Fabrics under tension have been used to cover large and small spaces ever since someone invented the yurt. Clearly, they have a lot going for them, but it didn’t stop someone else inventing a solid roof.
For a long time, one of the chief drawbacks of fabric structures was insulation. They soon lost heat when the sun set, and in some places admitted too much at the height of the day. Today new laminated fabrics can eliminate this drawback in most situations and provide a host of other benefits. For an overview of current fabrics, see http://ascelibrary.org/doi/10.1061/9780784412893.ch03.
Sound insulation is probably one area where solid structures still have the edge.
Tensile fabrics are translucent – between 10% and 95% (for example, ETFE). In these times of high energy prices and low-carbon ideals, this is a hugely attractive quality. Retractable membranes can be opened to the sky completely.
Solid alternatives like glass and polycarbonate can be too transparent, allowing dirt on the outside to be seen clearly from the inside. Glass is also heavy, and polycarbonate has a short lifetime.
Lightness enables tensile structures to span enormous distances with minimal supporting frameworks. Substantial foundations are often needed to anchor the canopy, but the lack of other structures more than offsets this.
A continuous membrane has no joins to seal. This saves an enormous amount of time, labour and materials and is low-maintenance.
A look at the project gallery of tensile construction companies reveals the vast range of forms – arches, parabolas, cones and domes – that fabric buildings can take. See http://fabricarchitecture.com/ for examples. They are an architect’s delight.
Fabric builds become more economically advantageous over greater areas. Over small areas traditional buildings may be cheaper.
Most components of tensile structures are manufactured off-site. This means a significant reduction in construction time and nuisance (like dust, traffic and noise).
Concrete and steel buildings potentially have longer lifetimes. The most common fabrics used today have a lifespan of between 15 and 30 years, although replacing a canopy doesn’t necessarily entail demolition of an entire building. When demolition is required, there are again advantages of relatively fast and nuisance-free removal compared to solid structures.
Canopies lend themselves to glamorous lighting after dark, both by up-lighting and down-lighting.