed as temporary, to be used during the season, deflated and stored for the rest of the year. Frame-supported buildings are permanent and ready for year-round use.
All fabric requires some type of support. Sports domes use air pressure to keep the dome inflated. Frame-supported buildings are supported by a metal frame – Legacy buildings use a rigid steel frame for support.
Need for Constant Inflation
When in use, air-supported buildings must be constantly monitored and inflated. Snow build-up on the building can cause permanent or temporary damage, as can losing the power that keeps the building inflated.
Frame-supported sports centers are functional in any weather conditions without additional maintenance. And best of all, there is no need to check on your building or monitor sensors during snowstorms or heavy winds.
Sports bubbles used seasonally must be re-inflated at the beginning of the season, deflated at the end and then stored. During each assembly and disassembly, the playing field is out of commission for several days while technicians complete the process. This results in lost-time costs as well as the costs for the technicians themselves. Steel-framed buildings require little to no maintenance over the life of the building.
No Design Flexibility
“Bubbles” and “domes” got their name because of their shape. The air support system creates a smooth, rounded shape. The inside of the dome is one large, open area.
In a sports dome, it is impossible to add additional features to the building or separate areas to use for a pro shop, spectator seating or changing rooms. The door options are limited to maintain the air pressure. And the inflation will not support additional loads from mounted scoreboards, netting or divider curtains.
Steel-framed fabric structures have unlimited design options. Popular options include raised platforms for spectators, offices, pro shops and storage. Aquatic equipment, scoreboards, hoops and nets are easily added to the steel frame to keep the systems accessible yet off the ground.
Advantages of Frame-Supported Fabric Buildings
Modern tension fabric buildings use the same proven engineering techniques and structural steel I-beams as traditional construction. They are designed to last for decades without additional operating or maintenance costs. Damage to the fabric, while rare, is easily repaired by the building owner or by trained crews.
Air locks are not required for the structural integrity of frame-supported buildings. Windows, vents and doors are options to keep the building at a comfortable temperature as well as allow loading, access and egress by people or equipment.
The frame also allows for multiple design options – including additions such as a lean-to, second story or mezzanine. Multiple cladding options, including stonework and masonry plus the traditional shape of the frame allow the building to seamlessly blend in with surrounding architecture.
The benefits of tension fabric structures – including design flexibility, energy efficiency and long-term value – can’t be matched by sports bubbles.